Tech time travel: Futurists reveal how they see what’s next
Seeing into the future isn’t easy. And while we love to mock those who thought the iPhone would be a dud or who crow that blockchain is the future of everything, there is a method to futurists’ madness. We spoke to three futurists – although they don’t all call themselves that – to find out how they peer beyond the veil of time.
Finding the future
Futurists are often employed by companies, tech and otherwise, to help plan products, services and organisational structure. Now a consultant, author and professor, Brian David Johnson was Intel’s first futurist. Due to the difficulties of fabrication, the chipmaker needs to have a sense of what consumers want years before they themselves know. “It took them ten years to design, develop and deploy a chip, so it’s of vital importance for them to know today what people want to do ten years ahead,” he explained.
Johnson’s first chip was the CE 3100, a system-on-a-chip for smart TVs. While laying out the spec requirement in a 150-page document in 2005, he figured that graphics would need to improve; rather than showing bars to indicate an increase in our TV’s volume, we would expect better. That led Intel to include built-in graphics and spot a missing hole in their supply chain – all thanks to a futurist who predicted what TV watchers would expect in 2015.
Tom Cheesewright is an author and consultant, and describes himself as an applied futurist. That means he doesn’t specialise in any particular sector, but has a methodology for looking at any market to understand where it’s headed, covering areas from “supermarkets to superyachts”, he says – though he normally works for global firms and governments.
His work falls into three areas: strategic, where he helps senior leadership and boards build longer-term plans, often in response to “a shock they have faced”; informative, which means speaking at conferences and to the media about what the future might hold; and promotional, working on marketing and sales.
“Any predictions I make are really just a tool to help me show clients that they have to be more adaptable, more agile,” he said. “If they want to build sustainable success, it probably won’t come from doing more of the same thing for the next decade.”
Method(ology) in the madness
Futurists may seem to be merely guessing, but there is methodology to their work. One key technique is trend analysis, which looks at historical data for change or growth patterns, and extrapolates those lines to see what will happen next. For example, we can predict the processing speeds of chips using Moore’s Law, which holds that the number of transistors will double every 18 months. Combine that with data such as miniaturisation trends or storage laws “and you have a sense of where that line is heading”, explained Dr Chris Brauer, director of innovation at the Institute of Management Studies at Goldsmiths College, University of London.
Other methodologies include cyclical pattern analysis (looking at boom and bust trends), environmental scanning (intelligence gathering on a subject) and scenario planning, which is a way of saying made-up stories. Scenarios can include “backcasting”, in which you set a goal and look back at what you need to do to reach that point, or experimental design, where you mock up fake products.
One frequently used method is the “futures cone”; plural because there’s not just one future discussed. It’s a simple idea: the entire cone is what is possible – which is everything – and inside are divisions between what is plausible, probable and preferable.
For example, self-driving cars are possible; that the required visual and computing technologies exist are being worked at makes them plausible; and they are probable if those technologies are perfected. Preferable describes what we want to happen. Will they replace existing cars? Revamp public transport? Or something else? That’s the preferable future, and this model offers a range of results and a goal to work towards.
“That’s where you’re trying to shape the future that you want, in the decisions you make today,” said Brauer, noting that powerful tech firms can “shape the future” of their markets by choosing to acquire a firm or boost investment, or even just market technologies to encourage them to be used in certain ways.
One benefit of the futures cone is flexibility. “You track the evolution of it, and as you get more information or new technology, you shift your ideas into different columns,” Brauer explained. A big breakthrough in computing vision could shift self-driving cars from probable to plausible, for example.
There are plenty of variations in these ideas to work with, and futurists’ methods are their selling points – some even have their own proprietary techniques. For instance, Cheesewright teaches his “tools” at the University of Salford and licenses them to analysts such as KPMG. “They’re specifically designed to help people look at the near horizon and produce a concrete set of challenges that can be addressed, rather than a broader view of what might be in the more distant future,” he said.
“My primary tool helps me to work out where the big macro trends will intersect with the existing pressure points in my clients’ markets. I believe right now that technology – in the broadest sense – is the biggest driver of change, so I start from there. Based on the main effects that technology has on every market it touches, how will it affect them?”
Being a futurist requires a head for data, but also a bright imagination. Brauer describes one approach called experimental design. If you want to know how people would use a technology that doesn’t yet exist, fake it. Back in 2005, Brauer ran trials on virtual assistants such as Siri and Alexa – which had yet to be created.
“In the event that an AI assistant were to emerge,” he said, “what kind of characteristics would it have, and would people want it?” To answer that, his team simulated the capabilities and functions, using consumers in 2005 to see how consumers in 2018 will react. “Consumer behaviour is pretty stable,” he added.
Johnson uses another similarly imaginative technique of his own creation: “science-fiction prototyping”. It’s essentially effects-based modelling – setting a preferred outcome and figuring out how to reach it – but with a literary twist: if you want to know what type of product people in the future will use, write a short story about it.
“An effects-based model is a person in a place with a problem – which is basically how you write a story,” Johnson said, noting that as a sci-fi author, looking through that lens appeals to him. “If you’re not an expert in synthetic biology, but read science fiction based on fact… it gives you an on-ramp.”
Building the future
Much of Johnson’s work is via a technique called “futurecasting”, essentially effects-based modelling that mixes technical research with social science such as cultural history that gives companies a range of outcomes and help reaching them.
“What this futurecasting process does is synthesise disparate inputs… and model the effect you want to have,” he said. “Then you reverse engineer, or backcast, it.” In other words, he gives clients a range of outcomes, they choose the one they’d prefer, and then they map a path to reach that goal – it’s not merely seeing the future, but making it.
And that’s why it’s difficult to be wrong as a futurist – they’re not predicting what’s next, they’re helping it get built. Johnson has 50 patents to his name, simply by looking further ahead than most. He cites famed computer scientist Alan Kay, saying: “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”
That said, looking back, each of the futurists PC Pro spoke to have been incorrect about aspects of their predictions – just as a flip through ten-year-old issues of this magazine shows we’re not always right about what’s next. Brauer admits he didn’t see AI developing as quickly as it has, Johnson says his prediction that Big Data from television would change video hasn’t come true, and Cheesewright thought we’d have week-long battery life by now.
“Predictions are just a tool for futurists to make our clients think about what might be,” explained Cheesewright. “And, if we got everything right, it would be a very boring world indeed.