We’re often asked to future-proof our proposals, often as far out as the next five years. Five years … 2018!
Could we have predicted back in 2005 that the iPad would be launched five years in “the future” , creating a new form factor that could disrupt the whole PC business world? Probably not.
Can we predict the impact of Google Glass and similar wearable tech will have by 2018 when it is properly launched in 2015? Not really.
It’s not that we’re not smart. Nor that our crystal ball is a bit fuzzy. It’s just that the future is a different time from now. The novelist L. P. Hartley coined the phrase “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there”. Well, the future is a foreign country too – we will do this differently there as well.
The easy future – extrapolation
But don’t despair. We aren’t without any foresight. Some of the future can just be extrapolated from now. This is the “what we have now, but better” future. This is fairly easy to see. Will we use mobile devices even more to do more things – yes, absolutely.
The difficult future – things on the edge
Some of the future is on the edge, it can be seen but has a will it/won’t it quality – it’s possible future but it is unclear if people will accept it. Tablets were on the edge for years before people accepted the iPad as a viable product.
The unpredictable future
And some of the future is, frankly, unpredictable. You can perhaps trace it backwards and see where it came from, but it would have been impossible to have seen it coming.
An example: the future car
Let’s think about the extrapolation future, the edge future and the unpredictable future for a development that will be with us fairly soon – maybe five-ten-fifteen years’ time: the self-driving car.
Well, it’s pretty easy to extrapolate that when cars and all other road vehicles drive themselves, you’re not going to need drivers: taxi, bus, van, lorry drivers will all be unnecessary, not to mention driving instructors. Those jobs are going, or at the very least, being redesigned.
So far, so taking things buzzing about now to their logical conclusion. But, on the edge of things, self-driving cars may cause much bigger changes to unravel. MIT’s Nicholas Negroponte predicts that when we have mastered self-driving cars we will no longer need to own our own cars – you just call one up when needed. The only reason we own cars now is because someone has to drive them, and it is cheaper to own a car than pay someone. But when driving becomes a zero cost activity, just an inherent part of the car, it would make more sense to keep the car driving all the time.
After all, most cars spend most of their time parked: commonly 23 hours parked out of every day – or about 4% utilisation. If it becomes easier just to press a button on your phone and in a couple of minutes a self-driving car appears, at much cheaper cost than lifetime car ownership, why own?
Of course, there is a bit culture change to take place here. Car ownership is an ingrained norm. But the future is a different place – they do things differently. And if they do, and the time a car is actually out and about being used jumps from 4% to, say 75%, then we will need fewer cars. Maybe only 10% of the number of cars that we have now.
If that is true, then the future looks bleak for the massive car manufacturing industry and their suppliers of steel, plastic and rubber, not to mention car dealerships, garages, car parks, and scrap dealers.
On the plus side, there will be a massive environmental boost from materials now being used to build cars. From cars always driven in the most environmentally friendly way. From our streets and front gardens being reclaimed from parked cars. And who will shed a tear at the disappearance of the parking fines? Perhaps, if self-driving cars are substantially better than human drivers, parents might let their children play in the streets again, and the reign of the indoors-taxied childhood will come to end.
Phew. That could be the future. Tricky, isn’t it. Sounds like a whole host of businesses need to be thinking very carefully, in case they end of the way of Kodak. So it is a very natural desire to want to future-proof.
Technologically, this often thought of as committing to open and flexible technologies – but what if you commit to an open and flexible technology that is by-passed by a new technology like self-driving cars? As a business, this is often thought of as keeping in-line with the competition – but how will that help car builders if we only need 10% the number of cars in the future?
We think that the best future-proofing is thinking strategically. Looking to the edge future: to conduct small experiments, try out novel approaches, watch out for new digital threats to your business model. Don’t worry about the unpredictable – no one knows. Don’t over focus on the extrapolated future – the more of the same but better future – that’s obvious. And be prepared to listen to your digital agency when you ask for future-proofing, because the answer might be uncomfortable.