Four Questions for Forecasting the Future of Science and Technology
By Bradley Kreit
In 2020’s research for IFTF Vantage — Institute for the Future’s cross-industry, global partnership focused on developing strategic foresight for the coming decade — one of our key research questions was: How will organizations integrate advances in science and technology to reinvent core parts of their operations?
In IFTF’s technology futures work we combine expertise from across technical domains, the social sciences, and the business landscape to sense not just the emerging technological landscape, but the broader impacts of those advances. There are four questions that enable us to build a perspective from the bottom up, look expansively, and then focus in on which innovations really matter.
Research maps like this one, “Organizing for Future Readiness: Anticipating the Future of Science and Technology”, are the result of answering four questions.
1. What technical advances are likely to emerge in the next decade?
In virtually every technology project I’ve been involved with in my 11 years at IFTF, we start with a basic question, to set a constraint and help narrow our focus: What kinds of advances do technical experts anticipate seeing in the coming decade? We have a team of internal researchers who analyze this question on an ongoing basis. They augment their own understanding in various ways — expert interviews, workshops, reading white papers and journal articles, and more — to gain a clear sense of how underlying technical underpinnings, such as battery technology or sensor technology, are likely to evolve. Starting with this question ensures that we avoid imagining fantastic possibilities that aren’t technically feasible.
2. What will these advances enable?
This may sound a lot like the first question, but explicitly framing it as a separate question helps us avoid immediately jumping to implications, great changes, or shadow scenarios. It reminds us that technical advances themselves are neutral and enable many different good and bad use cases. For example, the Zoom backgrounds feature can be used for fun — or to loop a video of yourself pretending to listen to avoid meetings. Innovations emerging in 2030 will similarly be repurposed in lots of different ways, some with unforeseen consequences. (Insider’s tip: One IFTF Foresight Essentials tool to facilitate this is Headline the Future, where you generate pithy future news headlines. But rather than coming up with a sensational headline, you should opt for a much more mundane headline. And pose the question, “What would this look like in a technical journal or trade publication of the future?”)
3. How will discrete technologies be combined in creative ways?
Once we have a set of emerging capabilities, we can then move beyond looking at technologies in isolation to understand them in combination. The basic insight here is that, much as today’s technologists combine discrete advances into compelling products and services, innovators will do this kind of combinatorial work in the future. We often begin the combinatorial process with a “yes, and” mentality — that is, with an understanding that the goal is to be exploratory and consider lots of different potential applications before throwing anything out. For our 2020 work in IFTF Vantage, we looked not only at digital technology, but also looked across at innovations in materials, biology, and energy to identify a wide range of possible combinations.
4. What are the compelling use cases?
While considering lots of possibilities is an essential practice in futures thinking, developing a strategically valuable point of view demands that we also put strong filters on which ideas we highlight in our finished work. In our 2020 work in IFTF Vantage, we did this by looking at how combinations of technology would create new ways for organizations to operate across five functions: planning, logistics, R&D, collaboration, and performance. For each of these functions, our goal was to consider a wide variety of potential combinations and then hone in on the small number of compelling combinations that don’t just represent incremental improvements in the short-term but point toward much larger opportunities — and will take a much longer timeframe to realize.
For example, one of our collaboration forecasts focused on the concept of deploying digital agents in the workplace. Building on the near ubiquity of digital assistants like Alexa and Siri in today’s world, this forecast challenges our partners to consider a future in which digital assistants aren’t just tools to help play music or get the weather forecast, but provide sophisticated interfaces for workplace collaboration — much like a human colleague. On a one-year time horizon, it’s unlikely that we’ll fundamentally remake the ways we use digital assistants; yet, stretched over a ten year time horizon, it’s hard not to imagine that we’ll cooperate with digital agents in much more fluid, open-ended ways as part of the day-to-day process of getting work done.
For our audience in IFTF Vantage — which consists of approximately 50 partner organizations spanning industry and geography — our findings need to have broad applicability for functions like planning, R&D, HR, marketing, and product development. But you can use this four-step approach to focus in on a single industry, organization, or another more discrete topic. The goal is to build a bridge between the familiar things your audience works on and the unfamiliar landscape of the future, to help them draw connections between their current work and longer-term threats and opportunities that they should pay attention to.