Forecasting the future is a fun exercise. I like to ask the question, “what about our work and lives today will feel ridiculous ten plus years from now?” What about the future will feel obvious in retrospect?
Future forecasts are not an investment thesis because innovations, no matter how exciting they are, won’t happen until the present is ready for them (and this is why the best investors are more insightful about the present than they are about the future). But if you’re a product leader, entrepreneur, or very early-stage investor, future thinking tunes your attention and instincts. It also helps you determine whether a team is attempting to defy a likely outcome or make it happen in a better way.
This year I shared some early thoughts on Twitter and solicited other ideas, which I have incorporated and attributed across the 8 themes below. I have also tried to connect some of my work and investments to these themes, which has been an interesting exercise.
- Disruptive interfaces will wreak havoc across segments of e-commerce and on-demand services.
- Local city transit will improve by a step-function as government takes over autonomous transportation.
- A final death blow to analog ways of living as everyday actions are modernized and go mobile.
- Efficiencies and environmentally-sound practices go mainstream as lower costs and ease of consumption align with environmental consciousness.
- A new era of personalization that antiquates generalized products and services.
- A “great awakening” from what we learn about ourselves that will transform our lives.
- We’ll want stronger relationships, fewer loose connections.
- Artificial intelligence will protect us more than we ever expected.
Let’s jump in.
(1) Disruptive interfaces will wreak havoc across segments of e-commerce and on-demand services.
This is a trend I have been following for sometime and recently wrote about. As modern interfaces like voice remove options, augmented reality overlays our physical world, and artificial intelligence gains our trust by transcending our own reasoning, defaults will rule our lives and interfaces will compete against one another. I’ve come to call them disruptive interfaces — “drastically simpler and more accessible interfaces that ultimately commoditize everything underneath.” Consider some of the implications as modern interfaces like voice and AR go mainstream:
- Today, we choose between brands like Uber and Lyft or Energizer and Duracell. But as modern interfaces emerge with powerful defaults, we’ll simply request a ride or refill of batteries and get the (alleged) cheapest and fastest option by default. In such a world, will we look back at the era of so many choices influenced by brand with disbelief?
- In a world where we’re experiencing our surroundings through the lens of our cameras (or special AR glasses), “in-camera” purchases (offers we receive during augmented reality experiences) will be the new “in-app” purchases. Perhaps we’ll look back 10+ years from now with disbelief that we purchased anything without examining it in 3D? This begs the question of whether hardware providers like Apple and Google will capture a percentage of these purchases?
- Will we someday look back at the “raw world” before everything was “edited” by AR? Imagine the benefits of augmented reality editing our daily lives to block ads and visibly discourage us from consuming too much sugar or carbs! Will the “raw world” we live in today look antiquated ten years from now? In such a world, will our “phones” simply be mobile battery packs that connect to cellular networks and provide some “local” storage for security and identity purposes only?
- Other insights: Responding to my thread on Twitter on the topic of AR, Cameron Cundiff noted how ridiculous it will feel “that we used two-dimensional, mostly visual maps for way-finding, without augmentation with virtual landmarks, tactile feedback, and spatial audio.” I agree. We’ll become dependent on navigating life with an augmented layer of information over every person and place we encounter, and this three-dimensional experience will be animated and interactive in ways we can only imagine. I’ve been pretty focused on the building blocks for this future in my role at Adobe. The AR world will require deep integrations between products for 3D rendering (like Dimension), animation (like After Effects), and new products for editing 3D assets and “placing them in the real world” (like Project Aero). And voice-driven worlds will require new tools to design voice interfaces, like AdobeXD (free, check it out!), made possible by our recent acquisition of NYC-based Sayspring.
(2) Local city transit will improve by a step-function as government takes over autonomous transportation.
I continue to believe that autonomous transportation, at least within city limits, will ultimately become a public utility, much like the subways, running water, and electricity. As transportation data in cities becomes the ultimate asset for scheduling and managing autonomous vehicles, it is much more probable that cities will operate autonomous vehicles and restrict access to main roads than a world where tons of privately owned autonomous vehicles using independent data sets roam the public streets.
- Of course, many people think that the idea of manual driving will be archaic. My colleague Ed Albro suggested “Driving cars ourselves, except as recreation” will feel ridiculous in the 10+ year timeframe. Ben Gilbert added how strange it will be “that we thought autonomous vehicles could be too dangerous.” And Julia DeWal clearly anticipates an evolution in the design of “streets” as we know them, remarking that we’ll look back in disbelief “that riding a bike or scooter to get around the city was dangerous (manual driving cars, insufficient bike lanes).”
- If Transportation data becomes a public asset, I can see companies like Remix Software (a company I work with) that focus on bus/vehicle route planning, scheduling, and data management becoming more important players in urban transportation. If autonomous transportation does become more of a public utility, what does this mean for today’s ride-sharing companies like Uber (certainly thriving in the near-term, but will Uber need to build services on top of it’s platform, like UberEats and other services like grocery delivery, to stay differentiated?).
