Our interest in the future is increasing and it’s increasing rapidly. Everybody wants to know what a “near-future” world of artificial intelligence, robots and blockchain will look like.
Stories about “smart machines” and “singularity” (the moment when the capacities of an AI “super-intelligence” surpass are own) are always fascinating. The imagined future of sci-fi movies and TV shows has never seemed so close.
And yet, it remains a tricky task to make predictions about the future. Especially for someone, like me, who takes a (generally) positive view of technology-driven social change. Whenever I speak at conferences and other events about how the digital age is changing the way we live, work and learn, there are always people in the audience who are skeptical.
Some of these skeptics refer to “bad” stories about technology.
For instance, cryptocurrency fraud or the dangers of a super-intelligent AI. For them, the key issue is controlling technology now to avoid catastrophe tomorrow.
A second group of skeptics are those who think that all this talk about “how technology will change the world” is just hype.
They believe that nothing much will change (at least in the short- to medium-term) and that “future talk” is wasted energy. Better to focus on tackling today’s problems, rather than engage in idle speculation about an unknowable tomorrow.
I think it is important to listen to such skepticism, even if I don’t always agree.
And, recently, I have begun to think that everyone may be asking the wrong question.
While preparing for a talk about what our working lives will look like in 2030, I realized that instead of making predictions about the future, it might be smarter to ask: “What should we be doing now to prepare for the future?”.
We shouldn’t be asking “What will 2030 bring?”, but “What will bring us to 2030?”. “What must I do now to be better prepared for tomorrow?”
What must I do now to help design a better future?
Why Predicting the Future is Out
The development and adoption of new technologies is quicker than ever. We live in an age of the exponential growth of multiple technologies. I genuinely believe that the effects of new technology are very real and that ignoring or denying such change is naïve and, potentially, irresponsible.
Take automation. Automation doesn’t only have an impact on manual work. Knowledge workers are also being affected. Computers, software and algorithms are not only augmenting our knowledge and experience, but they’re also replacing more and more office jobs that involve standardized or procedural work.
The very pace of this change means that we have much less time to understand, get used to and adapt to new technologies.
But something else is also going on. We now live in a world where more and more technologies are simply “beyond” human understanding.
As such, we need to accept that the fast speed and uncertain direction of technology-driven social change makes “predicting” the future a difficult, even impossible, exercise.
Let’s put it this way: the task of predicting the future is probably best left to the world of fiction (novels, TV and film) where the accuracy of any prediction is much less important than the richness of the world that is portrayed. Orwell’s 1984, for instance, was — in many ways — a poor prediction of the future but it remains powerful and relevant even today.
“Futurists” should resist the temptation to “predict” where we will be in ten or twenty years’ time from now, even if we believe that the world will be radically different from today.
What Should We Be Focusing On?
What does seem clear is that the world is revolving more and more around technology and data. The winning companies of today already embrace these two ingredients, and it is clear that other companies need to follow suit. At least, this appears to be the smart thing to do.
In that sense, “technology” and “data” are transforming the way the economy works. We hear more and more about “new” economy models. Here are just some examples.
The Platform Economy
Digital technologies change the way businesses are organized. Instead of hierarchical and asset-heavy companies, we see more and more flatter companies with less assets and employees. Coordination of the assets and workers isn’t done by managers, but technology. This means that organizations can be become more open, more like communities or networks (think Airbnb).
The Sharing Economy
Digital technology enables the sharing of under-utilized assets and peer-to-peer transactions (think Uber).
The Circular Economy
Digital technologies encourage companies to move from selling “products” to offering “services”. The emphasis shifts from ownership to access to the service. This means that business models will change, and companies are forced to collaborate and partner more with parties outside their industries. A focus on services also means that there is more focus on “refurbishing”, “parts harvesting” and “recycling”.
So, How Can We “Act Now to Prepare for Tomorrow”?
So, what can be done? Too many times, people and organizations are adopting a “just talk (no action)” strategy. Here are three practical steps that I think everyone (and every organization) needs to take in order to act now to better prepare for tomorrow.
As a first step, preparing for tomorrow means identifying and understanding the core technologies, processes and values that are driving the new economy. By this I am not only thinking of artificial intelligence, robots, and blockchain (more generally, automation), it is also important to better understand “social media”, crowd behavior and data analytics. Studying the building blocks of our new world is a vital first step.
As a second step, all of us need to think about the new roles that are emerging and our own place in this new digital order. How are existing “jobs” already changing? What skills do we need to perform these new jobs? And how can I develop my own skill set in such a way as to make a meaningful contribution that adds value?
And, as a third step, we need to focus on developing our own personal story and projecting our own unique personal brand. As mentioned in numerous posts on Medium, storytelling has become a very important skill again. And it isn’t only about companies and organizations, it’s also about the individual.
In this way, we can shift our focus from making predictions about the future to designing a better future.
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