July saw the Edinburgh University Business School alumni conference, the topic this year being futurology and “Trends”.
It started off with a panel discussion on “Futurology”, in which all three speakers were very careful not to talk about the future. They did though have much to say that was interesting about the past and present, and what that might mean for the future…
Murray Calder told a great story of American Scotch whisky salesmen asking why it wasn’t possible to simply make some more… of a 25 year old malt! Coming from an industry where current possibilities are clearly shaped by decisions made years – decades – before, Murray described the future as a range of outcomes and opportunities – I pictured the diagrams used by the Bank of England to describe possible inflation rates.
Looked at this way, the future is necessarily contingent – possibilities looking like quantum maps rather than binary outcomes. And as we are all too frequently reminded, the past is no predictor of future performance (though it may be the best model we have!). Murray described the future in Darwinian terms: those best adapted to change are likely to survive.
Alan Fowler similarly viewed the future as a range of options – but options which we can shape. By taking control and envisaging the future we wanted to create, he proposed “backcasting” to work out how to get there. For organisations, tying in strategy and workstreams to the hoped-for future could lead to big rewards; it also needed constant re-planning, since of course the starting point will have changed the moment one finishes planing. (He expanded this in his talk later in the day – the Isochron website outlines their approach to change management.)
William Nelson also concentrated on clients’ strategic objectives. Starting from a quantitative perspective, his clients want – need – narratives that they can work with: stories that can help define their future. (Francesca Elston recently wrote eloquently on the power of stories to shape our thoughts.) The need to create compelling narrative to help effect change is a powerful story of its own. Interestingly, Nelson also said that PR people and journalists need facts rather than the general story: they want solid information, despite there being a lot of evidence that journalists don’t know what to do with data.
They were each asked to identify the top trends they saw emerging; all picked some variation on mobile technology and social interaction. For Murray, “social” was nothing new, but we had access to new tools to accomplish these interactions; as mobile devices become ubiquitous, access to information and networks changes the way we behave in social situations, on- and offline. (We must all have seen people sitting in a bar with their friends – all interacting with people elsewhere through their mobile smartphohes.) Google, Wikipedia and IMDB have killed many old-form pub conversations…
Willie reckoned that smartphones have the capacity to become universal controls in our homes, allowing us to interact with otherwise “dumb” tools like central heating through an interactive hub. His really interesting take on this was that it would probably be a utility firm like British Gas which would get first mover advantage on this, not a technology giant or an ISP. Technology firms have been predicting the “internet of things” for a long while – Microsoft thinks we’ll have thinking mobiles, 3d screens and wholly integrated lives whilst Ericsonn foresees sentient hoovers, bickering cookers and interactive tv – all vying for our attention – and they may be right (at least for a tiny percentage on the top of the ladder); but I agree with Willie that using our phones to switch on the heating when we’re on the bus home or switching on lights at home when we’re away on holiday seems a much more likely future for most.
Willie’s other key trend was the changing structure of families – as cohabitation and divorce become more common, different ways of organising in social structures may emerge. (I have friends who talk about “their family of choice” – albeit that’s what I think I call friends…) As people marry or settle down later (if at all), and the economy continues its sideways slide, different ways of organising homes might increase – such as “co-living” or (for the less well-off?) squatting (the latter especially if the sympathy for the Occupy movement and the opprobrium heaped on rich bankers continue). Willie looked at both these trends in more detail in a later session.
Alan’s take was somewhat different: he saw mobile technology disrupting as well as strengthening social interactions, to the extent that it could damage community. (At these point all those who see “online community” as the future will be throwing their arms up in disgust.) He definitely saw technology increasing the gap between the “haves” and the “have-nots” – the government certainly sees access to technology as a driver of economic growth – and those without access by economic situation, location or choice are at risk of getting left behind. Alan foresaw an increasing gap between those at the front edge of technological innovation and those at the back.
The questions raised many more issues, such as
- is democracy hard wired to think short term only – politicians rarely have a horizon beyond the next election (although Alan pointed that in his experience working with the public sector, ministers and their civil servants are often involved in considering the impact of policies and planning for decades ahead)
- envisioning the future often leads to its crystallisation – we create our own futures (the point of Alan’s session in the afternoon – a way of making that happen)
- technological change prompts behavioural change – but behavioural change takes a lot of time, and may happen in ways that are not foreseen
- “the future” needs defining – it starts now; unless something catastrophic happens tomorrow will be much like today for nearly all of us – so it makes sense to keep doing what works today (though continuing to be adaptable to change)
- large organisations don’t seem adept at managing the unforeseen – catastrophic outages at RBS in June and O2 in July were surprising in that backup plans didn’t seem to work
The main takeaway message was never make predictions – because you’ll be wrong – but coming at trends laterally and challenging the assumptions may produce some interesting ideas.
I went to three other sessions: one each by Alan and Willie, and another by a digital agency, entitled “Digital Futures: Trends in Social Media”. They did discuss trends in social media, but they didn’t discuss the future at all: everything covered already existed, even if some of the content may have been new to some attendees. William Gibson is quoted as saying “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed” – maybe it’s just difficult picking out which future will actually come to be.