(3) A final death blow to analog ways of living as everyday actions are modernized and go mobile.
This one goes without saying, but the surprising thing is just how long it has taken for everyday life to be improved through readily accessible technology. In ten years, what about today will we recall with disbelief?
- “That we plugged in nearly every electronic device around us” — Blaine Sheldon. It is amazing how dependent we are on outlets and wires these days. Will Apple’s AirPower ship in 2019? Rumor is that the delays are due to the unique charging coil designs required to charge different types of products on the same array.
- “Cables!” — Andrew Allen Let’s hope so, my travel bag makes me feel like a cable salesman these days.
- “That you needed physical keys to enter homes and exchanged pieces of paper called ‘checks’ as a meta representation of currency” — Antonio Altamirano Well, August (now acquired by Assa Abloy) among many other digital lock companies have allowed us to “go keyless,” now it’s just a matter of mass adoption. Companies like AirBnB could help accelerate this transition. As for “checks,” what a striking remnant of the last century, huh? Personally, I only use mobile deposits at this point and haven’t deposited a check at the bank in years. I am surprised banks haven’t offered a “digital check” service in their apps that essentially acts as a consumer interface for ACH. I’m sure there’s an annoying reason why not.
- “That you couldn’t vote online.” — jeffrey Amen, my friend. I would imagine the first step here is for a piece of legislation that sets a deadline for a digital voting overhaul. I would love to better understand the obstacles and potential paths.
- “That IDs where made of fancy cardboard or plastic and that identity confirmation was so broken that personal records were stolen by the millions.” — Antonio Altamirano Identity theft is common these days, and I agree the whole system is broken. I recall a rumor that Apple and Google were both pursuing some form of approval for mobile-hosted government-accepted IDs and Passports. That would be a start.
- “That we had to type words (letter by letter) actively into a screen rather than speak our thoughts to an AI robot” — Antonio Altamirano No doubt, voice interfaces are here to stay. Brian Roemmele has been one of the earliest vocal visionaries and advocates for voice interfaces. I bet if you ask him, he’ll convince you why we’ll have more interactions with our voice than with our fingers. Even for rather complex applications like Photoshop, the opportunity to engage via voice, coupled with artificial intelligence to further personalize the experience, will change the way we live and work.
- My Adobe colleague Erik Natzke anticipates life with “no more hard drives, no more album releases (it will just be song by song), no more check-out counters, and no more time-based TV programming.” I agree with this last point, except when it comes to sports and gameshows. Sitting on the board of Cheddar, a post-cable news network that has developed new formats for news and new methods of distribution, I think “TV” as we know it will be entirely different 5–10 years from now.
(4) Efficiencies and environmentally-sound practices go mainstream as lower costs and ease of consumption align with environmental consciousness.
The stars are finally aligning for environmentally-sound products, customer preferences, and distribution. As it becomes clear that factory farms are prone to bacterial outbreaks and so many foods and cosmetics contain questionable chemicals, we will crave more “natural” ways of living in every respect. This will change what we buy, the food we eat, and unleash a ton of innovation in the form factor of consumer goods.
- We’ll find it ridiculous that the meat we ate came from actual live animals. Meat alternatives are becoming more popular, but lab grown meat will change everything. Companies like Memphis Meats (not one of my investments, but I wish it was) are growing meat in the labs that is indistinguishable from a killed animal at a cellular level. Once lab-grown meat becomes both safer, more reliable, cheaper, and perhaps even more delicious (not to mention, more humane), the tide will turn. This will also be important for the environment, given that methane and waste runoff from factory farms are among the greatest contributors to environmental calamities.
- There will be a boom in local produce from urban farms like Bowery Farms and Square Roots that provide a fresher, more reliable, affordable, and often times tastier harvest (achieved through a fully controlled environmental) than traditional farms that ship product far and wide. A ton of venture capital has already been invested in this space, especially as it relates to the “operating systems” for these modern urban farms to function.
- There will be a shift towards “shipping concentrates versus ready-to-use bottles that are 98% water,” as Jonathan Bostock framed it. I agree that the form factor for beverages (cans and bottles of water-heavy liquids that were made from concentrate before they left the factory) is inefficient. Some companies like Soda Stream have provided an alternative. But a mainstream shift from these “prepared beverages” to a simpler and cheaper concentrate/powder is imaginable. One of my portfolio companies nearing launch tackles a number of common everyday items (like mouthwash, for example) that are currently distributed in plastic-heavy and expensive bottles but could be distributed in far more economized and concentrated ways. We’ve long known about the concept of an individual’s “carbon footprint,” but the consumer-friendly options to manage it have been limited. This will change, as such products become cheaper and more desirable.
