Essential Skills & Questions for Practical Futures-Thinking

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The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.” In that single sentence, a quote attributed to the iconic sci-fi writer William Gibson in the early 1990s, lies the ground truth for every futurist. Humankind’s collected (and frequently failed) attempts to predict the future essentially boil down to what the futurist Amy Webb, writing two-and-a half-decades later, described as “listening to the weak signals talking.” The futurist’s magic—such as it is—consists not in peering deep into the proverbial crystal ball to make out what will be but rather in carefully observing signs in the world around us, the world that already is, and extrapolating what could be.

Weak signals are early, crude, and often deeply disappointing first showings of a technology or trend. I vividly remember my first virtual reality game in an arcade during the early 90’s. Playing it for three minutes made me nauseous and gave me a severe headache. That was a signal. So was Google’s overly hyped attempt at augmented reality with Google Glass – I was working at Google when the product was released to scathing reviews. Every electric car before the Tesla Model S, the dial-up web and IRC boards, Germany’s Renewable Energy Act of 2000, the Human Genome Project and the advent of CRISPR, the ImageNet Challenge of 2010, the Altair 8800, the 2007 unveiling of the iPhone, PDA phone apps, Friendster. The list goes on and on. All weak signals which, in their early days, looked nothing like the game-changers and future-shapers they would grow to become.

In a world where the rate of change itself is accelerating at an ever-increasing pace (so much so that futurist Ray Kurzweil suggests the change we will see in the 100 years of the 21st century will be equivalent to the amount of change we have experienced over the last 20,000 years), understanding where we are headed becomes ever more important. In yesterday’s world, we created new products and services, in today’s world, we are turning whole industries upside down and imagining new ones into existence. All of this leaves people, societies and their social and governmental structures are under pressure to adapt. Our role and our mandate, as leaders, becomes to discover today what matters tomorrow and then to help our organizations and societies transform in concert with a future that is unfolding before us.

To predict the future—or at least lessen the likelihood that it blindsides us, we need to learn to spot these early indicators. Harness a childlike curiosity and look for the work people at the edges are already doing: Seek out the scientists, artists, activists and tinkerers who are all drawn to the new (and sometimes crazy). When you do spot the “new”, try to resist falling into the very human tendency described in what’s known as Amara’s Law. Roy Amara, founder of the Silicon Valley think tank “Institute for the Future” famously observed: “We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.” It is easy to get excited about a weak signal and forget that technologies need time to mature—both from a purely technological perspective of capability as well as in terms of use cases, usefulness and acceptance.

Try to identify what we like to call the “gestalt” of the tipping point, when something that has been a curiosity begins to become a new norm. Think through the dimensions of the STEEPS framework to imagine the changes that would enable your weak signalling trend to turn into the next big thing. The acronym helps: What are the Scientific and Technological breakthroughs still required?. What needs to be true about the Environmental and Economic context or future impacts for this possibility to be realized? What political and social conditions need to change to allow for what you’re imagining?

But your work doesn’t end here. Timing and convergence of the enabling conditions are both critical, but they aren’t everything., Many weak signals never blossom into full-blown trends because they do not pass the frequency/density/friction test. When looking at a possible future product or service from the perspective of the user/consumer, frequency describes the number of times each day you encounter the problem which the “new thing” aims to solve. Density describes the time and effort spent wrestling with the problem, and friction is the level of pain wrestling with the problem causes the user. Unless a future solution attacks a problem scoring highly on each one of these dimensions, your suggestive weak signal fizzles out and never becomes a material trend.

Looking at the world in 2020, we can spot many weak signals which have the potential to transform business, society and life at large. One fairly well understood signal (growing stronger by the day) is the rapid ascent of artificial intelligence, mainly driven by the breakthroughs in convolutional neural networks operating on graphics processing units in 2011. An approach also known as “deep learning”, the systems have increased in their computational ability 300,000 times over the last seven years and currently double in their capacity every 270 days, according to OpenAI, a research think tank located in the heart of Silicon Valley. So if this signal is talking (yelling?), what is it saying? The easy translation: If you think AI isn’t good enough or available cheap enough to solve a problem, just wait a few years. Add to this the weaker (but likely epochal) signal of dramatic improvements in the nascent field of quantum computing and you can begin to see a future where computing becomes incredibly cheap, incredibly powerful and overwhelmingly abundant.

