As most businesses know, staying competitive often means “seeing into the future” — as in trying to figure out what the next trends, needs, and musts will be. As in thinking about new innovations, making groundbreaking discoveries, and laying alternative paths. But what are the forces that shape innovation and can we really predict the future?

There are of course think tanks and professional prognosticators whose job it is to try to figure out what the future will bring and what it means for everything from investment and technology, to education and general living conditions. Companies and countries alike dedicate lots of resources to research and development (R&D) to try to stay ahead of the curve and be competitive. In 2018, some $553 billion was spent in the US alone on R&D, and globally, more than $2 trillion was invested in technological development and innovation.  

The Framework for Thinking of Trends of the Future

How we predict the future and the role technology plays is a topic that comes up often when speaking to business leaders and innovators. While technology is usually at the center of these kinds of discussions, it’s the process for predicting what the future might look like that typically becomes the central issue. Because, it turns out, understanding the future is not about making predictions so much as it is about considering what the consequences will be — that’s where the opportunities for innovation lie, that’s where needs will have to be met. 

Understanding the needs of the future takes methodical work — it means thinking about the next product or service in a larger context, it requires imagining the desires of customers and deciphering what the evolution of technology means and how it will impact us going forward. 

An Example — Millennials vs Generation Z 

An example used to illustrate what goes into trying to make predictions is the current generational shift that is taking place between Millennials (born between 1981-1996) and Gen Z (born between 1997-2012). Because “generational preferences” are borne out of the reality of the everyday, the question for the prognosticator is: “What similar sets of trends can you see emerging when looking at the bigger picture?”.

Many agree that the overarching issue for Gen Z is climate change. It will have an impact on most aspects of life for this generation, including some of life’s biggest decisions, such as what to do for a living, where they’ll be able to live, and even having kids. Climate change might impact such things as if they drive cars, or if air travel is viable. It might dictate how they are able to spend time outdoors.

Another reality for Gen Z is information control and privacy concerns, along with what some call “radical globalization”, by which is typically meant the increase in global connectivity between people. 

For someone trying to predict the future, the interesting question is: What are the consequences of these sets of circumstances?

The Consequences

Using the generational shift example, possible consequences could be an increasing number of people working from home, using technology for connecting online. Another one could be that the data stream (collected online) that is currently informing a lot of innovation will become hampered by people refusing to share data, and be polluted by the highly curated content that is currently being shared/collected on platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. Again, for someone trying to get a read on the future, the question is: What are the long term consequences of these behaviors?

The Future has Already Happened

When talking about Gen Z, it’s hard not to mention education. This is a generation where the first college graduates have just emerged. One area where the “generational preference” is already being noticed is on college applications where it’s become increasingly common to fill out “preferred pronoun” rather than “sex” — it’s a direct reflection of this generation’s understanding of gender fluidity. 

While this may seem like an insignificant detail, the effects of this kind of mind-shift may actually be great. Over time, the implications will reach far beyond a checkmark on an application, and will impact (and in many instances are already being discussed) areas such as competitive sports, the courts, the military, as well as data collection and analysis, just to name a few. Staying relevant in business means adapting to this shift. The gender pronoun question serves as a good example of what the concept of “looking at the consequences” means.  

Understanding what the future will bring is a subject that has few givens but endless possibilities. And with that in mind, it’s probably fair to say that there is no way to predict the future, there are, however, many ways to forecast it. 

By: Felicia Shermis


U.S. News and World Report


TIME Magazine

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