“Before man reaches the moon, your mail will be delivered within hours from New York to Australia by guided missiles. We stand on the threshold of rocket mail.” – Arthur Summerfield, U.S. Postmaster General, 1959
Our mail still travels on trucks, and sometimes planes, but these days we rarely even consider using the U.S. Postal Service for timely correspondence. We text or email. Back in 1959, Mr. Summerfield knew communications would speed up, but he hadn’t the foggiest notion of what the next 50 years would actually bring: a global, interlaced network of digital devices.
Increasingly, leading organizations today are doing their best to get a peek over the horizon to gain competitive advantage. They’re actively studying signals, trends and indicators of possible futures in systematic and scientific ways, working to discern what’s probable from the merely possible.
The better an organization can anticipate or influence new developments, particularly in technological advancements, the better its chances of beating the competition. This study of possible futures, known as “strategic foresight,” is a growing discipline within organizations with aspirations of innovation and market leadership. Leading foresight companies like NTT DATA publish annual Technology Foresight reports to help organizations understand emerging and intersecting technologies driving business innovation.
Just as interesting as looking to the future, however, is studying the prognosticators of the past. What can predictions made years ago and their eventual outcomes tell us about how our own future might unfold? What did they get right or wrong?
Those puzzling questions have given rise to an offshoot of strategic foresight called “paleofuturism,” or retrofuturism, which is the idea we can learn from the successes and failures of earlier futurists to get better at anticipating change.
So what can businesses really learn from paleofuturism? Perhaps the most important, overarching lesson is the future could (and likely will) turn out a lot different than what we expect today.
Consider the tollbooth operator. In the not-so-distant past, futurists predicted the job of roadway coin collector would be replaced by machines. Futuristic visions of tollbooths included humanoid robots with arms that would collect money and issue change. That sounds laughably inefficient compared to today’s frictionless and cashless systems where drivers speed through unobstructed toll plazas as sensors automatically read the cars’ tags and deduct fees electronically.
Why were yesteryear’s futurists so far off the mark? Their biggest mistake was thinking too conservatively. They often based their predictions on the advancement of a single technology (e.g. robotic arms replacing humans), rather than considering the entire ecosystem might be reengineered.
With the velocity of business and technological change advancing at an ever-increasing pace, we must think beyond the application of individual technologies and solve business challenges holistically with a broad vision for the future.
Prepare to change course
Just as business leaders thought beyond the robotic tollbooth arm to arrive at a completely automated toll system, organizations should think in terms of removing customer friction points, automating and optimizing business processes to improve the experience and remove costs.
A recent study by NTT DATA Services found one of the leading areas of investment in automation will be in virtual agents for customer service. While 60% have an idea of what to automate, only 14% know what it will take and 17% feel prepared to do so. With such low confidence levels, many companies are likely to delay acting. Meanwhile, disruptive organizations love competitive inaction.
At the same time, paleofuture analysis tells us to broaden our views and think more comprehensively. Forward-thinking organizations may be able to avoid mistakes that doomed companies in the past. Had certain industry leaders used strategic foresight to better anticipate the future and acted upon it, today we might be streaming movies from Blockbuster instead of Netflix and storing our digital pictures in the “Kodak Kloud.”
Now, as we near the end of the 2010s, we live in a reality that would have made Isaac Asimov, author of “I, Robot” (1950) proud. Many tedious or difficult jobs are done by robots instead of humans. We’re talking to computers in natural, conversational tones and we can find out virtually anything we want to know within seconds.
As artificial intelligence, machine learning, and neural networks continue to improve and become pervasive, we can only imagine how those capabilities will become exponentially more powerful. Business leaders in every industry must assume the coming years will bring some life-altering developments that enable them to reshape the way we buy, sell, commute, work, learn, eat, sleep, and everything else.
What we think of today as “the next big thing” could very well go the way of rocket mail and humanoid robot tollbooth workers. But there’s one thing we can say with absolute certainty: we need to be ready to have our minds blown.
Doug Reeder is Senior Director of Innovation, Office of the CTO, NTT DATA Services.