WORKING WITH THE FUTURE

A brief introduction

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The future creates the present. | Marius Masalar on Unsplash

“Don’t get into a stranger’s car” was a basic principle our parents taught us when we were young. Little did they know, that only a few years later we would purposely call strangers from the internet in order to get into their cars. Needless to say, that getting an Uber is an inexplicable behavior from a point of view of the past. Nowadays we are surrounded by brands and services, that are a significant part of our everyday life but did not even exist ten years ago. We are scrolling Instagram instead of reading magazines, we are paying with our phone instead of carrying cash and we are texting via slack instead of sending faxes.

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Technologies that science fiction authors pictured in fictional worlds during the last century became reality and shape our present. We modify our DNA with CRISPR gene editing (Huxley 1932 in “Brave New World”), we explore virtual worlds in video games with VR headsets (Clarke 1956 in “The City and the Stars”) and communicate anywhere within seconds with the help of satellites (Clarke 1951 in “A Space Odyssey”). It took less than the lifespan of a human to turn science fiction into reality. Never before it seemed so easy to realize a visionary spark of thought. The reason why some companies as Nike, Intel or Boeing commission authors to create a picture of their future (cf. Merchant 2018). There is an urgent need for knowledge about the future, in order to be a relevant part of it. And while the future can never be fully predicted, it can be researched to some degree and more importantly, it can be actively shaped. Therefore, this article gives you some brief advice on how to deal with the future.

The future is not an extrapolation of the past

When thinking about tomorrow, companies have to avoid the common mistake to rely on past developments in order to predict the future:

“The future is no longer regarded as predestined — an existing landscape that will be revealed to us as we travel through it. It is now seen as the result of the decisions, discoveries, and efforts that we make today.”
(Futures — confidence from chaos 1969: 2).

To undermine this fact, there is a simple but descriptive metaphor, the “turkey illusion” (cf. Taleb 2010: 41). The life of a turkey on a farm is quite pleasant. He is used to getting fed every single day and the certainty that this will continue is rising with every subsequent day. But on a disenchanting day in autumn, the slaughtering bench awaits him — it is the day before thanksgiving. All the data he collected — from his incomplete turkey-view of the world — to this day suggested there would be food. There was no sign, that anything should have changed that day until it was too late.

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This metaphor might seem far-fetched, but it aptly describes, that even (or especially) big companies succumb to unexpected disruptions. Remember BlackBerry? Back in 2007/ 2008, the company was leading the smartphone market and produced desirable status symbols. There seemed no need for them to worry about their near future or to fear possible competitors. So, when the iPhone launched, it was not even perceived as a competitive product at all:

“500 dollars? Fully subsidized? With a plan? […] I said that is the most expensive phone in the world. And it doesn’t appeal to business customers because it doesn’t have a keyboard. Which makes it not a very good email machine.”
— Steve Balmer, former CEO of Microsoft (CNBC 2007)

We do not have to tell you how that story ended, as you are reading this on your iPhone and not on your BlackBerry. The economic success of a company is no reliable indicator for a prosperous future and current customer behavior is no evidence, that the status quo is the best possible.

The future is on the move

The ongoing persistence on an existing, functioning state rarely stays unpunished. The whole music industry had to learn this the hard way, when it experienced a slump in its sales figures around the turn of the millennium (cf. IFPI 2019: 13). This had nothing to do at all with changing demands of the consumer, but with the possibility to (illegally) download music, enabled by the increasing bandwidth of internet connections. It took the industry years to develop equivalent and superior models, that the consumer was willing to pay for. It just takes a little imagination to transfer this example to other industries, drugstores for example. Nowadays, household articles such as toilet paper are primarily bought in a physical store, because ordering them online is often impractical: it takes too long, it costs too much, it is awkward — just like downloading mp3s with a 56k modem was. But just because this is the current state does not mean, that these problems will not be solved in the next few years. Amazon, amongst other online retailers, is intensively researching on innovating the logistics space by automating warehouses and developing delivery drones and airships (for real: zeppelins). Soon we may ask ourselves the question: Why should anyone drive to a physical store, just to buy toilet paper?

The future is guided by weak signals

Being aware of current trends and actively researching the future is inevitable for the prospective existence of every company. And aside from observing the big picture, you should always look out for small, inconspicuous changes. Even the slightest signal can turn out to have an enormous influence or represent the beginning of a larger change with far-reaching effects. At this point, the Tipping Point comes into play. Researchers demonstrated, that as soon as a minority of 10% of the population is convinced of opinion, it spreads exponentially so that it quickly becomes the opinion of the majority (cf. Xie et al. 2011: 6). This phenomenon can be transferred to social trends or technological innovations, take WhatsApp in Germany as an example. In the first years, the number of messages was significantly lower compared to SMS (cf. Bundesnetzagentur 2017: 60, cf. Richter 2018). This changed when the critical Tipping Point was reached and 10% of the German population used WhatsApp (cf. Ritter 2013). The well-known network effect kicked in and the number of messages skyrocketed, exceeding the number of traditional SMS within a very short time (cf. Bundesnetzagentur 2017: 60, cf. Richter 2018).

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Source: based on Bundesnetzagentur 2017: 60, Richter 2018 and Ritter 2013

The future does not believe in hypes

“People tend to overestimate what can be done in one year and to underestimate what can be done in five or ten years” (Licklider 1965: 17).

As pointed out, we must not underestimate small signals, but at the same time, we must not overestimate them. The exaggerated hype of emerging technologies paints an imaginative picture of expectations, that are far from being fulfillable, often resulting in disappointment. Only time shows, which potential a technology actually holds and how it can be applied in a productive way. But at this point, many people have already lost interest. This is illustrated in the Hype Cycle by Gartner, where emerging technologies are classified in phases (cf. 2019), defined by expectations in relation to time.

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Source: Gartner 2019

We all remember numerous headlines about blockchain technology that dominated news coverage and raised expectations of disruption in many industries. But when first experiments did not gain widespread adoption, the expectations of the masses dropped and public interest faded. Still, research continues until technology finally reaches a productive state and can be usefully applied.

If we research the future in order to play an active role in it, we must not look for it in the past or in the limited field of vision of our everyday lives. We have to leave our familiar environment and keep an eye on seemingly inconspicuous changes, we must not rely on the common opinions or the statements of established industry figures and we have to be willing to question the status quo to, if necessary, leave it behind.

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