Image: chrisf608 (Flickr)

Image: chrisf608 (Flickr)

In March 2014 in London, in a closing keynote address to the Wearable Technology Conference, Cisco chief futurist David Evans forecast that the ongoing miniaturization of technology would lead to its installation inside the human body. “If you do the math and fast forward a little bit, in about two and half decades the power of your smartphone will fit into something the size of a red blood cell. It completely changes the game if humans can have red blood cell-size computing.” (By what technology and to what extent the miniaturization of computing technology will continue is a subject of considerable discussion, but that’s a topic for another post.)

I’ve sometimes pondered the progression of computing technology I’ve experienced: from the mainframe (a device operated by experts, to which you are granted access) to the personal computer (on your desk) to the laptop computer (in your briefcase) to the mobile phone (in your pocket) to the smart watch or smart glasses (on your person). Evans notes the next logical step—the implanted device (in your person). Note that this is a progression not just in miniaturization but also in the intimacy of connection between you and your device.

The obvious question: What are the further stages in this progression? According to Evans, “Ultimately where I think we’re going in the next couple of decades is to actually move into the replacement phase; where we take perfectly good parts of our body and replace them with something a little bit better.” At this stage humans begin to “self-evolve.” It seems to me that the term “evolve” hints at an even further stage, one in which the implanted technology becomes something that is passed from parents to offspring and co-evolves as part of the human species. This is the ultimate destination of intimacy, when human and technology become indistinguishable.

p.s. It’s worth pointing out that Cisco has on its staff a chief futurist. In fact, in the last several years we’ve noted numerous examples of futurist titles and/or futurist roles at major national and international corporations and government agencies. It seems that an increasing number of organizations are seeing the value in exploring possible ways the future may unfold and what they need to do now to anticipate and shape it.

p.p.s. Thanks to Shaping Tomorrow’s newsletter for alerting me to this source.

Image: marc falardeau (Flickr)

Image: marc falardeau (Flickr)

An overly optimistic view of the future can be a precursor to negative outcomes, according to a recent study in Psychological Science. The authors found that during the 2007 to 2009 financial crisis positive statements about the future on the economy page of USA Today correlated with declines in the Dow Jones Industrial average in the subsequent week and month. They found similar results when comparing the tone of US presidents’ inaugural addresses to GDP and employment performance during the following term of office. The authors contend, “These counterintuitive findings may help reveal the psychological processes that contribute to an economic crisis.”

A recent New York Times article describing these results points out that while a correlation between optimistic talk and negative results doesn’t prove a cause and effect relationship, there is a body of additional evidence that points in the same direction. What might be the mechanism of such an effect? According to the Times, the research paper “speculates that widespread optimism could cause people to discount the risk of trouble ahead, make unwise investments, be less entrepreneurial and thus exacerbate or even create economic weakness.”

As futurists we firmly believe that a realistic assessment of a wide variety of plausible futures is an essential precursor to any planning effort. Often clients are less than eager to consider possible negative outcomes. But sad experience (now backed up by data) says that ignoring the possibility of negative futures can only leave an organization unprepared when disaster threatens. Some of my biggest regrets as a consultant have come from failing to insist that clients (who explicitly asked us not to address some important issues) consider the possibility of a downturn or even a disaster and think through what they need to do now to be prepared to respond. The recent results are a reminder to all of us — futurists as well as clients — to diligently address a broad range of possible futures, be they pleasant or unpleasant to contemplate. Only that way can we help our organizations be prepared to meet whatever may come.

p.s. When I was a graduate student preparing for my qualifying exams lots of people told me, “Don’t worry — you’ll do just fine.” But one of the postdocs in our lab warned me that I had better be well-prepared or I’d be facing a rough exam and a bad result. I’ve always said that, in that moment, he was the only one who did me any good.

In a bit of serendipity, there were three different articles published this week on futures and foresight work, detailing what a futures company concerns itself with and how these firms go about their work. Writing in Quartz, friend of Foresight Alliance Scott Smith detailed some of the reasons why the futures field has seen a surge of popular recognition in the business world. He states:

Short of world wars and oil embargoes, we haven’t until recently sensed every shake or shudder in another part of the world. But when a new smartphone or piece of code released in one country this morning can be in the hands of another by tonight, or supply chains are disrupted quickly by unexpected events, or a biological innovation can be knocked off quickly by semi-pros working in a closet, not only do business and governments look for advice, but societies also seek some kind of orientation.

