Friday, August 17, 2018

The future belongs to whoever creates it

You know something has become passe when you see it used as a meme on Twitter frequently.  That's actually what prompted this diatribe.  I doubt there's any meme I dislike more than "The future belongs to...".  In recent years we've been told that the future belongs to the swift, the smart, the agile, and more recently to the digitally transformed.

Not that long ago we were told that the future belonged to Nokia, because before 2000 it was the king of the hill in handsets.  Then along came Apple.  Then we were told the future belonged to the Newton, except the Palm and then the smartphone generally won the day.  The fact is that the future doesn't belong to anyone.  Given the rapid pace of change and the emergence of new technologies and solutions, you can't say with much certainty who will win the future.  In fact, as William Gibson likes to say, "the future is already here, it's just not very evenly distributed".

Who "owns" the future?

The best we can hope for is to understand the future and prepare for it, or attempt to create the future we want.  The other options - waiting to see what happens and then responding, or worse, hoping that nothing changes at all - are not viable alternatives.  These options are choices that lead to the fast road to obsolescence.  Santayana said that those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.  I think the corollary to that statement is:  those who ignore the future are doomed to extinction.

If we can't ignore the future, and it's clear few firms or organizations "own" the future, this means the future should be malleable to some extent, and we have the capacity to discover it.  Therefore it's incumbent on us to try, rather than end up as an afterthought, or an overused metaphor like the buggy whip manufacturers who didn't change as automobile ignitions changed.

Nobody "owns" the future but if we try just a bit we can understand what's likely to happen and in some instances perhaps even influence it.  However understanding the future requires doing work to identify emerging trends in the environment and understanding how they might unfold.  Understanding the future requires you to ascertain what 'could' happen, not simply depend on what  you want to occur.  Understanding the future requires understanding that the future is not determinant, but that there are multiple possible futures.  Once you understand these things, you can begin to see how you might influence the future.

Future chaos

If a weak definition of chaos theory is "a butterfly flaps its wings in Tokyo and it rains in New York" then the idea of small changes now influencing the future isn't so far fetched.  Microsoft influenced an entire industry at a time when Microsoft was very small, convincing IBM to license its operation system.  That one decision had ripple effects that we still experience today.

We are too often far too passive and too convinced that the future will happen to us, rather than becoming more proactive and at least more prepared to act as the future emerges or, better yet, trying to shape the future.  But what is good innovation other than an attempt to shape the future?  Innovation is a current bet on future outcomes - so any innovation is an attempt to change the future.  Why not invest in understanding the future and even influencing the future as part of any innovation activity?

Trend spotting, scenario planning, roadmappping, future forecasting - these are all tools that can help determine what may occur in the future.  Doing this work isn't enough however, because the knowledge will simply prepare you for what may happen.  Taking action on the insights, investing in innovative ideas meant to fulfill unmet customer needs or targeting emerging segments will shape the future, and perhaps allow you to create it and own it.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:42 AM


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