What makes the future exciting is the same as what makes it unclear. There are some things we know will happen, but a great many that we don’t. Against this backdrop of opportunity and uncertainty, we help our clients create innovation pipelines that stretch into the decades ahead.
Recently I’ve worked on several future-gazing projects within the industrial and consumer sectors and have identified a few principles along the way that help to navigate the uncertainty of the task.
We can see the future in our past
The past can’t show us what is literally going to happen, but it’s great for showing us how much has changed in a relatively short space of time. It’s 3 years since we started taking reusable bags to the shops. It’s 11 years since the first iPhone. 14 years since Facebook. 15 since WiFi started to truly enter our homes. Looking back and reflecting on the big shifts can help to overcome cynicism when projecting forward.
The future’s bright
It’s always been fashionable to paint a dystopian picture of the world; Blade Runner, Ready Player One, Black Mirror. In the real world, robots creating their own AI language, water scarcity in Cape Town, and documentaries like Before the Flood all seem to compound this view.
But the future doesn’t have to be us hiding from the hellish offspring of a Boston Dynamics dog, or digital replicas of our consciousness trapped in a keyring for eternity. While scarcity and adversity are often great drivers of innovation and change, it’s important to remain optimistic. When painting future scenarios with our clients, we try to ensure that we balance both positive and more challenging world views.
Cast the line far and then reel it in
Clients come to us because they want to make breakthroughs so we start by thinking far into the future, and then working back towards now. It’s a moonshot instead of Bagshot*. This helps to stretch the thinking and keep an open mind. Beginning with the near-in can lead down a rabbit warren of politics and feasibility that whilst ultimately is important, doesn’t tend to get the creative sparks flying.
*A small village in Surrey that is much easier to get to than the moon.
Articulating why something is desirable or if you will buy it is always tricky for people. To do that for an idea that exists in a future that hasn’t happened yet is even more difficult. For workshops this early in the development process, we have found it valuable to enlist the help of ‘Consumer Experts’. These are interesting people with a strong personal connection to a particular view of the future. For example, a Green Tech CEO when exploring ideas relating to sustainability. Or a member of a co-housing project when exploring solutions to changing future living situations. This expert view lends a unique perspective and makes it easier for them to envisage the world in which a particular idea might exist, whilst still providing a consumer lens.
These are just a few of many elements at play in this type of work. Creating future scenarios from which a pipeline can be developed is part trend hunting, part team collaboration, part head-scratchy type-two thinking, part looking back, part looking forward, part creating inspiring content and part engaging with people early in the process.