Andrew Curry, of The Futures Company, blogging about an article on futures firms that ran in Fast Company, laid out his view of what makes  a good futures firm:

It Looks Outside Its Industry Firms that focus on only one industry may miss developments outside their purview that either could heavily impact your industry or provide new business approaches to follow.

It Can Work Both Fast & Slow “Culture operates at two speeds–fast and slow,” says Terry Young [of agency sparks & honey]. “Monitoring macro trends helps companies build an arsenal of content that is ready to adjust to emerging trends, memes, or breaking news.”

It Gets to the “So What” Make sure that whomever you are looking to for help can provide what you need to get to the “So Here’s What We Do Now.”

It Doesn’t Get Carried Away Remember how Segway was going to hit $1 billion in sales faster than any other company in history? As Walker Smith says, “While your head is in the clouds you need to keep your feet on the ground.” (From a Futures Company perspective, the way you do that is to look at the 360 degree picture of how change happens – some layers of change, such as infrastructure or social behaviour, are slower than others.)

Taken together, Smith and Curry lay out a succinct argument of why foresight is needed, and who you should look to for help. I can add that Curry’s four qualifications are met by Foresight Alliance.

A slightly different piece by tech writer Veronique Greenwood in Aeon Magazine comes from a more personal point of view, as she discusses what it was like growing up in the home of a futurist. Her final paragraph is an encomium to those in the futures field:

That said, I would never want to be too far away from those who live and work perpetually in the vanguard, who have chosen that risky, Schrödinger’s Cat-like existence. Even after growing up with my mother and the remains of a hundred half-baked ideas, such people’s willingness to ride the wave, their foolhardiness and their bravery, still provokes awe in me. It’s not a thing I can profess to understand beyond a basic respect for their guts and their kind of crazy hope that the future will be weird. But that’s something I can get behind.


Image: Don McCullough, Flickr.

Image: Brett Neilson, Flickr

So, the 2012 election cycle is in our rear-view mirror, and the political media is only half-jokingly running stories on possible 2016 contenders. In the immediate aftermath of November 6, there have been two dominant stories about the election, the demographic challenges facing the Republican party and how unprepared the Republicans were for losing. As someone who has an interest in consumers and the future, the first story-line interests me, but as a foresight practitioner, the second story fascinates me.

As campaign post-mortem stories roll in, I am struck by how blindsided the GOP seemed to be by the results. Story after story quotes campaign officials, pundits, donors and voters on their puzzlement that Mitt Romney lost the election. But what it also lacking in these stories is any quote from a member of the conservative establishment who saw the writing on the wall for Romney. While it is still early times for the definitive telling of this election, the fact that political reporters can’t find a naysayer is telling. Conor Friedersdorf, writing in The Atlantic, has a persuasive piece on how the right-leaning media created an echo chamber that allowed no contrarian thinking to color its coverage of the election, leading viewers/readers with the impression that the race was in the bag for Romney. And while I can understand how voters might have been sold on this narrative, campaigners tend to be a more cynical and mercenary lot, believing their candidate, but also realizing that not everyone wins.

As someone who advises clients on the need for alternative futures, this unheeding belief in only one narrative (Obama can’t win, Romney can’t lose) runs counter to what I do on a daily basis. But it also forces me to confront a bias of my own: unless I deliberately think about it, I tend to believe that everyone considers alternatives to their current expected future as a matter of practice. This election reminded me that many, many people don’t — and that is one way we can be useful to clients.

Image: David Paul Ohmer (Flickr)

I spent more than 20 years in Research and Development at a major global food manufacturer. Our corporate leadership made it very clear that our primary obligation as an organization was to our shareholders. And the fundamental goal of the organization was to maximize shareholder value. (In fairness I should point out that our company always took responsibilities such as food safety very seriously.) But from early in my tenure I doubted that shareholder value should be the sole and central goal. It always seemed to me that the corporation had an obligation to its employees, its customers, and the communities in which it operated, and that eventually companies and society would come to recognize those broader obligations.

Is this forecast coming to pass? Turns out that while I was possibly ahead of the times I was certainly also behind them. In a recent op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times, Cornell corporate and business law professor Lynn Stout points out that maximizing shareholder value became the corporate imperative only in the last three decades. “But for most of the 20th century, professional managers of public corporations … viewed themselves as stewards or trustees responsible for steering great social institutions — public corporations — for the benefit not only of shareholders but also employees, customers and the nation.”