- Within 3–5 years, the majority of the prepared food we order from delivery networks like UberEats and GrubHub, or modern food brands like sweetgreen, will come from commissaries, not actual restaurants. The notion of fulfilling food orders at peak times from busy street-level restaurants optimized for hospitality not delivery is ridiculous, and yet it is today’s status-quo. In the not-so-distant future, most restaurants will consider their storefronts as flagship experiences for their brand, and will scale their higher-margin revenue from fulfilling and delivering orders out of commissaries, operated by third-parties or “collo-commissaries” shared with a few other restaurant brands. These third-party brands will compete with “house brands” that the big delivery platforms create and fulfill on their own.
(5) A new era of personalization that antiquates generalized products and services.
The ultimate promise of personalized experiences from artificial intelligence has, thus far, been mostly limited to advertising and ad-supported product experiences. Sure, there are smattering of other applications in medicine and your Netflix queue, but I am surprised by how much of daily life is still generalized as opposed to personalized. Online stores still show us every category, restaurants give us menus despite our allergies and diets, and we still become enamored by mass brands. How might artificial intelligence transform our everyday life experiences that would make today’s way of living look utterly ridiculous?
- Diets and health routines will become ultra personalized. Clay Hebert suggests we will will look back in disbelief “that we were all searching for the ideal one-size-fits-all diet vs. something individually customized.” “Same for drugs and supplements,” he adds. “You’ll take a pill with your name on it, customized for you. We all will.” Whether it is vitamins, diets, medical treatments, workout routines, or your shampoo and soap, the era of personalization will render all of these mass market brands obsolete. With insights about what makes each of us unique, we’ll opt for the personally tailored option of everything.
- Your mobile food and grocery apps will only display personalized menus (excluding any ingredients you’re allergic to, and taking diet into consideration). One of my investments, Pinto has spent years analyzing and classifying every type of produce and packaged good you’d find in a grocery store, and has used this data to enable companies like Whole Foods to offer a personalized experience to patrons. Imagine, as the interface of shopping changes through new mobile grocery apps or augmented reality, using this data combined with your own preference data to make the entire shopping experience tailored to you. If you’re Gluten Free, every experience and menu you’ll see will be Gluten Free.
- Education will finally become tailored to the individual. Brian Guenther shared his conviction that we’ll look back in disbelief “that a factory model of education, unpersonalized and based on static content, was an acceptable model for educating our children.” I hope he’s right. If teachers could deliver a more personalized curriculum, where every digital “text book” adjusts using ai to accommodate each student’s strengths and weaknesses, I think such tech would unleash entirely new (and more effective) forms of education.
- More brands will emerge designed for micro audiences. As some of you know, I’ve had a long-standing fascination in microbrands.” I wrote about this back in March in a post called “Attack of the Micro Brands” and the topic has since been explored in the Wall Street Journal in an article called “Why You’re Buying Products From Companies You’ve Never Heard Of” by Christopher Mims. This is a major commerce trend that impacts the full “stack” of the design, production, marketing, and distribution of consumer products. I’ve made a few bets in this space over the years like Warby Parker (glasses), Outdoor Voices (everyday athletic apparel), Roman (men’s health care), Smalls For Smalls (pet food), FridaBaby (products for babies and moms), and have also been fascinated by the “picks and shovels” companies powering this trend like Assembled Brands (provides tailored financing), Lumi (packaging and logistics), among others. I think we’ll see a lot more of this in the year ahead.
(6) A “great awakening” from what we learn about ourselves that will transform our lives.
I think we’ll look back at the next 5–10 years as a “great awakening” of sorts for our understanding of our bodies, psychology, and decisions. We’ll realize how blind we were to ourselves, ignorant of caloric intake, nutrient absorption, chemical exposure, UV light exposure, and the list goes on.
- Once we have accurate and real-time measurements, and understand the ramifications, we’ll have a new level of awareness that will change how we live. As we reflect, we’ll find it ridiculous “that we were willing to accept the health risks of sleeping less than 7 hours every night” ( Ben Gilbert ), that “soda was legal for kids under 18” ( Vitaly Gordon ), “that we had to go to a doctor/hospital to get our vitals” (Steve Kaliski ), and that we “dieted without real-time body feedback (thinking blood/sugar/hormones)” (Andreas Klinger ).
- The media we consume, and the frequency in which we consume it, will become a more conscious choice. We will also become hyper aware of how we spend our time and where we allocate attention. The fact that our devices now count minutes spent in apps (and proactively cut us off), coupled with the (long awaited) mainstream interest in “quantified self” will have a big impact on what sources of news/media/info/entertainment we seek, for what price, and under what terms.
