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How to predict the future

29 July 2019  
How to predict the future

Sinclair C5 modified with a jet engine.

AS a futurist, I’m often asked to make predictions – which companies will succeed? which will fail? which technologies will have most impact? and how companies and institutions should respond to emerging trends? In this article, I’ll outline tools and techniques so that you can be a futurist too.

Forces shaping our future
We’re often so wrapped up in our day-to-day lives that macro trends can take us by surprise. From the rise of the smartphone to the return of fascism, the climate crisis to cheap space travel, the world is constantly evolving – but often so slowly that changes can be hard to spot. For instance, millions of people could have lived longer and healthier lives if they had seen the wealth of evidence we now have about the risks of smoking. And do you remember when people used to talk disparagingly about “eco-warriors” – tell Swampy to get a bath, and all that? Now we are all eco-warriors, like it or not.

Reading small signals
How can we spot a trend that is likely to have a massive impact? Sometimes there are small signals that, with hindsight, could have indicated what was to come. Perhaps a patent for a new technology, or a demo/concept shown off at a trade show like CES or Mobile World Congress. Samsung first demonstrated a phone with a folding screen at CES in 2011, but these devices won’t reach the market until this year. And sometimes the new thing is a research breakthrough, like the discovery that we can use DNA to store data, as discussed in my column in April-May’s IP. How can we track these trends as they emerge and reach an inflexion point? Here’s an example: my family has a rare genetic mutation called OPA1 that interferes with vision. In order to keep up with research and commercialisation in this area, I told Google Scholar to alert me whenever a new paper is published that mentions OPA1, and a weekly update from Free Patents Online for any new patents and patent applications. From these alerts I have learned about novel therapies in development such as genetically engineered retroviruses that edit DNA using the CRISPR/CAS9 technique to “undo” the mutation.

Scenario planning
Having identified a trend, it’s only natural to ask “what does this mean for me?” This is where scenario planning can be helpful. First devised by Shell during the oil crisis of the 1970s, scenario planning allows us to explore what could happen from a particular starting point – creating a range of possible scenarios that can be probed and examined. In my scenario planning workshops I like to use Sir Clive Sinclair’s C5 as an example. If you’re not familiar with the C5, it was an attempt to create a mass-market electric vehicle, which launched in 1985 in a blaze of publicity. Unfortunately, the technology of the day simply wasn’t up to the job – the C5 could only travel around 10 miles on battery power and struggled with the gentlest slope. Furthermore, the low seating position made drivers feel vulnerable, and there was no protection from the elements – the C5 was essentially an electrically assisted tricycle, complete with pedals and handlebar.

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Pre-mortems and alternative futures
With hindsight, it seems obvious the C5 had problems as a product, but could we have predicted this, and what could Sir Clive have done about it? Technologists (I say this as a computer scientist) can sometimes leap into making a product or service the way they imagine it should be, without necessarily understanding who the customer is or how they will use it. Taking a service design approach with a cross-section of potential customers and doing paper prototyping of the C5 might have helped to create a product that was a better fit for real life. It can be illuminating to work through potential alternative scenarios – challenging assumptions and addressing issues raised by potential users. In the C5’s case, perhaps the team could have set their sights on something simpler and more readily achievable like an electric bike or scooter? We’ve only recently started to see these devices in significant numbers on the streets and it’s intriguing to picture an alternative timeline where the Sinclair team had succeeded in revolutionising personal mobility a full 30 years ago. What would this have meant for air quality, carbon emissions and quality of life?

Photo Credit: Prioryman

Contributor: Martin Hamilton, Futurist at Jisc, @martin_hamilton,

Published: 24 June 2019

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