How well can futurology help strategists identify the most important upcoming business trends and hottest new technologies? Although no one can predict the future, an enlightened approach toward forecasting can lead to ‘good’ decisions even if it generates ‘bad’ forecasts.
That was the message from Bob Johansen, pioneer futurologist and president of the Institute for the Future, an independent non-profit based in Menlo Park, Ca. At the Wharton Conference, “Peripheral Vision: Sensing & Acting on Weak Signals,” held on May 2, Johansen explained his approach to futurology while identifying his vision of how the “core” and “periphery” will be defined in coming decades. His presentation was called “Scanning Technology Horizons.”
Ever since it was established in 1968, Johansen’s institute has been trying to make sense of the future. “We do foresight to help people develop insights that help them take action,” Johansen said. “We are the only futures group that has outlived its own forecasts.”
Johansen hastened to add that while futurologists can’t predict the future, “it is possible to have a bad [inaccurate] forecast and still make a good decision” on the basis of that forecast. The key is to devise an enlightened approach to making projections. “You need strong opinions that are weakly held, so you can engage in dialogue … Technologists take 30 years to be an overnight success. The next successful technology is one that failed 20 years ago.”
Like other speakers at the conference, Johansen stressed that the lines that traditionally divided categories of technology are blurring because technologies are increasingly converging. As the “core” expands and the “periphery” is continually redefined, it is harder than ever for traditional specialists to manage the process of sensing “relevant” signals and acting on them. For example, old-fashioned categories of technology such as “information,” “materials,” “biology” and “energy” are blurring. Until recently, strategists in “information” industries merely had to monitor trends narrowly defined as “information technology.” Strategists in “bioscience” companies merely monitored trends in “bioscience” companies – and so forth.
As hard as that was, strategists now face a bigger challenge. They must widen their focus and scan data in areas that were long irrelevant – and are still new and often unfamiliar. For example, an emerging core technology of the health economy is “bioinformatics,” which Johansen defined as “seeing living systems through the lens of information technology.” It includes such recently-defined, cross-over disciplines as “genomics,” “proteomics” and “metabolomics.” Thus, strategists in many bioscience companies must now monitor events in the “information” sector, and strategists in information technology companies must scan events in the biosciences.
To clarify further the multiple points of convergence, Johansen displayed The Institute for the Future’s circular map of emerging technologies. The four poles read “Information” (at the North), “Energy” (East), “Biology” (South) and “Materials” (West). The closer a technology is to the center of the chart, the more it involves a merging of two or more categories. Thus, technologies listed at the poles are close to pure plays in those categories: “systems biology” in “biology;” “nanoscience” in materials; “emerging computing” in information and “eco-efficiency” in energy. But the closer a category is to the center of Johansen’s chart, the more it involves an overlapping of traditional categories. Examples of sectors that merge biology and information include bioinformatics, genomics, “proteomics” and molecular medicine. Examples of sectors that blend materials and biology include “biomimetics,” stem cell technology, and biosensors.
The transformation from an “information economy” into a “health economy” is becoming a major economic driver in this convergence, Johansen stressed. “Most of the funding is [currently] in the health care sector,” he added. His examples of convergent technologies in the emerging health economy included:
· Tools for monitoring health, such as biosensors, implants and imaging
· New materials for treatment and prevention, including smart textiles, organic/inorganic interfaces, implants and very small-scale batteries.
Regarding the gradual merger of information technology and life sciences, Johansen noted that “information technology (IT) will no longer be the driver;” the driver will be life sciences. “We will be moving from the electromechanical model [of the Information Economy] back to the organic model.” As a result, “dilemmas” rather than “problems” will be the focus. “IT people are in trouble,” Johansen cautioned. “We are trained to solve problems. But you don’t solve dilemmas; you manage dilemmas.”