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.

Here are five indicators, observations or articles that caught the eye of FA futurists today.

Image: Matti Mattila, Flickr.

Drone delivery? A Philadelphia dry cleaner used an off-the shelf drone to successfully deliver 2 shirts to a nearby customer in a promotional gimmick. Current commercial technology requires a pilot for the drone and a spotter at the delivery site, but both issues will no doubt be solved in time.

Swiss researchers have demonstrated that they can use high-intensity, high-frequency sound waves to levitate particles and objects and move them about.

Global polling finds that the United States is viewed somewhat more favorably than China, but people increasingly expect China to supplant the US.

Researchers have discovered a mouse gene that controls how quickly calories are burned; disabling the gene causes mice to gain weight while eating and exercising normally. Though just one person is so far known to have a “disabling mutation” in the gene, the discovery may help explain why some individuals gain weight more easily than others.

An app that makes suggestions for outdoor leisure illustrates how algorithmic foresight may increasingly guide people’s lives.

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: 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?

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.


Courtesy H.Koppdelaney (Flickr)

Journalists often write lazy articles compiling forecasts that have not come to pass, attributing them to futurists. Real futurists always respond, “Futurists don’t make predictions!”

That is true in theory: the goal of futurism is not to make predictions. In any case, the mockery-inducing forecasts are usually by non-futurists. (Defensive futurists might also note that other sort-of-respected professions such as economics differ from futurism chiefly by getting things wrong much faster than futurists do.)

Still, the truth is that real futurists, people who get called futurists, and people who could be called futurists make forecasts that sound a great deal like predictions all the time.

You can attack these forecasts cheaply and sloppily, as the media often does, but they can also be approached as genuinely useful tools in diagnosing the quality of someone’s thinking. Forecast accuracy can help illuminate three things:

  • Subject knowledge: If the person is making a forecast about a topic, this is fair game, even if many futurists concentrate on process, not content. Accuracy can help reveal whether they know enough about a topic to work effectively in the area — and whether they understand the limitations of their knowledge.
  • Perceptions of change: A basic futurist skill is having a feel for change: how fast or slow change tends to go, and the plausible bounds of that speed, in different arenas and systems. Incorrect forecasts are often due to a failure in this critical area.
  • Systems thinking: Forecast failures often reveal inadequate systems thinking, another basic futures competency. The person may not have understood the driver or actors in the system, or might have failed to anticipate a discontinuity.

So forecast accuracy should be used judiciously in evaluating the quality of foresight, but it can be a meaningful yardstick.

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