Seeing Around the Corner: Can You Know What Innovations Are Coming?

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I was talking with my friend Chris Curran today, our CTO, and he said, “you ought to write a post about ‘seeing around the corner’” (Chris also mentioned the Israeli designed corner gun in the image below.) One the great challenges leaders face is estimating what disruptive technologies, competitors, and business models will emerge.

I think there are many ways to explore this exciting and exciting and potentially very different future. Here are three I like:

  1. Cruise the edges;
  2. Ride exponential trends;
  3. Buy your way into the future;

These three are not exhaustive, but together they could be useful.

Cruise the Edges

The future is already here, its just not evenly distributed, a quote attributed to cyber writer William Gibson. If you look at extreme tasks — you can usually find an interesting set of solutions which might give you some idea of what might become mainstream in time. For example, Dr. Robert Ballard the explorer best known for discovering the Titanic created the Inner Space Center in Rhode Island, which has huge, high definition screens which allow the scientist to follow the progress of two ocean going research ships in real time as they make discoveries around the world. One ship, the Okeanus has two robot vehicles they can deploy for undersea exploration, and the newer one, the Nautilus has four. As you may remember, Ballard explored the Titanic with robots.

Ballard says, “Why should I move my body to a research site, when I can just move my spirit?” His lab, and the ships are connected to internet 2, which has bandwidth 10,000 times as fast as the retail internet. This allows them to share a rich, high fidelity information space for collaboration and problem solving. Looking at a place like this “at the edge” you can see a lot about how cognitive work could be redesigned and what the future might hold. (My friend John Hagel has also recommended this approach — see his EdgePerspectives blog.)

This process of looking for extreme tasks is the antithesis of benchmarking which hovers around the center of today’s capabilities.

Ride Exponential Trends:

We know now that the cost of human gene sequencing is decreasing faster than Moore’s Law. So what will this exponential change in costs mean to everything from crime prosecution to identity management? Which organizations, and functions will change with these massively cheaper and more capable, biologic screens? This is just one technology that is moving at an exponential pace. Ray Kurzweil’s book The Singularity is Near, documents many such trends — and as Ray notes, it is possible to “see the future” if you watch for the confluence of exponential trends in technology.

This process of examining the exponential trends is not anything like traditional technology forecasting which tends to look at straight line projections of improvement — not coherent disruption due to multiple exponential forces converging.

Buy Your Way Into the Future:

Alan Kay, the man who invented the overlapping windows interface I’m using now and almost every modern computer uses said, “Any firm can buy its way into the future 5, 10, or more years. They just need to spend the money, and the military does it all the time.” He is right that for many technologies which are on the exponentially improving pace that Kurzweil talks about can often be bought by large companies as a way to experiment now for a future to come. The apocryphal story of Steve Jobs inventing the iPad first, and spinning off the iPhone was due to the fact that he was designing for a world with cheap, high quality screens. He was early for the iPad, so he first launched the iPhone. My belief is that if Jobs  had not been trying to buy his way into the future, he never would have seen the possibilities. Today, firms could design work for when there is very cheap bandwidth. For example, they could install some of the most advanced video conferencing throughout a facility to see what it will be like to have an always on, high definition, real and virtual workspace. From what I’ve seen in Ballard’s lab, it will be different and more productive. Now is the time to buy your way into the future to see it.

This is not the same as building prototypes. This notion of buying your way into the future is to design real work and real actions but with technology that costs too much today, but will be cheap tomorrow. You want to live in the future, not just have a window into a mock up of it.

Well, those are at least three ways to see around the corner. Can you think of others?

Image source: Unhindered by Talent