Looking at the Future

Looking at the Future by Dr. Scott Yorkovich

Photo by Darren Hester, Available at www.morguefile.com

Robots may learn from humans how to express emotion. Cash is on the way out in the United States. Ammonia may become the fuel of choice. Twenty-first century dustbowls will dwarf those of the twentieth century. Fuel cell technology may lead to long-term, deep-sea habitation. Miniature sensors and transmitters embedded into the body will enable remote monitoring of all aspects of your health. Increasing use of human augmentation technologies may lead to new forms of class warfare.

These are some pretty incredible predictions! These and 58 others are found in an article in the latest issue of Futurist.1 Are they really all that incredible though? Transport yourself back to the Civil War era and imagine someone saying, “One day, we will fight wars from the air in flying machines.” Go forward a few years and imagine someone saying, “One day, we will have an outpost in space where men and women live for months at a time.” Go back a couple hundred years and imagine, “One day, we will press a button and this whole room will light up instantly without the use of candles or oil.” Go further back, much further back to the early 2nd century, during the peak of the Roman Empire. Imagine the heresy of this prediction: “One day, the most powerful nation on Earth won’t be on this continent – it will be a far off land not yet explored.” Today, none of these past predictions tickle the ear. They have all come to pass and we take them for granted.

These ideas don’t stimulate our thinking because we have the benefit of hindsight. We know what came true and what didn’t and we often have a pretty good idea why. It is nevertheless an excellent exercise to study history and learn. Learning from history requires an open mind and the ability to look at events from multiple perspectives. Looking forward, making predictions about the future, is a very different kind of exercise but requires similar mental disciplines.

Just like learning from history, peering into the future requires an open mind. Some of the predictions noted above are pretty wild. Robots that emotionally interact with humans? A special class of augmented humans? (For a picture of what this might look like, I highly recommend the movie Gattaca – one of the best films of all time.) If you look into the research behind each of these predictions you will be faced with the realization that each of them could indeed become true — and yes, all 65 predictions are backed up by solid data or analysis. So keep an open mind about even the wildest ideas that skilled futurists develop.

In addition to an open mind, you need to look at the future from multiple perspectives. When examining the past, the use of multiple lenses provides the most complete picture. The same is true when examining what the future might hold. Here is an easy to remember model for doing so, based on the acronym STEEP:

  • Social: demographics, religion, culture, relationships, lifestyle, etc.
  • Technological: high-tech, medical, communications, entertainment, etc.
  • Economic: micro and macro-level factors
  • Ecological: environmental concerns, natural resources
  • Political/Legal: geo-political factors at local, country, and regional levels

Looking at the future through these five lenses provides a more complete view of what might be. Some of the factors might not appear to be important to you in your particular situation. Nevertheless, as you apply open-minded thinking and look into how the factors interact with one another, new future realities will begin to emerge. As you look into the future, gather data from a wide variety of perspectives for a more holistic image.

The most challenging part of looking into the future is discerning what future data actually informs your strategic planning in a meaningful way. There are various approaches for doing this, but perhaps the simplest is to identify the predictions that have a combination of the strongest evidence and the most pertinence to your industry. The downside of this, though, is missing the potential impact of “wild card” events or technologies that literally usher in a new reality. Past examples include the Colonists’ defeat of the British Army, the Arab oil embargo of 1973, the attacks on 9/11, and the iPhone. Each of these has had a profound impact on virtually every aspect of society. Examples of possible future wildcards include a “cancer vaccine,” a solution for cold fusion, an Islamic overthrow of the United States’ political and legal system, or a super virus that wipes out 20% of the world population.

I challenge you to have your leadership team research predictions about the future in the STEEP categories. Collect at least 10 unique predictions for each category. Then evaluate them individually and as groups. Explore individual impacts as well as how they interact with one another. Challenge your team to consider how these potential futures impact your own business 10 and 20 years into the future.

What do you need to do today to get ready for those possible futures? How do your leadership and management practices need to change?

For more reading, I encourage you to look at the article, Why Strategic Foresight?

1: “OUTLOOK 2012.” Futurist 45, no. 6 (November 2011): 2-9.

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