Peeking into the future

There’s a reason I’m so keen to spend time looking for so-called weak signals. It’s like being able to glimpse into the future.

What are weak signals?

Weak signals represent snippets of information that offer insights into what is coming next. These snippets are ambiguous, fleeting and often seem to be isolated from wider parallel trends. They are found in sources as diverse as social media threads to demographic data and academic papers. A clue here, a hint there, dispersed and quickly out of sight.

And how do I know them if I see them?

Weak signals are tricky little things. They are often missed or positively dismissed at the time. However, when we view them retrospectively in combination with other factors, we might think they were obvious. We ask how could contemporaries be so blind to ignore the clues right there in front of them.

The truth is that such weak signals may not always turn out to be accurate indicators of change, and even when they are, their predictive value may pass entirely unrecognised except by a few.

In part this is a result of human psychology: we are programmed to prefer familiar patterns and established meanings. Simply living a day-to-day existence takes considerable energy and focus; our brains process the vast majority of information subconsciously because we would be overwhelmed otherwise. Studies have shown that as we get older we start to process information more slowly and start to rely on lived experience and learned behaviour more. (The argument as to whether experience trumps youthful curiosity/naivety is a fun one to have with your parents, whatever their age). The process starts once we pass our early teens and accelerates as we get older. It is one reason why older people are more likely to become ‘small c’ conservative. Change is, physiologically, more challenging to understand and integrate into our subconscious value systems. One of the many corollaries of this behavioural change is how we start to narrow our focus to information (such as news) that fits with our own preferences. We lose some of the inherent curiosity of childhood and it becomes hard to process the array of data required for us to identify weak signals.

People have made professions out of their ability to read weak signals. Some become futurists. Others make it in business because of their ability to ‘see the future’; it is a very desirable, but oft-overlooked, skill for CEOs. Some of the most potent readers of weak signals are political strategists. And, in this case we do not refer to the pollsters, but those who have a gut instinct for winning political games.

Show me some weak signals

There are some great recent examples of weak signals.

  • In September 2016 a professor correctly predicted Trump would win the presidential election when all others thought his train wreck campaign, sexism, racism, narcissism, Putin-ism et al, inexorably led to Clinton in the White House. He made his prediction on the basis of six factors, which can be seen as weak signals.
  • Or consider the DVD rental company that saw how improving internet speeds could change the movie game. They built a streaming video on demand platform and secured rights that no-one wanted at the time. The end result? Netflix is now worth US$58 billion.
  • Another startup noticed something rather big. When smartphones with decent cameras became ubiquitous, everyone on Facebook started sharing photos rather than text updates. They were mostly shots of food for some reason. This company made a better platform for the same output, and then sold it (Instagram) to Facebook for big pile of cash.

The latter two examples are more usually spun up as inspired innovation from great minds. And that’s true too, to some extent. But inspiration never occurs in a vacuum. We are products of our surroundings, experiences and all the other ‘data’ input that our brains process.

Lets take another wildly successful startup — the not-a-taxi-firm everyone loves to hate (but still use). The legend of Uber’s creation is that the two founders were stuck in a city one night and couldn’t find a cab anywhere. Wouldn’t it be great if they could just put their location on a map and get a cab to come to them. Wham bam thank you RAM: a few years, billions of dollars, and many lawsuits later, the giant transport firm is taking over the world. Great story. However, the seeds for the brainwave (to excuse a mangling of metaphors) are actually found in a James Bond film. At the time, the scene in which Bond tracks his car via his mobile phone was borderline sci-fi. Yet add in Google Maps, GPS in every phone, and an antipathy towards traditional taxi services, and suddenly you have the perfect conditions to grow Uber. I wonder if the scriptwriter on that film regretted not talking to some tech guys about it then and there…

It just goes to show that weak signals can be found in the strangest of places. There are heaps of weak signals from throughout history that we now see as causes, or contributing factors to some great event. Yet if they are so easy to ignore, and if we are so prone to failing to recognise their potential, then what signals are we missing right now?