“The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.” – William Gibson
“Only in motion is the future” – Yoda
“In the future, it’s all going to be different! And better! And bigger! Technology will …” <everybody else to fill in their dystopian or utopian vision>
We’re getting a bit tired of all the future hype. Don’t we?
In the future we’re all going to be dead, freely after Keynes. How’s that for a certainty. Forgive me the blackness of the observation.
What need is there for futurology or futures studies? It seems like a useless exercise. Don’t we have enough technology innovation today? Don’t we have enough uncertainty today? Don’t we have enough competitive pressure today? And if you are in public sector, isn’t there enough parliamentary and societal pressure today?
It seems what we need most today is execution, execution and execution. First and foremost we need to establish a position in the digital business, and then we’ll figure out the rest. That’s our agenda.
Or is it?
I’d like to argue that futures studies has never been so important. The definition of futures studies unfortunately isn’t very helpful. Futures studies (also called futurology) is the study of postulating possible, probable, and preferable futures and the worldviews and myths that underlie them. This only seems to feed the skepticism.
Allow me to propose three important reasons why there is an increased need for futurists and futures studies.
Hopes and fears of today
A few years ago we ran a set of studies that we called “digitopia”. The spinoff of that has been enormous. It has fueled the Gartner digital ethics research agenda, and – in retrospect – was the basis of the research on the digitalization of society. We didn’t conduct this project in the traditional way, by doing a formal PESTEL-analysis (looking at political, economical, social, technical, ecological and legal trend), formulating current assumptions to challenge and framing a set of conditions in which potential futures would emerge.
Instead we had a different research design. We went out and asked people — through all Gartner channels – a very simple question: “what will life look like in 2030”? A very open question. The only context we gave is that we would like to see a technology angle. Digitopia, after all. Contributions came from all over the world, a collection of wonderful stories. And soon enough, patterns started to emerge. One of the most important things we learned from those studies, that is you ask people to imagine the future, what they tell you is about their hopes and their fears of today. (Imagine asking people in an interview “tell me, what are your hopes and fears of today?”, what insightful answers do you expect to get?).
In all the innovation that is taking place, today, one of the most important criteria on what to focus on, is figuring out what innovation is meaningful, and what innovation is not. What can be more insightful than knowing what drives and motivates people. Futures studies provides the answer.
Embrace Uncertainty and Ambiguity
For the last tens of years, business has been about believing in certainty. We needed to become data-driven, based on true data science. We preached evidence-based management. We introduced predictive analytics. But do we truly believe all that? Life and business today is ambiguous. Different innovations preach different results, sometimes even contradictory. Innovation is about new levels of freedom! No, innovation is about new levels of control! Innovation is about making new things possible for people! No, innovation is the biggest threat to human privacy! Citizen and customers love innovation and what it bring to them. No, citizens are worried that technology innovation is too fast, and leads us down the wrong track! Which of those is true? The only answer is… all of them. At the same time. As the business is digitalizing, and even more, society itself is digitalizing, technology doesn’t make life just better. Or it doesn’t make life just worse. All it does is trigger a new dynamic. Some stuff works, other stuff doesn’t. Some things work out well, other things don’t. The change, the progress, is ambiguous. The leaders for the years to come are the leaders who can deal with ambiguity. Who come up with strategies that keep their options open. In the words of F. Scott Fitzgerald: The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.
This is what Futures Studies teaches us. It teaches us to hold opposing ideas in our mind, and make them work. It teaches us not only tolerance for ambiguity, but to embrace it as a source of agility. Futures Studies, as paradoxical as it sounds, keeps us with two feet on the ground, embedded in reality. The reality of ambiguity. Allowing us to deal with uncertainty, instead of trying to eliminate us.
The only thing that makes a different is a sense of purpose
You just can’t beat Amazon in driving cost down, while at the same time creating a superior customer experience, through creating continuous product innovation. A total departure from the old strategy paradigm of having to choose between the value disciplines of Treacy and Wiersema. At the same time, the old “Five Forces” from Porter have never been as relevant as today. Adjacent competitors come in your market. Google. New channels become dominant that you don’t control. Facebook. Customers are organizing themselves quickly and become a powerbase. Twitter.
The silicon valley mantra is “competition is for losers”, it’s about creating your own market, with your own rules. As over-the-top as it sounds, there is a point to it. If competition is becoming increasingly hard, it is time to reframe, and set a new context. What is it that makes you totally unique? What assets do you have that are inimitable? What value are you delivering that no one else. You’ll find that the answers are in your sense of purpose. Hint: “shareholder value” is not the sense of purpose I am talking about, but what you contribute to society. What larger issue you tackle as a company. What you truly believe in, and are committed to achieve.
Where does that sense of purpose come form? From Future Studies. By putting a dot on the horizon, imagining the end game of your industry. And then ask yourself what role you play. What your contribution is to human life and society. This makes it more clear of the type of company that you are, and what customer value you deliver. Futures studies creates that clarity of vision that is needed to compete every day.
Are you overwhelmed with the technology innovation today? Are the uncertainty levels in your industry rising today? Are there new competitive or other stakeholder pressures today?
If the answer is yes to these questions, and yes is the most likely answer, we need more futurology. Today.