The Hardest Prediction of All, Seeing the Future

August 24th

Predicting the future makes most people so nervous that they often make the same joke about Yogi Berra’s insight that the future is the hardest thing to forecast.   But in spite of the normal anxiety, we can anticipate that there are going to be a boatload of stories about the future now that it begins to appear that the financial crisis is passing.

Today brought two new contributions.  First, Deutsche Post has just published a study of the future entitled “Delivering Tomorrow: Customer Needs in 2020 and Beyond, a Global Delphi Study.”  The study draws conclusions from an intensive examination of expert perspectives on a number of critical issues that will define our future:  what will happen to the price of oil?  what will the progress of climate change mean?  how will global interactivity evolve?

Perhaps the cultural differences in perspective offer theses about the future that move beyond traditional boundaries.  Or, possibly its just going to be more interesting to think about these long term issues now that we are on this side of the financial crisis than on the old, optimistic one with which we are familiar.  But the 2020 study offers numerous startling theses.  What will a world look like when China is the undisputed winner of global economic competition?  What will global transportation be like when polar routes have been opened up by polar melting.

The McKinsey Quarterly then wrote about one of its classic articles, the next revolution in interaction,  Like Deutsche Post, McKinsey found that the progression of interactive technologies will continue to evolve and to shape the future.   The point of the 2004 article from McKinsey was to encourage a focus on trends that will enable companies to attain sustainable competitive advantage.

Instead of strategies that focus on cost cutting, a short-term benefit that can ultimately be copied, both research sources encouraged their readers to focus on trends that would enable customized solutions.  Whether the discussion is of the evolution of the logistics business or the changing nature of enterprise in an information rich marketplace, trends that make it possible to individualize solutions will be dominant ones in shaping the future.  For those who become anxious with discussion of the future and its uncertainties, these studies point to the need to engineer organizations and infrastructures that facilitate agility and adaptability to changing customer requirements.

This may be hard to communicate.  Individualization?  Adaptability?  Most will say, but what will the future be like?  Talk of “open standards” and “plug and play” solutions seems to be a slide into software jargon.  Yet the idea of creating a framework that is the opposite of command and control seems to be captured by the iPhone ads.  Apple has communicated a framework.  Understanding that “there’s an ap for that” may turn out to be Steve Jobs biggest contribution of all.

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