Predicting the future for a living taught me we have to look backwards to look forward

To infinity.
To infinity.
Image: EReuters/Jim Ross/NASA/Handout
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My knack for thinking about the future started at an early age. About 35 years ago, as a boy in Scotland, I noticed the decaying buildings around me and thought, “Why can’t cement heal itself when it cracks?” Just a few weeks ago, this nascent prediction came true. Henk Jonkers of Deft University of Technology in the Netherlands announced bioconcrete—a new type of self-healing cement that fixes its own cracks using bacteria. 

Twelve years ago, while I was working for Cisco, I predicted that we will see a “network that dwarfs the Internet in the next decade” and that the Internet would be part of everything around us, and even be on us and inside us. Today we know this as the Internet of Things (IoT). What I called “micronets” at the time became the genesis of Cisco’s groundbreaking research on the Internet of Everything (IoE). Today, I’m co-founder and chief technology officer at Stringify, which aims to help people make better use of the Internet of Things.

Being a futurist is not easy. But it can be done. In fact, for several decades I’ve earned a living by making predictions–especially about the future of technology and its impact on people.

Ditch those crystal balls

There are as many types of futurists as there are domains in which to predict the future. Some futurists specialize in culture, others economics, and still others technology. Typically, these domains influence one another, so a basic understanding of many areas is important. Aligning with an area that you are passionate about will increase your probability of success, although not ensure it. I choose to focus on technology trends and their implications for how we live, or will live.

I often get asked how I predict the future. Let’s be clear: Predicting the future is impossible. In fact, being a futurist is less about predicting the future and more about understanding where the world is now and where it will be tomorrow. (Feel free to ditch those crystal balls.) It’s impossible to exactly predict how technology will impact our lives 10, 20, and even 30 years from now. However, there are several proven techniques that narrow down the countless possibilities to prognosticate a probable future.

Cast your net wide

To understand where we are today, I must voraciously consume information. I peruse more than 100 websites at least twice a day for statistics, trends, developments, inventions, and breakthroughs. I also attend industry events, listen to webinars, meet with customers, and read several books a month.

From this wealth of information, patterns emerge that allow me to envision future scenarios based on current trends. For example, if I see that the percentage of people buying electric cars is increasing over time, I know that changes to the power grid will be needed to accommodate how people charge their vehicles. I can then begin to think about what the future will look like and what technologies will be needed to get there.

Look backward to look forward

Once I have conceived of several scenarios, I apply a technique called backcasting (essentially the opposite of forecasting). First I envision a future state or scenario. Then I return to the present and ask: “What steps are needed for the vision to become reality in the future?”

As a high-level example, let’s take flying cars—a question often asked of futurists. Consider a future world in which flying cars are everywhere. Now come back to the present and think about all the things that would be required for flying cars to be developed and used effectively. Such a list could include vehicle costs, air traffic control considerations, energy sources, acceptable flying ranges, take off and landing requirements, safety of “drivers” and the public, collision avoidance technology, networking and computing systems, and alternative solutions.

Next, determine the viability and timeframe of each consideration. The information created from this analysis form a picture of whether or not flying cars are possible–and if so, when.

Filter, then validate

Forecasting is only one part of the futurist’s playbook. I also apply a set of filters to my scenarios that evaluate ideas for pragmatism and practicality. Do they make sense? Applying proven principles like Metcalfe’s Law, Moore’s Law, and Cooper’s Law, are they technically viable? What breakthroughs could disrupt the outcomes? What do “normal” people think about these ideas?

The last question is perhaps the most important, because people are predictably unpredictable. We all have cultural, social, political, generational, and spiritual biases that impact what ideas and technologies we accept and reject. Most people also need to see something to believe it is true–a fact that sometimes stops promising innovation in its tracks.

Humans think linearly—we assume that A leads to B, B leads to C, and so on. In reality, technology is accelerating exponentially. Unseen breakthroughs often tear down seemingly impossible barriers, leading to entirely new possibilities. Combined, these impediments make it hard for us to imagine what the future will be like without going through these rigorous futurist exercises.

Predict, learn, and adjust

Once these filters have been applied to the scenarios, I’m finally ready to develop my predictions. These typically take the form of short statements about what will happen in a given period of time. Importantly, I avoid using exact dates. Even the best futurists don’t really know for sure what the future holds, and exact dates are less relevant than definitive trends.

The last step is to share my predictions in presentations and industry articles to get feedback. I also update my predictions as new information and developments dictate. The process of predicting the future is really an ongoing virtuous cycle of gathering, vetting, validating, filtering, predicting, learning, and adjusting.

Of course, this is an oversimplification of the process, as it ignores the mathematical models and serious research and development that goes into it. But it does serve to illustrate the concepts.

So what are my current predictions for the future? Here are just a few to contemplate:

  • A child born today will conservatively live 200 years. Their children will live significantly longer and possibly indefinitely, barring fatal accidents.
  • In the early 2020s, “wearables” will be replaced by “implantables,” which will be supplanted by “replaceables.”
  • By the mid-2020s, futurists will be out of jobs. Machines will do all the predicting, and do it more accurately than even the best human futurists ever did.
  • By the mid-2030s, lab-grown meat will be eaten by more people than organic meat.
  • By the mid-2040s, you will have at least one device inside you that is always connected to the Internet, most likely in the form of a brain implant.

Even if you don’t want to be a futurist, you can use these techniques to improve your life, whether it’s connecting the smart devices in your home and car or creating a better financial forecast at work. After all, there’s a little futurist in all of us.