Unlike traditional computers, quantum computers run their calculations not in bits (which only have one of two states: 0s and 1s) but in qubits, which can take on one of a nearly infinite number of distinct states at any given time – making these machines exceptionally good at the math behind complex simulations. Quantum computing will potentially render common forms of encryption useless, which explains the sky-high interest governments and their intelligence communities have shown in the tech. Pharmaceutical and insurance companies also stand to see their industries completely upended with the advent of newfound quantum capabilities to discover drugs orders of magnitudes faster than ever before and calculate risk pools with the highest precision. The quantum computing signal may be weak, but it’s getting louder all the time.

Another signal that has industries listening is the accelerating advance of genomic sequencing and editing technologies. Over the last two decades, we not only saw the price of sequencing a human genome drop from USD 2.7 billion to less than a thousand dollars but also developed the ability to precisely make genetic edits using CRISPR technology. You can be sure health and pharma are listening, but what does this signal mean for the future of food? While the world is still coming to terms (or not) with genetically modified plants, such as corn, the cutting-edge work being done in labs today points to a future where we will produce our food in stainless steel tanks using a process akin to fermentation. By genetically modifying bacteria and other organisms we will be able to produce clean, nutritious food with a fraction of the resources needed to, for example, grow a cow to make steak. The latter requires nearly 10,000 liters of water to make one kilogram of consumable meat; a massively inefficient use of one of the most precious resources on our planet.

Like Sputnik, the world’s first satellite launched in 1957, today’s many weak signals are constantly sending their faint beeps to those who are listening. When advances in genetics combine with robotics, artificial intelligence and quantum computing, the signals will amplify each other and become dramatically faster and louder. And as these discreet beeps bleed together into something more like a siren, we should be looking for a convergence of these technologies to lead to deeper and more widespread systemic disruption.

Make no mistake: The future remains a series of endless possibilities, with no specific path being predetermined. Our future is very much a thing yet to be written. And as many, perhaps most notably Alan Kay (the whiz kid who gave the world the graphical user interface during his tenure at the famous Xerox PARC research center in the 70s) have said: The best way to predict the future is to invent it. Kay should know. His deep belief in the power of invention, combined with a remarkable ability to spot the faintest of signals, enabled him and a ragtag group of fellow inventors to create most of the technology which drove the computing industry for 40 years and to develop the concept for the Dynabook in 1972. The Dynabook vision was of a tablet-like computer, with a pen in place of a keyboard, aimed to educate and entertain children. That vision, of course, was a weak signal in itself, one that would take the world nearly 40 years to realize in the form of the Apple iPad.

With the steady design and deployment of exponentially advancing technologies, we’re inventing the future continuously and relentlessly, but have we actually been creating a future we want to inhabit? Or have we instead been busy playing our parts (smaller or larger) in the construction of a dystopian world of surveillance, oppression, empty on-demand satisfaction, mass unemployment and widely divergent health outcomes? Have we been solving the right problems or even asking the right questions?

With so much of economic life on pause, perhaps today is the day for asking new questions. I’d ask what mindset we’re even bringing today to the project of imagining tomorrow. The American polymath Noam Chomsky once opined that “unless you believe that the future can be better, you are unlikely to step up and take responsibility for making it so.” Thus a following question becomes: What are the stories we are telling ourselves about the future and do they point toward a better future—one that we’ll be proud to inhabit and proud to pass on to future generations? And if they don’t, what are the new narratives that we might create in the space of the present to carry us forward toward a preferred future?

Erik Brynjolfsson, Director of the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy, has observed that “this is a moment of choice and opportunity. It could be the best 10 years ahead of us that we have ever had in human history or one of the worst, because we have more power than we have ever had before.” The possibilities are expansive; the moment is ripe for reimagining; and the choice—the most important choice— is ours.

Radically Yours,
Pascal and the team at be radical.

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