2 October, 2014, by Steve Upcraft

Future Gazing and Future Shaping

SONY DSC The event began with a presentation delivered by Christopher Barnatt, a futurist, author, videographer and Associate Professor of Strategy and Future Studies here at the Nottingham University Business School.  Presenting to a room of 84 guests the presentation went on as follows:

Future Gazing and Future Shaping

Nobody can predict the future. However, we all have the ability to mentally remove ourselves from the present in order to imagine events and states of the world that are yet to happen.  If you can imagine the future as being complete darkness, then future studies can be seen as a torch. How powerful the torch is will determine how much you are likely to see.

Chris continued on to explain what future gazing and future shaping is all about: ‘‘ The terms define the process of taking actions today to select and work towards the possible future we desire, our ultimate goal being to choose the best tomorrow.’’ The key to successful future gazing and future shaping is to obtain the best information today that will enable us to predict the most likely range of possible futures.

Why Do Big Companies Use Futurists?

Chris stated that ‘‘generally, companies want futurists to come in to find out about the latest technologies and trends, and to disrupt their thinking and stir things up a bit!’’ Futurists can also help with leadership development, as good leaders need to be able to develop credible visions of the future that others will then work towards.

Environmental Scanning

Chris asked ‘‘how do futurists provide a glimpse into the future?’’ They scan the environment for clues, which can generally be placed within one of the following three broad headings:

  • Challenges
  • Technologies
  • Trends

Future Challenges

Here futurists would address the ‘elephant in the room’, the known obvious problems that many just ignore. The key problem areas are as follows:

  • Climate change – a scientific, but also, political certainty that will continue to lead to frek weather, crop damage, flooding and pressure on food supplies
  • Peak oil – the point at which there is less oil in the ground than we have taken out, demand will significantly outstrip supply
  • Net energy time bomb – we face the problem of transitioning to new energy sources (like wind, wave and solar) that have far lower net energy yields than fossil fuels
  • Peak water – a situation where demand for water will outstrip supply in many regions. Falling water tables will force changes in agricultural production and industrial location in regions ranging from China to the Southern United States
  • Food shortages – we can’t feed everybody in the world at the moment, and all of the above place further pressures on food supply
  • Resource depletion – sustainability is a myth, we could use stuff more slowly, but eventually it will run out
  • Ageing population

It is at this point that Chris asked “are you depressed yet?”  “No need to worry” he continued “the next slides could offer some potential solutions for a future in which we will have to consume less, but value more.”

Future Technologies

Future technologies are perhaps a little easier to predict because what will be in the market in ten years’ time is already in the lab. Key areas:

  • 3D printing – create real, solid objects from digital data by building them up in layers. The first printer was created in 1984, and today is increasingly being used  in direct digital manufacturing (DDM) of end use components (e.g. Airbus creating parts for planes)
  • Synthetic biology – applying an engineering mentality to biology to, for example, create synthetic bacteria that can ferment organic food stocks like corn or algae into bio-acrylics, bio-diesels etc.
  • Vertical farming – farms being built in the middle of cities vertically
  • Nanotechnology – currently being used in the production of some microprocessors and computer displays. In combination with 3D printing, may allow for creation of new materials
  • Big data and AI – generating value from the storage and analysis of large banks of data that computers cannot store today (30TB+). Already one Japanese company has voted an AI onto the board!
  • Quantum technology – rather than storing data in a binary format using miniature transistors contained in silicon chips, quantum computers work with data using the quantum-mechanical states of sub-atomic particles, so allowing computers to move beyond the limitations of binary processing
  • Robots – We may have 200 million smart, humanoid robots sharing the planet with us by 2050 – for example, helping with care of the elderly

Future Trends

Chris acknowledged that “Predicting future trends is a bit like putting your finger in the air, as trends are a bit trickier to predict.” Key points of change:

  • Dematerialization – when looking at current and future challenges there is an urgent need to become less materialistic
  • Localization – again when looking at current and future challenges trading globally – especially in basic goods like food – will become a thing of the past, instead localization should be the new focus
  • Low/zero economic growth –stop relying on economic logic; economic growth puts more strain on the limited resources we currently have
  • Decline of Western nations – the new economic super powers will be China and South America
  • Crowdsourcing – ‘open source’ computer software, 3D printers, cars, prosthetics and robots are being created by online communities
  • Design for repair – Today far too many things get thrown away only a few months or years after they have been purchased e.g. smart phones. There is a need to return to a bygone age where designers and manufacturers sell us items that we can maintain for long periods of time

Future Narrative

In conclusion, Chris suggested that the future narrative perhaps should be as follows:

  • “We should consume less and value what we have more”
  • “We should take a more proactive role in upgrading the human species” (transhumanism)
  • “Use attractors (beacons) set in the future to ensure that we keep on track and meet at the right place”

A final thought, “visionaries who have big, crazy ideas in your work place shouldn’t be disregarded, instead they should be encouraged.” For example, Honda set itself the project of building its Asimo humanoid robots back in the 1980s. This grand vision project is far from commercial completion, but has helped the company to develop many new technologies that are already in use in other products.

Posted in Ingenuity Knowledge Exchange