In this witty, mostly nontechnical primer, futurist Amy Webb outlines the steps that futurists use to predict coming trends. She even answers the age-old question: Why don’t we have flying cars yet? Webb, the founder of the Future Today Institute, says trends begin as experiments on the fringes of science and society. She explains how to discern “signals” and patterns among seemingly unconnected experiments, how to extrapolate possible future scenarios from them and how to devise appropriate strategies for each scenario. She also shows how to distinguish real trends from merely trendy ideas. Her enjoyable read has a few patches that aren’t as easy to understand as the rest of the book, spots where Webb buries her points under technical details or arcane examples. And, just to post a warning, the report on one case history about a chatbot that went rogue cites ethnic slurs and biased ideations. Despite these difficulties, getAbstract believes the principles in Webb’s mind-bending book will aid business and marketing strategists, planners and venture capitalists.
- The future doesn’t just happen; people create the future.
- To predict future mainstream trends, look for innovations on the fringe.
- Next, look for patterns among seemingly isolated fringe events.
- Decision makers too often ignore “signals” from the fringes of science or society when crafting strategy.
- Don’t dismiss ideas that seem technically unfeasible. Include all the “unusual suspects” in the early stages of your analysis.
- If an innovation becomes a trend, it will drive continued societal change.
- When you’ve spotted something new, draw a “fringe sketch” showing the people or institutions it might involve in the future.
- Create scenarios depicting ways the trend could affect the mainstream.
- Examine your scenarios for distortions resulting from your biases or assumptions.
- Map out the roadblocks the trend may encounter so you don’t act on it too soon.
Things to Come
Spotting trends before they fully emerge in the mainstream is an essential skill for leaders in business or government. But too many planners focus myopically on current issues and ignore the “signals” that change is underway in the technological, scientific or cultural environment. Unless you specifically look for these signals, they can be difficult to notice. They generally originate on the fringes of scientific or cultural thought and often appear to be nothing more than random, unconnected outliers.
“Futurists look for early patterns – pre-trends, if you will – as the scattered points on the fringe converge and begin moving toward the mainstream.”
However, if you apply some techniques developed by professional futurists, you can determine if seemingly random developments follow a pattern. If you detect patterns and then can connect one fringe idea to others or to events already in the mainstream, you might spot the first stirrings of a new trend that will eventually emerge in the mainstream.
Why Leaders Miss Trends
If you’re an expert in your field, you can easily persuade yourself that a particular idea from the fringe is probably impractical. But you might be reaching that judgment without correcting for a bias called the “paradox of the present” which can lead you to base your assessment on your knowledge of your field in its present state and to overlook developments in tangential fields that could change what’s possible in your field.
“The best time to find, track and act on a technology trend was a decade ago. The second best time is right now, today.”
In 1977, the CEO of Digital Equipment Corporation scoffed at the idea of a personal computer, arguing that no one would need such a device at home. But he was thinking of computers as he knew them at the time: enormous, programmable machines that performed complex calculations for research labs, businesses and the government. He overlooked clear signals from the fringes, such as experiments with networking that would eventually lead to computers that ordinary people could use to communicate, date or follow the news.
When Ideas Become Trends
A trend is more than some cool new app or gizmo. A trend usually involves technology, but – because it meets an essential human need – it also produces lasting change in society. For instance, the first wheeled cart was just an innovative gadget at first, but because it successfully met a widespread need for easier transportation, it persisted as a trend. Today’s efforts to build self-driving cars are the latest iteration of this trend.
How to See the Future
Trends usually coalesce from a series of apparently random activities on the fringes. Futurists have developed techniques for finding patterns in this “noise” and evaluating whether these patterns have the potential to combine into a mainstream trend.
“One forecast has always been right throughout history; technology will advance, it will invariably intersect with other sources of change within society, and trends are the signposts showing us how changes will manifest in real life.”
A wide range of variables influences the path a trend takes. Along with the invention or research itself, these variables include societal attitudes, the economy and the actions of the public, government and media.
First, Find the Fringe
Begin your trend search by examining a range of events on the fringes of science, technology, design and society. The fringe can be anywhere innovators explore unorthodox theories and propose eccentric solutions to common problems. You’re not looking only for lone inventors tinkering in garages: Apple Computer went bravely to the fringe – and invested serious capital – when it developed the iPhone.
“A trend leverages our basic human needs and desires in a meaningful way and aligns human nature with emerging technologies and breakthrough inventions.”
Never evaluate fringe ideas in terms of what you believe is possible or impossible. Some ideas, such as the “beam me up” devices on Star Trek, simply can’t manifest given today’s technology. But technology is always changing and growing more sophisticated. In 1995, computer expert Clifford Stoll argued that the Internet would never catch on with the public because, at the time, the web was “a wasteland of unfiltered data” without a practical search mechanism.
“Getting in the habit of poking holes in a hypothesis, even taking the contrarian view when you agree with the idea, will help make you a good forecaster of the future.”
Create a “fringe sketch” to determine if the unorthodox ideas you’ve spotted are outliers or harbingers of emerging trends. The fringe sketch maps out the network of institutions and individuals potentially able to contribute to the idea, invest in it or find themselves forced to change to accommodate it.
“Rather than attempting to predict a singular outcome, we instead project a set of possible, probable and preferred scenarios, using trends as anchors.”
Your sketch will resemble a mind map. In a central bubble write the new idea. Around it, draw other bubbles to represent “nodes” – the institutions or individuals who directly participate in the idea, along with entities that may directly participate or could potentially influence, facilitate or impede the idea. Draw lines between nodes to show how they connect to each other and to the new concept, product or service.