Stout, who has written a book on the subject, argues not only that a focus on shareholder value is bad for other important stakeholders but also that it’s bad for the shareholders themselves, because it incentivizes short-term thinking. Managers tend to make decisions that maximize quarterly results at the expense of the long-term health of the corporation. As a staff member of the “R” part of R&D I was very familiar with this issue. My colleagues and I were constantly seeking to justify investment in long-term projects with high potential benefit but uncertain outcomes, while confronting the imperative to generate short-term business results.

What does all of this have to do with foresight? When organizations return to a stewardship point of view and seek to benefit customers, communities, employees, and shareholders, foresight can help in three important ways.

  • Longer-term thinking. Stewardship of a corporation for the public good requires a longer-term approach. Foresight processes are designed for time horizons beyond the usual corporate strategic planning frame of one to three years.
  • Broader thinking. Addressing the interests of a breadth of stakeholders makes it necessary to consider a wider range of driving forces shaping the future. Foresight explicitly considers a broad range of trends and drivers.
  • Systems thinking. When organizations begin to consider the interests of a broad set of stakeholders they must be concerned with the way those interests interact in a complex, interconnected system. Systems thinking is an important element of foresight methods.

Of course there are a number of signs that corporations are taking a broader view of their responsibilities, including the corporate social responsibility and social entrepreneurship movements. I’m just glad I’ve been able to stick around long enough to see the tide begin to turn.

(Thanks to Shaping Tomorrow for calling the LA Times article to my attention.)

Image: Bruce Irving, Flickr

Clients ask why we often push them to think at least five years out. They sometimes want to look at shorter time frames, which we can do, but we tell them that too short a time—a business quarter, a year—provides too little space to adequately track changes in the relevant trends. Even five years can be too short, and every now and then I come across something that makes me realize how much can change in that much time.

Case in point: I was clicking through this slideshow of arresting images from around the solar system on the Atlantic Monthly website, when I noticed the caption in this photo. Specifically, the mention that when NASA’s New Horizon probe was launched in 2006, Pluto was known to have three moons, and now two more have been discovered. In addition, when the probe was launched, Pluto was a full-fledged planet.  Two new moons and a planetary declassification–that is a lot of change in the six years since the probe was launched, and it still has almost three more years before it arrives. Who knows what else could change?

Futurists often talk about values and their impact on the way the future unfolds.

Earlier this year, as my wife and I were planning a trip to New Zealand, my Foresight Alliance colleague Josh Calder made me aware of the thesis of David Hackett Fischer’s book, Fairness and Freedom: A History of Two Open Societies: New Zealand and the United States. According to the Amazon summary of the book, the two nations share many common political, economic, social, and cultural elements, “but all of these elements take different forms, because constellations of value are far apart. The dream of living free is America’s Polaris; fairness and natural justice are New Zealand’s Southern Cross.”

During our visit we saw and heard many ways in which the values of fairness and natural justice play out in New Zealand life.

Waitangi Treaty Ground (Image: Croasmun)

The Treaty of Waitangi between the Maori (the Polynesian settlers of New Zealand who arrived at least 700 years ago) and the British settlers was signed in 1840. The two cultures still coexist and there is active discussion even today about the treaty’s meaning and its practical implications for relations between the two cultures.

Image: Croasmun

The Polynesian settlers of New Zealand weren’t just the first human inhabitants of the islands, they were the first mammals to arrive (other than bats). The Polynesians and the Europeans introduced a number of other invasive mammal species—rats, opossums, pigs, and so forth. Now there is an active effort to create and expand preserves where these invasive species have been eliminated so that remaining native species like the kiwi can again flourish.

Image: Croasmun

Native kauri trees were prized for their timber, which was widely used for shipbuilding. Kauri grow slowly and it is now illegal to cut them down. Kauri products are still produced and sold, using trees that fell that have been preserved for thousands of years underground.

Image: Croasmun

A small example—New Zealander’s apparently have the option to refuse delivery of junk mail.

New Zealand recognized women’s right to vote in 1893, the earliest of any current nation in modern times.

Values matter!

Visitors to the U.S Capitol building are issued tickets in the form of stickers that they are required to wear on the tour of the building. While the relatively new visitor center (opened 2008) is full of modern tour conveniences and security features, what it lacks are well-positioned garbage cans. The image at the left  is an equipment box at the end of a long walkway from the front door. While there are garbage cans near the door, visitors are presumably so caught up in discussing what they saw or planning their next stop that they don’t get around to peeling off their stickers until they reach the end of the sidewalk. At which point, they make do with whatever receptacle (or equipment boxes) they can find.


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