How futurists forecast future technologies

How futurists forecast future technologies

Although I’m a futurist, I have absolutely no idea what information and communications technology will look like in 50 years time.

I do know that some of it will be familiar because once we find a usable form, we tend to stick with it – glowing rectangles will probably remain popular. But I also know that we will see technology and applications which have not yet been imagined.

This technology space is growing in complexity and capability at a much, much faster rate than any other, and the implications for society are profound.

One year is easy, but 15 years is necessary

Can I tell you what we’ll be doing on the internet a year from now? The answer, of course, is yes – but so can anyone who spends any time thinking about it, and we’ll all be pretty much on target.

Short-term projection is easy because the products are in the late stage of development now. In fact the same is true out to about five years, because the product development has already started.

In telecommunications and informatics research, we try to figure out what society will require about 15 years out.

Why 15 years? A first-rate research grant takes about a year from concept to successful award, for a program which takes about three years to complete. Successful research with a commercial focus can then lead to commercial development, usually another five years.

It then takes perhaps ten years to get a commercial return on the research and development investment. Getting a product to market faster than ten years can give you a first-mover advantage; or, as we have seen time and time again, you can be so far ahead of market demand that your product falters.

Aiming for the Goldilocks just-right zone of 15 years in total is about right.

How do you see the future?

So how do you make a prediction from a distance of 15 years?

Our team embraces anekantavada, the Jainist doctrine of the necessity and validity of a multitude of viewpoints:

  • we look at technology developments, from academic research through to what we can gather about emerging consumer products from major manufacturers
  • we draw on our experience in planning infrastructure, such as mobile phone networks, to consider commercial risks and return on investment
  • we look at regulatory enablers and roadblocks, and at commercial relationships
  • we look at the connections between technology, commerce, society, regulation and politics. These viewpoints need to align to create a coherent view of the future.

Our value as consultants comes from being able to highlight the gaps – the missing technologies, the missing commercial relationships, the anachronistic regulation and policy settings – which highlight where the opportunities lie.

A 15-year outlook can be a reasonably accurate view of the big picture. But the detail which drives the big picture – the specific applications, the specific devices and the specific dinner parties where two drunk and egotistical executive directors swear to bury each other – can only be a speculative part of the narrative.

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