These days, the future comes at us faster than ever before. We live in an age of accelerating returns, in which technological advancement moves at an exponential rate. In ten years, no industry will look like it does now. In twenty years many, if not most, of today’s jobs will be completely obsolete.

Yet the future is about more than just technology. Health and economic trends, population growth and climate change, just to name a few, will also create massive challenges—and massive opportunities. The time to prepare for the future is always the present.

Dr. James Canton, author of the new book Future Smart, knows more about the future than just about anybody. Yet, when I spoke to him, he wasn’t fixated on any particular trend, like artificial intelligence or genomics, but on helping companies to become “future ready.” They key is not to try to be an oracle, but to shift our thinking to what the future will bring.

Seeing The Mountain Top

Most executives are busy people. We embed ourselves into the networks of our companies and industries. So, not surprisingly, the issues we spend the most time thinking about are focused on the present—customer demands, competitive moves, supply chain snafus and the like.

Yet Dr. Canton urges managers to take a broader view. How do they see their business in 20 years? (Or in some cases, their country, Canton also consults for entire nations, such as Singapore). What opportunities or problems can they expect to arise that have the potential to bring unimaginable prosperity—or utter calamity?

For example, Canton has recently been working with agribusinesses which, like most companies, spend most of their time thinking about things like keeping customers happy, maintaining margins, managing operations and labour relations. These are pressing, challenging concerns. For any agribusiness to survive, it has to deal with them effectively.

Yet look 20 years ahead and the concerns are quite different. Will the carrying capacity of the planet support feeding 9 billion people? How will water stress and climate change impact productivity? How will new technologies, such as big data, the things and renewable energy affect their business? (A lot, is the correct answer).

It’s not enough just to push through and keep climbing, you also have to see the mountaintop.

The Components Of The Future

In a sense, laying out the big picture is the easy part. It doesn’t take much thinking to realize that rising population and increasing stress on the environment means that agribusinesses will have to drastically increase productivity if they are to feed the world effectively. Yet once you start breaking down that problem, things get vastly more complicated—and interesting.

Will vertical farming become a viable technology? What will it take to get it there? What is the true potential of advanced technologies such as robotics and big data? What changes will need to be made in culture and hiring practices to recruit the talent needed to integrate new innovations into existing operations?

Often, a failure to address even one component can decimate an entire industry. A lack of concern for food security, for example, led to enormous outbreaks of mad cow and hoof and mouth disease. What might have seemed frugal and prudent cost management at the time ended up crippling meat producers.

Dr. Canton finds that, out of ten major factors, most companies and industries are well prepared for two or three future components and are aware of two or three more, but about half are completely off their radar. A big part of his job is not only getting his clients to see that these issues exist, but to prepare them to take effective action.

Becoming Future Ready

Many people like to philosophize about the future. It’s fun to talk about trends and extrapolate them out. Yet Dr. Canton stresses that to achieve the state he calls “future ready,” you need to build “predictive awareness.” That means not merely thinking about the future, but actively working to uncover its secrets.

Firms routinely contract out surveys to see how tastes are changing in their industry, but Dr. Canton advises his clients to go much further than that. They visit labs, review patents and conduct scenario forecasts on things ranging from food production to energy. The output of all of this trend tracking is briefings and reports that forge new services and products.

For example, Munich Re, one of the world’s largest reinsurers, is actively researching nanotechnology. It wants to know how materials science will evolve and what effect that will have on structures’ ability to withstand disasters and wear and tear a generation from now. AIG is studying climate change for similar reasons.

The idea is to go beyond what the industry wags are talking about now and undergo a serious effort to understand the nascent forces that will affect us in a decade or two.

Building Out The Missing Pieces

The job of a manager has clearly changed. A generation ago, we could enter an industry, learn the trade and work our way up. Today, however, we can’t expect a business model to last a decade, much less a career. To wit, since 1960, the average lifespan of a company on the S&P 500 has fallen from more than 60 years to less than 20.

So to become truly future ready, trendwatching and analysis are necessary, but not sufficient. Leaders today need to act. For the agribusiness to meet the challenges ahead, it will have to recruit and retain top technological talent. So it needs to build online training programs and change hiring and management practices. That has to start now, not five or ten years hence.

However, change takes bold leadership. When Jeffrey Immelt saw that, as a leading industrial firm, GE needed to make a commitment to sustainable business, he ran into heavy resistance. In fact, only six out of 35 senior GE executives supported the plan. Yet he pushed forward and Ecomagination has generated $160 billion in revenues for the company.

“Today,” Dr. Canton told me, “you need shape your future before someone else does. Those that lack the courage to predict and shape their future may become victims of an unwelcome destiny.”

Image via flickr

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