By Amy Webb
This article is adapted fromThe Signals Are Talking: Why Today’s Fringe Is Tomorrow’s Mainstream, by Amy Webb. Copyright 2016 by PublicAffairs, an imprint of Perseus Books Group, a division of Hachette Book Group, owned by Hachette Livre, a subsidiary of Lagardère SCA.
Futurists are skilled at listening to and interpreting signals, which are harbingers of what’s to come. They look for early patterns — pre-trends, if you will — as the scattered points on the fringe converge and begin moving toward the mainstream. The fringe is that place where hackers are experimenting, academics are testing their ideas, technologists are building new prototypes, and so on. Futurists know most patterns will come to nothing, so they watch and wait and test the patterns to find those few that will evolve into genuine trends. Each trend is a looking glass into the future, a way to see over time’s horizon. This is forecasting: simultaneously recognizing patterns in the present and thinking about how those changes will impact the future so that you can be actively engaged in building what happens next — or at least be less surprised by what others develop. Forecasting is a learnable skill, and a process any organization can master.
Joseph Voros, a theoretical physicist and professor at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, Australia, offers my favorite explanation of future forecasting, saying it informs strategy making by enriching the “context within which strategy is developed, planned, and executed.” The advantage of forecasting the future in this way is obvious. Organizations that can see trends early enough to act can gain a first-mover advantage. They can also help shape the broader context, keenly understanding how developments in seemingly unconnected industries will affect them. Most organizations that track emerging trends are adept at conversing and collaborating with those in other fields to plan ahead.
While futures forecasting is a professional and academic discipline going back more than 100 years, few companies employ futurists. That’s starting to change as more leaders become familiar with the work futurists do. Accenture, Ford, Google, IBM, Intel, Samsung, and UNESCO all have futurists on staff, whose work is quite different from what happens within the traditional R&D function.
The futurists at these organizations know that their tools are best used within a group — and that the group’s composition matters tremendously to the outcomes they produce. Within every organization are people whose dominant characteristic is either creativity or logic. If you’ve been on a team that includes both groups and didn’t have a great facilitator during your meetings, you probably clashed. If it was an important project and there were strong personalities representing each side, the creative people felt as though their contributions were being discounted, while the logical thinkers — whose natural talents are in managing processes, projecting budgets, or mitigating risk — felt undervalued because they weren’t coming up with bold new ideas. You undoubtedly had a difficult time staying on track, or worse, you might have spent hours meeting about how to have your next meeting. This is what I call the “duality dilemma.”
The duality dilemma is responsible for a lack of forward thinking at many organizations. It led to the demise of BlackBerry Ltd., which never had an executable plan to remake the phone’s form factor and operating system in the age of the iPhone. Right-brained creatives wanted to make serious changes to the phone, while left-brained process thinkers were fixated on risk and maintaining BlackBerry’s customer base. The future of the company hinged on its ability to bring both forces together to forecast trends and plan for the future.
BlackBerry’s experience suggests that forecasting the future of a product, company, or industry should neither be relegated to inventive visionaries nor mapped entirely by left-brain thinkers. Futures forecasting is meant to unite opposing forces, harnessing both wild imagination and pragmatism.
Turning a Dilemma Into a Dynamic
Overcoming the duality dilemma — and getting full use of your creatives and logicians — in order to track emerging trends and forecast the future is possible. But counterintuitively, it’s a matter of highlighting — rather than discouraging or downplaying — the strengths of each side. The Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford University (also known as “the d.school”) teaches a brainstorming technique that addresses the duality dilemma and illuminates how an organization can harness both strengths in equal measure, alternately broadening (“flaring”) and narrowing (“focusing”) its thinking.
When a team is flaring, it is sourcing inspiration, making lists of ideas, mapping out new possibilities, getting feedback, and thinking big. When it is focusing, those ideas must be investigated, vetted, and decided upon. Flaring asks questions such as “What if?”; “Who could it be?”; “Why might this matter?”; and “What might be the implications of our actions?” Focusing asks “Which option is best?”; “What is our next action?”; and “How do we move forward?”
The forecasting method I have developed — one, of course, influenced by other futurists but different in analysis and scope — is a six-step process that I have refined during a decade of research as part of my work at the Future Today Institute. The first four steps involve finding a trend, while the last two steps inform what action you should then take.
