The Future Ain’t What It Used To Be

For those that have taken the thought leadership course focused on our emerging future, thank you. For those that may have interest, the course will run for the next 10 months. In this post, I will summarize the key messages from the course.

Yogi Berra is credited for once saying that the future ain’t what it used to be. What a perfect way to describe what is coming: a complete change in the way we think about the future. Our journey to the future begins with a look back. A convergence of multiple forces during a special century following the U.S. Civil War established the standard of living in developed economies. Some believe that we will never see a convergence of forces as dramatic and impactful as that which occurred during this period. I pulled this wheel together to capture that convergence across the various areas of our well-being, leveraging the work of economist Robert J. Gordon. I captured his thinking in a recent post titled Revolution and the Innovation Wheel.

Fast forward to 2017. We are seeing exponential convergence across the areas of science, technology, economics, society, ethics, and politics. The combinatorial nature of an overwhelming number of building blocks drives an accelerating intersection across these areas. It is this combinatorial and exponential dynamic that I believe ushers in human histories third major tipping point (the first two being hunter-gatherer to agriculture and agriculture to industrial).

I have been using an anchor visual to describe this emerging future. I’ll build towards that visual to describe the components. The first two areas that are converging, exploding and fueling each other are science and technology. We have entered the second half of the chess board, where an endless supply of building blocks fuels combinatorial innovation. The second half of the chessboard is a phrase coined by Ray Kurzweil an American author, inventor, futurist, and director of engineering at Google. As Kurzweil explains, once you reach the second half of the chessboard, changes are exponential. Each new square doubling that of the previous. Moore’s Law is said to have entered the second half of the chess board in 2013. A good description can be found here.

A curve was chosen as the anchor for the visual to express the notion that innovation is emerging so rapidly that it changes the nature of horizon planning. The emergent nature of value through the rapid combination of building blocks adds a speed and uncertainty dimension that makes it difficult to see (the curve goes off into distant places). Seeing, therefore, becomes a critical component of any future thinking framework. The foundation of this convergence is digital. The primary digital components are still viewed in isolation as opposed to the third IT platform, but they will converge to form this platform.

Converging onto the foundation are many emerging innovation accelerators. These accelerators and the ones that follow, take our IT platform to a general-purpose technology platform (GPTP). This phenomenon is described in greater detail here. A GPTP has historically been the driver of past revolutions.

Several future accelerators are likely to appear on the horizon, some in the near term and others off into the future. As mentioned, it is impossible to predict when or if these innovations reach tipping points. It is safe to assume however that the speed at which they progress will increase.

As science and technology converge, they are enabling many future scenarios. The path of these scenarios is influenced by social, political and economic forces — and a growing ethical conversation. One of the biggest leadership challenges of this century is understanding and managing the implications of these scenarios and others on humanity.

These two curves — extending beyond our ability to see — are driving societal change, and reacting to societal forces. For example, scientific and technological innovation are increasingly driven by techno-philanthropists that are determined to solve some of the world’s greatest challenges. Look at the mission statement of Singularity University: Our mission is to educate, inspire, and empower leaders to apply exponential technologies to address humanity’s grand challenges. In this case, the progression on our curves is driven by the wealth and societal focus of individuals. On the other hand, the curves are changing society, as societal shifts like the move from ownership to access are driven my innovation across the curves.

Collectively, this convergence of science, technology, and societal forces builds the path to our future. When you pull it all together, you get the anchor visual that I have used to tell this story. The first curve spawns the second, influencing the path of society, while at the same time, influenced by it.

Convergence is not confined to the individual curves. As future scenarios accelerate and mature, convergence increasingly occurs across the curves. These forces will combine and intersect in ways that accelerate and amplify their impact. This visual has received its share of positive and negative feedback. The intent is to portray the complexity of not just seeing the dots, but connecting them in ways that help us understand the new scenarios that may emerge, and the implications of those connections.

The ultimate question is this: will the convergence in this century replicate or surpass the societal impact that convergence enabled in the special century? I developed this expanded innovation wheel to map the elements of our curves to the various areas of our well-being. Overlaying those components on top of the original wheel. Not only do I believe we have the potential to improve our standard of living, but I believe we can enable global parity. The opposite is also true. These same innovations have the potential to diminish our humanity, requiring us to Balance the Opposing Forces of Innovation.

The final piece of our emerging future story is the likely Collapse of Traditional Structures. As we journey forward, the institutions and structures that were built for a different era will collapse. Our purpose orientation will pave the way to new structures, as horizontal ecosystems replace our vertical constructs. As platform business models are embraced for their growth potential, ecosystems will form around those platforms. The resulting fragmentation ultimately leads to consolidation. It is my belief that this consolidation leads to a finite set of ecosystems that replace our current industry constructs.

Originally published at on July 14, 2017.

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