I gave a presentation at the Eindhoven Technical University on Engineering in 2050. When I was asked to do that, and they provided me with the title, I objected that it was asking for a science fiction presentation, not for a science presentation. Apparently they agreed that it was not reasonable to talk about 2050 in any credible way but, I was told, the title was "catchy". In the end I went along, taking it as a challenge, knowing the limitations of what is reasonable and remaining withing those boundaries daring here and there to make some long term forecast. To remain on "almost" solid ground, however, I decided to talk about trends we see today that reasonably will extend far in the future, rather than trying to take a snapshot of what will be in 2050. Here, and in the following posts, I am sharing those ideas.
Curiosity is something relatively recent. It is unlikely that our ancestors asked themselves what will be over future generations. What was, what is, is what will be. Actually, for ages, the preservation of the status quo in politics, society, economics was a goal and anything that could potentially disrupt, even just ideas, were frown upon.
Everything has been so stable over the centuries, and centuries were much longer than they are now since the average human life span was half of today, that people could not even imagine that there might be a different future in store, and if something was dreamed was to restore the splendour of an “imagined” past.
These last 300 years have seen amazing changes and these changes have accelerated over the last 50 years.
Predicting the future is not an exact science, but it is no longer looking at a crystal ball.
Several businesses today need to look ahead, the making of a biz plan is in a way an exercise in predicting the future, a future that is rooted in markets (regulations), economics (politics), social (cultural) aspects as well as in technology evolution. Of these four components, technology is the easiest to predict over the short medium term, altough in these last 10-15 years technology prediction has become entangled with market prediction. As the horizon is moved to decades, rather than years, predicting technology becomes more and more difficult, although assessing some technology trends is still possible.
As I hinted, technology forecast has become a necessity in several business that have to understand the impact of the evolution on their investment and amortization strategies. The bigger the investment and the longer the amortization period the longer forecasting horizon is needed.
Companies like Shell are making prediction over a period of several decades and have developed forecasting methodology that take into account much more than technology prediction. Over the longer term, factors like political situation, global economy, social climate are more important than technology itself, although technology may lead to disruptions that crush current business models and shift cunsumers behavior.
Over the short-medium term it is usually more important to assess the different speed of evolution in potentially competing technologies since this can affect the expected evolution of a specific technology.
Think about the NED technology that in 2005 seemed posed to take over the LCD technology. LCD technology was producing displays that were not particulalry nice to watch. They were nice to look at, because they were so thin (in comparison to the CRT television), but the image quality was poor, worse than the one delivered by a CRT. NED promised much better quality, but the manufacturing process needed some tuning and delivery to the market was not expected before 2008.
People fell in love with the thinnes of LCD and started to replace CRT with LDC. That market pull stimulated industry to pour money into bettering the manufacturing process (improving the yield and quality) and into better image quality. By the time NED could have hit the mass market the LCD has progressed so much that still kept its competitive edge, delivered lower and lower cost television thus increasing demand and volumes that in turn increased quality and decreased manufacturing cost and end user price. The NED faded away before having a chance to hit the market.
What’s more is that often new technologies (as the ones that may happen in the next 30 years but also the ones that have been “invented” in the last 10-20 years and that so far have not had any significant impact, may affect areas that are completely different from the ones imagined by their inventors (the cartoon is a point in case).
Jules Verne was a science fiction writer that is now recognised as a visionary because many of his dreams turned out to be actual, concrete, technological prediction, from the submarine to the rocket reaching the Moon.
His views of the Future had the power to engage people making them wish to be part of that Future. We need to have the new generations looking with awe and hope at a Future they can be part of. Engineering should be more than building the present, it should have a vision and use the present as a stepping stone to develop the Future.
So looking ahead, with our feet rooted in what is technologically reasonable, is important. Beating the second law of thermodynamics to imagine perpetual motion is not a way to dream about the future, in an engineering perspective. However looking forward to a time when we could change, steer the climate, although clearly impossible today, does not necessarily have to remain impossible in 30 years time. An example can be seen in the book published last year “The realisation of Star Trek Technologies”
Most importantly it is important to look ahead to shape the future to come. And what is amazing is that the Future is more and more something that everyone on Earth has the potential to shape. Look at the world of apps. Just fifteen years ago apps where not existing. We had applications but only a few companies could develop applications and most of us had just the choice of using them or not.
Now the offer of applications, called apps, is so broad that we can choose in an infinite continuum (if you look for a “calculator” on the Apps Store you can choose among 543 varieties of calculators!).
Even more important, potentially each of us can design, implement and market her own app. We can shape the future.
It is much more than being able to “write” an app. When you publish your app on an on-line store you get feedback from people all over the world, and those feedbacks help you to fine tune your app. This leads to an iterative process that at the same time can shift the perception of the market and can improve your effectiveness in creating a market.
It is not just you vs the marketplace. It is you getting a feeling from what the market likes or dislikes by observing the success of other apps. The future becomes a loosely cooperative effort where everyone matters. It is like a rubber sheet. The action of one person create a force on the rubbersheet that distort it drawing some parts closer together and making other parts diverge.