Forecasting Methodology: The Six-Step Funnel
The dynamic of flare and focus is woven through this forecasting methodology. The six steps require teams to alternate between flaring and focusing, harnessing the dominant qualities of the right brain and the left brain. With each step, you are able to understand “the future of x” more clearly as you define a trend, determine the best action to take, and create a strategy that’s pressure tested. When you flare and focus, you are able to overcome the duality dilemma.
Here’s how to use these complementary ways of thinking:
- Flare at the fringe: Keep an open mind as you cast a wide-enough net and gather information without judgment. This involves creating a map showing nodes — or key concepts, companies, places, and people — and the relationships between them and rounding up what you will later refer to as “the unusual suspects.” You’re brainstorming, making a fringe map, forcing yourself to think outside the box and consider radically different points of view.
- Focus to spot patterns: You must narrow your research from the fringe and uncover the patterns hidden in your sketch to spot possible trends. We use a tool called CIPHER, which is an acronym and framework that identifies contradictions, inflections, practices, hacks, extremes, and rarities.
- Flare to ask the right questions: Determine whether a pattern really is a trend, or merely a trendy flash in the pan. You will be tempted to stop looking once you’ve spotted a pattern; most forecasters never force themselves to poke holes into every single assumption and assertion they make. But you will soon learn that creating counterarguments is an essential part of the forecasting process.
- Focus to calculate timing: Interpret the trend and ensure that the timing is right. This isn’t just about finding the typical S-curve that managers rely on — it shows a trend’s adoption, but it does not offer a full picture of how external effects (such as a change in government leadership or a natural disaster) could affect its development. As technology trends move along their trajectory, two forces are in play — internal developments within tech companies, and external developments within the government, adjacent businesses, and the like — and both must be calculated.
- Flare to create scenarios and strategies: Build scenarios to create probable, plausible, and possible futures and accompanying strategies. Probable scenarios assume that there will be no meaningful changes in laws of nature or business as the trend evolves. Plausible scenarios rely on the laws of nature but allow for many other facets of daily life — some that we might not be able to imagine now — to change dramatically. Meanwhile, possible scenarios assume that nothing is set in stone — not even the laws of nature — and that life as we know it could look radically different than it does today. This step requires thinking about both the timeline of a technology’s development and your emotional reactions to all the outcomes. What necessary strategies and ways of thinking will govern how your organization will respond to the trend? You’ll give each scenario a score, and on the basis of your analysis, you will create a corresponding strategy for action.
- Focus to pressure-test your action: But what if the action you choose to take on a trend is the wrong one? In this final step, you must make sure the strategy you create to address a trend will deliver the desired outcome, and that requires asking difficult questions about both the present and the future. These questions should confirm that (1) your organization has confidence in the strategy and will support it; (2) the strategy offers your customers a unique value proposition; (3) you can track the trend and measure your outcomes; (4) the strategy communicates a sense of urgency to your staff and to your intended audience; (5) you have the resources needed to recalibrate the strategy if and when needed; and (6) the strategy is extensible — meaning it is robust enough to easily accommodate change.
Duality in Action
Any organization intent on surviving and thriving into the future must practice both flaring and focusing in whatever methodology it uses to spot trends, and so it is paramount that every team charged with watching and acting on trends must include both creatives and logicians. Organizations that learn how to balance each hemisphere are uniquely positioned to forecast trends and develop strategies that work.
Perhaps the best way to understand the power of dual thinking is to observe it in action, within a company that was deliberately and meticulously composed of both right-brain and left-brain thinkers. The team, and what it’s making, represents this duality in harmony. Creative minds, such as comic book writer Andy Lanning (Guardians of the Galaxy) and graphic artist Dave Gibbons (Watchmen), are working alongside engineers, such as Jean-Yves Bouguet, who, while on Google Inc.’s original Street View team, figured out how to map the indoors. There are software engineers who know how to scan your iris, even from 1,000 feet away, as well as optical engineers and experts in artificial intelligence (AI). They, in turn, work together with game designers and digital artists.
Collectively this right-brain, left-brain group is known as Magic Leap Inc., and it’s inventing an entirely new kind of computing — a virtual world seamlessly interconnected with our physical realm, one in which we may someday hold our work meetings, visit with our relatives, or even go out on first dates. I’ll describe the amazing things Magic Leap is building in a moment, but first let’s understand how the company puts the tools of futurists to work.
