Ben Brewer
Jun 11 · 7 min read
Image source: https://www.disclose.tv

Did you know that the tin can was invented back in 1810, yet the can opener was invented a staggering 48 years later? Didn’t think so. What does that tell you? Not that we couldn’t open tin cans for 48 years, but that it can often take us a while before we truly understand how best to use something.

Throughout this article I’ll be exploring futurology, and why looking into the future to plan for the changes it will bring is becoming increasingly important in today’s world.

Tin can invented in 1810, can opener invented in 1858

Futurology is “…the study of postulating possible, probable, and preferable futures.”

Is it an art, or a science? Perhaps it’s a mixture of both. But the best way to describe futurology is to imagine you’re on the beach, looking at a wave moving towards you. This wave is the future. We can see it coming, and we know what’s coming, but we’re not quite sure what impact it’ll have when it arrives. Everyone knew the internet was just around the corner, but no one could have predicted social media, fake news, and the cultural shift it brings. This is where futurology comes in, and it’s something very unique to humans. We’re able to picture ourselves in a future state, where we want to be in 5 years time, what we will have learnt or achieved in that time, what we want to be doing and plan accordingly to get to this desired state.

Image source: promptcloud.com

But predicting the future isn’t for everyone.

Old cart. Image source: https://speechfoodie.com

“The horse is here to stay, but the automobile is only a novelty — a fad”

President of Michigan Bank, 1927, to Henry Ford’s Lawyer

Laptop. Image source: https://www.anandtech.com

“There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home”

Ken Olson, President Digital Equipment Corp 1977

Not to mention the future is arriving faster and faster…

Image source: www.linkedin.com

And there’s A LOT of disruption across all sectors…

The worlds largest Taxi company owns no taxi’s:

Uber logo. Image source: www.uber.com

The worlds largest accommodation provider owns no real estate:

Air bnb logo. Image source: www.airbnb.com

The most popular media provider creates no content:

Facebook logo. Image source: www.facebook.com

The most valuable photo company sells no cameras:

Instagram logo. Image source: www.instagram.com

The fastest growing television network lays no cables:

Netflix logo. Image source: www.netflix.com

The most valuable retailer has no inventory:

Alibaba logo. Image source: www.alibaba.com

So what does that tell you? Perhaps your biggest competitor doesn’t even exist yet. Let’s imagine you work at an organisation with old, complicated legacy systems and processes, and you’re caught napping, not focusing on your customers core needs. A start-up could sneak up behind you and fulfil those needs before you’ve even noticed them. This is why it’s important to keep looking forward, into the future, trying to predict what will happen when that wave reaches the shore. It could bring with it a fundamental shift in your market.

And no one is safe. The winners always look invulnerable until they don’t. They lose their market, or their market becomes irrelevant.

Credit: Benedict Evans.

Which brings us on to INNOVATION.

Innovation is “The culture of asking the right questions”

The problem here is that the winners, like those shown above, often have less reason to truly innovate. They own their market, and innovation can be high risk, so they start to stagnate and become vulnerable. Let’s take Blockbuster as an example.

Image source: www.cnet.com

Many years ago, you’d head into your local Blockbuster store to rent your favourite VHS. You take it home, watch it, and before you know it you’ve missed your return date. You head back into store, pay your ‘late return fee’ and be on your way. So in 2000, when Netflix CEO Reed Hastings approached Blockbuster CEO John Antioco about forming a partnership, they laughed him out of the office. Why? Because Blockbuster’s main revenue stream was from late return fees. They were focusing on delivering shareholder value instead of being customer centric. They were caught napping.


But innovation isn’t straightforward. If you ask most people what they think of when you say the word “innovation”, they’ll say “technology”. And different people react to new technology in different ways. As Douglas Adams once said…

“Here’s a set of rules that describe our reaction to technologies:

1. Anything that’s in the world when you’re born is normal and just part of how things work.

2. Anything invented between 15 and 45 is new and exciting and will ‘change the world’.

3. Anything invented after you’re 45 is against the natural order of things.”

- Douglas Adams

If this sweeping statement were true, just think about the senior stakeholders in your organisation. Perhaps to them, the very thing you’re trying to innovate is seen as ‘against the natural order of things’. If this is the case (and I’m sure in many cases it really isn’t), you’ll have to work much harder to convince these stakeholders of the benefits of the work you’re doing, what problems it’s solving for your customers, how it’s growing your market share or protecting you against ‘new players’ in your sector who could sneak up behind you.

However, the future is often boring when we get there.

Credit: Benedict Evans.

But true innovation isn’t happening all of the time. There are brief moments where something truly revolutionary appears, such as the Smartphone, or PC and Mobile internet. When it first appears, there are endless possibilities of what this technology could do and the problems it could solve. Innovation is happening everywhere you look, from websites and ecommerce, to internet gaming and the internet-of-things. But after a while, innovation stops. Now things are still being made, but not to solve a problem or satisfy a need. Instead they’re being created just because ‘we can’. Technology has now become the solution, rather than asking the question, “what problem can I solve?”

But there’s always something new around the corner.

Credit: Benedict Evans.

There are 4 emerging technologies to consider that are already disrupting many sectors. And we can evaluate where these are in their lifecycle. On the left we have Autonomy and Mixed Reality, both in their infancy and moving through the ‘Get the tech to work’ phase, similar to that of building the foundations of a large skyscraper. Cryptocurrency, now with a stable and secure technology, is in the ‘finding market fit’ phase, trying to establish the needs that this could satisfy, while AI has found market fit and is now pouring on rocket fuel. These are 4 areas we should be looking at and asking ourselves, “what problem could these new technologies solve for our customers?”, or “how could this disrupt our sector?”.

So let’s look at some of these technologies and consider how they might impact not only their immediate market, but also the knock on effects they could have on other industries.

Image source: www.readwrite.com

The Driverless car will impact;

  • Insurance companies (97% accidents are human error)
  • Mechanics
  • Road signage
  • Parking / road layouts / speed limits
  • City design
Image source: https://www.mercurynews.com

Driverless trucks will impact;

  • Roadside cafes
  • Roadside motels
  • Truckers (15m in the US alone)
  • The health sector (How will they support these people if they’re jobless?)

And many other sectors will be impacted too, from fuel, to construction, energy and currency.

Disrupted sectors; Construction, energy and currency

So with all this change about to hit the shore of our beach, how do we make sure we’re still relevant in years to come? Simple: Focus on your customers and be brave.

We’ll need to be brave and try new things, we need to understand the change these new technologies will bring, and be prepared to experiment and fail fast until we discover something truly innovative that creates a step change in our industry. We need to understand the needs of our customers better than ever, to be clear on your company’s mission and the reason they exist in the first place.

Or, as Keith Richards once said…

Image source: https://www.rollingstone.it

“I just keep playing until I make a really good mistake”

Keith Richards

So if you can’t imagine the future, how will you make it?

The world is the tin can, and you’re the can opener

Thanks 🙏
Ben Brewer, Senior Product Designer.

Credits: Mark Stevenson & Benedict Evans for all the insightful material 👍

Sainsbury’s Digital Experience

Stories from the Digital Experience team at Sainsbury’s.

Thanks to Monica Chauhan

Ben Brewer

Written by

Senior Product Designer

Sainsbury’s Digital Experience

Stories from the Digital Experience team at Sainsbury’s.

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