Fringe Sketch Questions
As an example, consider the fringe science of “biohacking,” which involves modifying the body through such unorthodox means as implanting health-monitoring chips.
“The future doesn’t simply arrive fully formed overnight, but emerges step by step.”
Create your fringe sketch by considering several questions:
- Who is active in this area? – Include published papers in related fields, conferences that focus on the genome and science fiction that examines these themes.
- Who is supporting research on biohacking? – These participants might include government departments, corporations, foundations and start-up incubators.
- What institutions would biohacking most affect? – These could be pharmaceutical and insurance companies, governments or international health organizations and certain populations, such as the aging or those at risk of certain diseases.
- Who might want to resist or impede this change? – Competing researchers, activist organizations, insurance companies and religious leaders could all have reasons to oppose these innovations.
- Who might want to expand on the idea? – This could include institutions and private investors involved in business, health care, scientific research and government.
The next step is considering your sketch as a whole to determine if you can uncover an underlying structure in your collection of bubbles. Seek “pattern identifiers” that make up the mnemonic acronym “CIPHER”:
- “Contradictions” – Look for correlations that don’t make sense. For instance, traffic fatalities due to distraction are on the rise. So why do car makers increasingly offer distracting features, such as Internet access, when logic suggests they should reduce distractions?
- “Inflections” – Look for activities that indicate a surge of research in one area. These can include a company seeking a new round of funding or trying to acquire another firm.
- “Practices” – Examine whether the new idea threatens established conventions. Can you have a phone with no buttons? Can you watch television shows without a TV set?
- “Hacks” – Are customers or businesses modifying a product to make it more useful? For instance, the hashtag is a hack. Early Twitter user Chris Messina made the service more navigable by employing the pound sign to tag topics and follow threads.
- “Extremes” – The most promising fringe ideas explore areas that no one has raised before or that imagine new ways to perform existing tasks.
- “Rarities” – Although an idea may seem like an isolated outlier, consider whether it has the potential to meet a real need or change society. The group Anonymous started as an obscure community on the 4chan website but grew into a model of cyber-based activism.
“Interrogate” Your Results
At this point, you’ve identified a trend candidate. You still must assess whether it is likely to spread across industries and change society. Play devil’s advocate: Try to “poke holes” in your theory – to uncover your biases and to question your assumptions.
“Failing to keep watch on a trend, or assuming that it will travel along a straight path at a set speed, is a mistake.”
Once you think you may have found a trend, monitor it continually to see how fast it moves toward the mainstream. In other words, “calculate the estimated time of arrival.” Acting on a trend too soon can be as fruitless and frustrating as missing it completely.
A trend doesn’t develop in a straight line. It can encounter detours, roadblocks and shortcuts. Its speed of development also may depend on internal factors, such as progress within a tech company, or external factors, such as lawsuits, advances in competing companies or new government regulations.
“Create Scenarios and Strategies”
Studying data can take you only so far. You need to get a feel for how the trend would affect everyday life. You can do that only by creating scenarios. These narratives describe how all the nodes in your sketch would interact in a world in which the trend had taken hold. Create separate scenarios that depict different outcomes – from the likely to the far-fetched.
“Just like we can’t drive a car between DC and Baltimore as the crow flies, a trend can’t move forward in a singular, unwavering direction.”
For example, scenarios on the future of autonomous travel could include:
- A “probable scenario” – Based on current research on self-driving cars, the United States seems likely eventually to have a mixture of human-controlled, semi-autonomous and fully autonomous transportation. You might control your car yourself on side roads, but once on a highway, the vehicle would link into a system that controls all the cars on the highway. The driver would resume control when exiting the highway.
- A “plausible scenario” – The authorities could create airspace zones for different classes of drones, such as recreational, commercial and transport drones. Passengers would probably ascend to the tops of buildings to board the transport drone crafts, which would navigate using GPS signals and collision-avoidance systems.
- A “possible scenario” – People will no longer use vehicles to travel. Instead, they will rely on teleportation like the characters on Star Trek. This concept isn’t feasible with current technology because you would need a device capable of transmitting data on the composition of each of the billions of atoms in a person’s body. But out on the fringes, researchers in quantum physics have produced encouraging results in experiments on single atoms.
“Pressure-Test Your Action”
Devise one more round of questions to test your assumptions about the trend you’re following and your proposed action. This will help you distinguish between a real trend and something that’s merely trendy – a flashy, attention-getting novelty.
“As is often the case with new technologies, those in leadership positions wait until they must to confront the future, which by now has already passed them by.”
Pressure-test your proposed action to see if it meets the requirements of six pivotal areas which form the acronym “FUTURE.”:
- “Foundation” – Do your primary stakeholders agree on the trend and the strategy? Is there sufficient money, time and will in the organization to pursue this strategy?
- “Unique” – Determine if your plans offer a distinctive value proposition that your customers can readily understand. Can competitors imitate the strategy? Can you distinguish yourself from them?
- “Track” – Set up milestones to measure how well your strategy navigates the trend. Does the tracking data set you compile offer useful insights into customer attitudes?
- “Urgent” – Your strategy should incite eagerness in your staff and customers. Assess whether customers will regard the project as an essential tool.
- “Recalibrate” – Build mechanisms to reconfigure your innovation to keep pace with changing customer needs. Allocate time and money for periodic reassessments and revamps.
- “Extensible” – Have you designed your project so it can adapt to future technological trends? Be sure you can make such changes quickly. Be cautious about outsourcing components, such as software, to vendors you don’t control.
About the Author
Amy Webb is a quantitative futurist and founded the Future Today Institute. She is a professor of strategic foresight at New York University’s Stern School of Business.