Rather than focusing on building yet another virtual reality headset or an augmented reality (AR) app, Magic Leap is actively forecasting the future of what’s known as “mixed reality.” You can think of the Oculus Rift headset, the Microsoft HoloLens, and the Google Cardboard as robust first iterations of this new form of interactivity. Magic Leap is mining what the fringe is building, calculating the trajectory of this and adjacent technology trends, and developing scenarios for what’s plausible in the future. It’s not only doing the forecasting — it’s also building out the platform and prototypes.
The technologies that Magic Leap is building wouldn’t be possible without people whose dominant mental orientation has enabled them to become adept at one or more of the six steps: researchers at the very edge of the fringe; systems engineers, operations managers, and computer scientists who are good at identifying patterns, thinking through processes, and making sure a proposed strategy will work; science fiction and comic book writers who shine when they are imagining wild yet plausible scenarios; strategists who know how to put ideas into action; and business managers who understand budgeting and risk. Magic Leap is capable of forecasting and inventing the future because it has found points of convergence between the two hemispheres, joining those who are skilled at processes, organization, and analysis with those who specialize in speculative fiction, ideation, and fantasy.
If AI promises to bring humanlike thinking to machines, Magic Leap represents a future in which everyday people will effortlessly use complex machine processes as they bridge the digital and physical realms. Imagine an immersive environment where believable, realistic digital elements — family members, plant life, even hobbits — are woven directly into your physical world and where anything you can see can be captured, imported, and automated for your own personal use.
Magic Leap uses several cutting-edge technologies you’re hearing a lot about lately: automation, biohacking, and AI. Whether or not you ever own a Magic Leap device — and whether or not a Magic Leap product is ever sold — what the team is creating represents a sea change in how we think about computing. It has tech investors clamoring to sign deals and journalists transfixed, which may give you pause, given how many promising Silicon Valley startups have failed spectacularly in the past decade.
But Magic Leap isn’t just a few geeky hopeful entrepreneurs working out of their garage in California. It’s a stunning collective of technologists and creatives who have their heads down and sleeves rolled up in a 260,000-square-foot facility on South Florida’s east coast. A deeper look into the technology that Magic Leap is building — and more important for our purposes, how it’s flaring and focusing — reveals how any organization intent on forecasting the future can overcome the duality dilemma.
First, the technology. While virtual reality brings you inside of a preprogrammed digital world, Magic Leap is pursuing a highly sophisticated form of AR. It plans to make a sunglasses-like device. As you sit in your living room, you’ll use it to import your grandmother onto your sofa. She’ll seem real, as if she were sitting across from you — and you’ll appear just as real to her, sitting on her sofa in her living room.
Next, it’s useful to read through some of the patents that Magic Leap has filed — they’re nothing like what you’ve seen before. Within the pages of Magic Leap’s submissions are alternating moments of meticulous focus and wild, inventive flare, making them showpieces for why the company intentionally employs creatives — artists and storytellers — as well as systems engineers, software developers, and operations managers.
Of the more than 50 patents Magic Leap filed between 2013 and the first quarter of 2016, one in particular stands out: Methods and Systems for Creating Virtual and Augmented Reality. Hundreds of pages long, the patent is a mishmash of engineering math, AI and AR formulas, and good old-fashioned sci-fi exposition. For example, look at what’s described in the “Digital Humans” section of the patent, subsection 1612:
The AR system may allow users to interact with digital humans. . . . [A] user may walk into an abandoned warehouse, but the space may become populated with digital humans such that it resembles a bank. The user may walk up to a teller who may be able to look at the user’s eyes and interact with him/her. Because the system tracks the user’s eyes, the AR system can render the digital human such that the digital human makes eye contact with the user.
What this implies is that in the future, we could do our banking in a digital environment, with digital avatars of real people, none of whom are located in the same place at the same time. You might live in South Bend, Indiana, and have access to a world-class money manager who prefers to operate out of Iwate Prefecture in northern Japan. Your desire for human connection, especially during sensitive transactions like banking, could be satiated via AR.
Further down in the patent documentation is a section on “transaction-assistance configurations,” which includes numerous use cases for shopping and marketing:
Since the system may be utilized to track the eye, it can also allow “one glance” shopping. That is, the user may simply look at an object (say a robe in a hotel) and create a stipulation such as, “I want that, when my account goes back over $3,000.” When a user views a particular object of interest, similar products may also be displayed virtually to the user.
There have been plenty of prototypes for glance-based shopping, but none that have imagined this kind of utility. This technology combines security, bank account information, shopping, and a digital habit many people have formed — bookmarking items and saving them for later — into one application. It’s a combination of flaring and focusing, one that could provide great utility to users.
