I recently returned from a two-week family vacation. During my holiday, I consciously unplugged from the news and all my other regular sources of information.
A digital detox such as this can be disconcerting for any professional striving to stay relevant in today’s fast-paced world, but for a futurist whose full-time job is to stay abreast of technological, social, cultural, political and demographic changes, it can be downright anxiety-inducing. Nevertheless, I persisted and was rewarded by coming back from vacation fully refreshed.
This allowed to me see the world from a fresh perspective. The first thing that caught my attention is that nothing slowed down in my absence. Within minutes, I had read about a company whose technology enabled a semitruck to log its first successful “no human” road test on public roads. A Virginia woman moved into the first completed 3-D-printed house in the U.S., and a 62-year-old man from Australia, who is paralyzed, sent out the first “direct thought tweet” using a brain chip.
Each story is interesting, newsworthy and remarkable, but as a futurist, I would like to help you connect some dots and consider each story (and the future) from a broader and deeper perspective.
Set benchmarks for the future.
Let’s start with the story about the self-driving truck. Autonomous cars and trucks are nothing new. They have been in the news for the past few years. This saturation might cause some to dismiss the story as “nothing new,” but in the case of this report, I believe the fact that no people were involved makes this is a critical benchmark on the road to fully autonomous vehicles. There is currently a severe labor shortage among truck drivers. An autonomous semitruck road test is a big deal because it suggests the technology has improved to the point where company officials and regulators are confident enough to move on to this stage.
With any trend that could impact your business, it is important to establish benchmarks. This will help you and your organization assess whether the trend is moving faster or slower than expected. If it is the latter, it’s important you bring this to the attention of everyone in your organization so you can begin to address the disruptive elements of the technology or, alternatively, you can begin making plans to leverage the trend.
Let’s consider the unrelated case of electric vehicles. If your business or livelihood is adversely affected by the rapid adoption of electric vehicles, rather than stick your head in the sand and hope the technology might not catch on in a major way, put benchmarks in place that require you to reassess your opinion.
For example, is battery storage getting better? If so, this might help remove “range anxiety” and make it more likely people will purchase an EV. Another benchmark might be whether the private sector is getting behind EVs by installing chargers on their own instead of simply relying on government mandates. A third benchmark could involve the price of lithium. If new methods make it cheaper and easier to harvest, it may be a sign that EVs have climbed over another hurdle blocking their widespread adoption.
The news that a person has moved into a 3-D-printed house is noteworthy for a different reason. News such as this can help you challenge your own assumptions and/or help you persuade optimists in your organization who might be convinced that a particular trend is just around the proverbial corner.
In the case of 3-D-printed houses, it could be easy to read the story as evidence of a coming tsunami of mass-manufactured homes. In 1973, Martin Cooper of Motorola made news by making the first call from a mobile phone. But it wasn’t until at least the ’90s that many people purchased one for themselves. Did the optimists really think it would take roughly 20 years from that first call for cell phones to become a major trend?
The opposite may also be true, however. It could be easy to dismiss the story as being about “just one person.” But think of your reaction to the arrival of the first “plant-based” burger a few years ago. Did you think at the time, “I bet within a few years, almost every restaurant in America will be selling these things,” or did you dismiss it?
Is now the time to begin considering the same about 3-D printing in the construction industry? Maybe the story isn’t evidence of a fast-moving trend (as Martin Cooper’s first call wasn’t); maybe it is more like plant-based burgers. Either way, it may be time to challenge your assumptions about how the trend could impact everything from real estate prices to the construction industry.
Think about the unthinkable.
The final story about the man sending a tweet by thought alone is, in some ways, the most interesting. It might be easy to dismiss the news by saying to yourself, “That’s wonderful for the man, but I am not paralyzed, so the story is of little interest to me.” Consider this, however: It’s been said that some of the earliest versions of the typewriter were designed to help people who were blind. But as the typewriter evolved, it became widely used in offices and among nondisabled people as well.
I don’t mean to suggest that everyone will soon be getting brain chips, but if they help some people and some professionals do their jobs better, faster or more efficiently, I believe it is within the realm of possibility that people not viewed as the originally intended market may be the force that drives widespread adoption.
The bottom line is this: The future is here, and it can often be found embedded in today’s news. Don’t just mindlessly consume the news; use news stories as a guidepost to discern whether the future is arriving faster or slower than expected; employ the news as a way to challenge your assumptions, whether they be optimistic or pessimistic; and, lastly, after you have read an article, take a moment to think about unthinkable things. The end result is that you and your business will be better prepared to meet the future.