- Our personal lives and decisions will become more informed by data and less governed by instinct. I have a good friend who once told me about his dating spreadsheet, where he attempts to understand what worked and didn’t work on dates and in relationships so that he could better understand the patterns. It sounds crazy, but perhaps it will feel just as crazy in ten years to make any important life decision without data analysis? One of my portfolio co’s, Airtable, is reimagining the “spreadsheet” to be a more intelligent, customizable, and interactive way to track and analyze any kind of data. Among Airtable’s open source templates you’ll find airtables for tracking your pet’s medical history, apartment hunting, your favorite books, and many more. With consumer-friendly tools that pack the power of deep data analysis, the possibilities are endless.
(7) We’ll want stronger relationships, fewer loose connections.
No doubt, the state of social networking has degraded into a small number of mass-adopted applications driven by vanity and FOMO. Under the hood, most social networking and media products that proliferate our lives are optimized to keep us growing our networks and scrolling mindlessly through never-ending updates. As a result, we’ve ended up with larger loosely connected networks that provide more noise than signal for what actually matters to us. But something is changing in our desires and tolerances. We’re starting to mock these platforms, limit our time with them, or all-together delete our accounts. Perhaps it is our natural biological response to a superficial stimuli that has started to deteriorate our collective happiness and productivity? I anticipate (and hope) that the social networks of the future focus more on the problems to solve as opposed to fighting for our attention. What factors will drive these new social products?
- Depth > Breadth: Now that we all have LinkedIn and at least one Facebook product, we can summon pretty much anyone’s digital profile with a simple search. We don’t need another network for everyone where people carefully curate and anxiously post content to a massive network of acquaintances at best, stalkers at worst. Instead, we want to learn more about fewer people. We want to know where our closest friends are. We want to make meaningful intros for the people we care about. The early era of social network was all about vanity, as people sought to accumulate “likes” and reach as opposed to meaningful exchange. No wonder “chat” has been called “the next social network.” We want technology to scale our direct connections. We need a product like Path, which came half a decade too early. And we need to rethink core mechanics: this network should be decentralized to some extent, it shouldn’t be ad-supported, it should have some lean-forward defaults for sharing location and recommendations that would only work in a closed and trusted network, and it should offer alternative interfaces like voice (AirPods) and AR (when the time comes).
- Social tech will become an intimate endeavor- a way to connect with the people most close to us and, more importantly, connect with our own past. Colby Saenz suggested on Twitter that we’ll look back in disbelief, “that we never valued the importance of personal (and private) documenting of our lives/thoughts/ideas.” Modern social products will account for this.
(8) Artificial intelligence will protect us more than we ever expected.
Finally, for all the talk of the dangers of artificial intelligence, we tend to skip over the fact that identity theft is a raging problem, that data breaches happen every day, that we’re always trying to moderate the impact of tech in our lives, and that spam and scams have become an everyday reality. Artificial intelligence is our best chance at a step-function more peaceful existence.
- More positivity by default: For all the talk of ai helping convert customers and optimize product experiences, we haven’t thought about the implications of people using ai to better control what comes into their lives. Like Apple’s default options for ceasing notifications on the phone and blocking certain ads by default in Safari, we may choose to empower ai to proactively “protect us” in the future, which will change the game for advertising and media. Imagine setting default preferences on every device at the OS level to not only block ads, but block malicious characters, non-fact-checked content, and certain notifications at certain times based on ai-analysis of your calendar. Lots of innovation to come here.
- More productivity: When I was in Tokyo recently, I spent some time with journalists and customers that were asking about how ai would replace creative professionals and somehow automate creative work. On the contrary, I explained, ai will help us humans focus our energy on the creative part and spend less time on everything else in-between. All of the work we’re doing at Adobe using artificial intelligence is intended to reduce the mundane, repetitive, and annoying parts of the creative process. I think this is generally how ai will be used: to not only automate the mundane, but also to unleash our uniquely human capabilities.
- Fewer mistakes: Seth Godin recently suggested in a post that, despite all the technological advance, our devices still default to 3am when scheduling a meeting at 3, lets us leave a $5,650 tip if we accidentally put our PIN in the card reader when it asks for the tip amount, and so on. His point is: “Are you sure” is something that humans know to ask but machines don’t. Ai should solve this in the coming years.
- Data will become a natural resource: Will the oceans of data that power artificial intelligence be classified as a natural resource the enriches its citizens, much like oil is managed in countries like Norway? If it is a natural residue of our everyday activity, why shouldn’t it belong to society?
Hey, who knows?
These future forecasting exercises are fun, if nothing more. They spark conversation and debate with people you can learn from, so bring it on. Here’s to an exciting decade to come. -scott
Follow Scott on Twitter, get the latest book — The Messy Middle, or sign up for an infrequent newsletter summary of insights. Disclosure: I mentioned a number of personal/CapitalB investments including Remix, Uber, Cheddar, August, Airtable, Bowery Farms, and Pinto (and, of course, Adobe).