The patent also includes many sections on how the system could take data from our everyday lives and automatically create a story with it to help us make better decisions. Again, none of these scenarios could have been developed by right- or left-brain thinkers alone. This is what futurists do best in a group: We share knowledge with one another, observe the relationships between a core trend (AR) and other key trends (big data, AI, automation), and help one another understand how emerging technologies connect and conspire. You can see this process in action within the patent:
The AR system may render a “plant” or any other virtual content whose form, shape or characteristics may change based on the user’s behavior. For example, the AR system may render a plant that blooms when the user exhibits “good” behavior and wither away when the user does not. The users may, for example, encode the color, shape, leaves, flowers, etc., of the plant with their respective status. If a user is overworked, the respective plant could appear withered. If a user is unhappy, the leaves of the respective plant could fall off. If the user has a lack of resources, the leaves of the respective plant that represents the user may turn brown, etc. The users may provide their respective plants to a leader (e.g., manager, CEO). The leader can place all the plants in a virtual garden. This provides the leader with a high-bandwidth view of the organization, through the general color or concept of a garden. Such graphical illustration of problems facilitates visual recognition of problems or lack thereof with the organization.
In reading through Magic Leap’s patents, it’s obvious that both the technology and the people within the company are engaging in both flared and focused thinking, and using the dual hemispheres in a complementary way:
Flare at the fringe: The team is observing the fringe to learn about experimentation, new research, and fresh ideas. Without unfettered, unabashed flaring to develop improbable ideas from the fringe, there would be no basis for Magic Leap to explore a new frontier of human-machine interfaces.
Focus to spot patterns: Futurists look for signals in the noise to understand what’s emanating from the fringe. Without focus, those disparate ideas would never coalesce as recognizable patterns to help formulate a trend hypothesis for the future. That trend hypothesis is critical to developing this new form of human-machine computing.
Flare to ask the right questions: Poking holes into all assumptions and assertions would reveal any potential problems, allowing Magic Leap engineers to tweak, recalibrate, and improve their work.
Focus to calculate timing: Analysis would reveal where the future of AR was along its trajectory, along with what internal tech developments and external events were worthy of attention. Futurists and those closely following the field know that AR is not yet ready for mass consumption. The technology and AR ecosystem are still in the very early stages of development.
Flare to create scenarios and strategies: Magic Leap’s writers and creatives flare to build scenarios describing all the ways in which we might one day use AR.
Focus to pressure-test your action: And finally, those at Magic Leap in charge of turning those fictional scenarios into reality focus to pressure-test proposed actions and to think through the outcomes that might result. Perhaps this is why we haven’t seen a Magic Leap headset in stores yet — this isn’t a team rushing to market before it’s ready.
Clearly, Magic Leap isn’t just building a fancy set of shades. It is building the foundation for a new kind of computing and a new era of human-machine interaction, one in which all the technologies that many organizations are starting to become familiar with — automation, neural networks and AI, deep learning — would dramatically change how we interact with computers and with one another.
You may never wear a Magic Leap headset that renders an AR garden of your employees’ virtual plants. Magic Leap’s technology may not reach a commercial market in the near future. I can assure you, however, that fringe thinkers have pored through this and Magic Leap’s other patents, which have inspired them to work on AR projects of their own. Those at the fringe, inspired by Magic Leap’s patents, are now beginning their own cycles of flaring and focusing. In the years to come, others will build on their work, too, as our socio-technological evolution loops around and around again.
Patent filings don’t mean that the processes and products described will ever be put into commercial use — but patents are a key component of flaring at the fringe. Indeed, there are never any completely new technologies invented out of whole cloth. Our technology trends, their adoption for use in business, and the cultural, political, educational, and economic shifts that happen concurrently are all interwoven. Our tapestry of invention is part of an infinite continuum. The tools may change — from hands, to weavers, to Luddite-protested automatic machines, to algorithms and robots, to self-generating synthetic organics — but the previous corpus of research always becomes the basis for fresh thinking at the fringe. With this is mind, patent filings represent a great place for you and your team to start, as you flare and focus in pursuit of the future. The future is something we are creating now, in the present tense. You have the ability not only to forecast what’s to come but to create your own preferred future. Don’t wait.
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This content was originally published by MIT Sloan Management Review. Original publishers retain all rights. It appears here for a limited time before automated archiving. By MIT Sloan Management Review