Saturday, 19 March 2011

Timeline of the future

As the great Yogi Berra said “it’s very difficult to make predictions – especially about the future”. However that does not mean that we should not try to. It can help to shape our business strategy, protect us from shock changes, and besides it can be great fun.

Myers Briggs personality profiles suggest that only 20% of are mainly focussed on the future – 40% are focussed on what we learn from the past, and 40% on the here and now. That is pretty much what you would expect from human beings who evolved in the Savannah - too much dreaming of what might be is not much help in escaping lions, and in fact it might get you eaten.

The same applies in business – not learning from the past, and not focussing on the immediate threats are fatal for businesses. However there is always a need for at least a few people in a business to keep scanning the horizons, and thinking about how things change.

The old metaphor about boiling a frog is appropriate for our attitude to change. Today the internet is pervasive in our society – and most of us forget that a matter of a decade ago it barely existed. Most of us have mobile phones, and we have forgotten what we did before them. Films from the 1990s can feel strangely dated when the central problem could be easily solved in the characters had mobile phones, let alone Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.

This makes it difficult for us to think about some of the major changes that can happen to our industry. The rise of 3D printers, which seems like a science fiction technology but is being used in aerospace, changes a lot of our ideas about manufacturing (see The Economist). The internet is of course changing other industries, and in some cases making them redundant – I can’t believe there is a major future in printing yellow pages telephone directories or CD pressing plants.

So what industries will remain unchanged?

Well haulage and distribution will still be essential to move some goods around – despite 3D printers, we are still likely to need to move chemicals and similar raw materials. However it may change significantly within a generation to include much better IT based planning and even more significantly robot driven lorries (it is on the way, trust me).

Television, if we continue to call it that, will probably merge with the web, and be shown on the sort of printed electronics paper thin screens that I have mentioned before.

My industry, consulting and training, will no doubt be changed by intelligent systems and training on demand media. I think though that will always be people who prefer to engage with (flawed) individuals rather than a (perfect) computer database.

Health is changing massively – our life expectancy rises by about 3 months every year. Think about that. The consequences are massive – and not just for pensions. This is a societal change that we don’t notice happening even though it is happening rapidly. Partly this is because medicine is advancing so fast – people live who would have died a decade ago, and people are born who would not have existed 30 years ago (including my children).

Prof. Bryan Cox in his Wonders of the Universe TV programme has reminded us that planet earth will one day be destroyed by the sun. Luckily that will be in about 6 billion years, so no need for us to worry just yet.

Trying to think on that timescale can be fun – when you think that human beings have only been around for less than a hundred thousand years. Will people in the year 3011 even be recognisable to us as people? A website providing a timeline of the future can be a way of stimulating thinking, and broadening our horizons (click here) – as can thinking about the Clock of the Long Now (see the picture for the prototype). I don’t agree with all of their projections (some I think will happen much quicker, others not at all) but that is not the point. It won’t tell you what will happen to your industry next month, or even next year, but it does help us stop thinking that the future will be just like the past.

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