March 30, 2018
Behind the scenes of Business Futures
By: Mark Purdy and Suning An

Historically, even the best business leaders have been pretty good at getting the future wrong.

One of the most well-known, off-the-mark predictions is probably Bob Metcalfe’s column in 1995 on the failure of the Internet. He said that he would eat his words if the Internet did not “go spectacularly supernova and, in 1996, catastrophically collapse.”

Two years later, at an international conference, the multimillionaire, father of Ethernet and founder of 3Com had to keep to his promise by literally swallowing a printed copy of his column.

Though Metcalfe’s judgment that the internet was merely a money pit was not completely unfounded at that time, several important trends that led to mainstream Internet usage were already in play: rise of the “killer applications” of the Internet (emails and browsers), rapid consumer and enterprise adoption of Internet access, commercialization of Internet companies, and a growing need for global information access, just to name a few.

But, if these and other indicators were apparent, why did the smartest of us get the future wrong?

One major reason is that we often get blinded or fixated by specific trends, especially in a world where we are more connected and informed than ever so that recognizing trends becomes easier. Consequently, we fail to see how the collision of trends could create an entirely different economic and business environment.

This is where our latest research Business Futures comes into play. We explore how today’s trends intersect, instead of viewing the trends in isolation. Combining horizon scanning, data science and expert insights, we envision four key business futures with significant cross-industry impact over the next few years.

The three elements of our approach

The three elements of our approach

#1 Horizon Scanning
#2 Data Science
#3 Experts

However, anticipating the far-off future is not a habit that most business leaders come by easily, let alone seeing its implications and taking action. To bring our data-driven analyses to life, we take a unique approach to present each future to our audience: creating a story of 2023 to illustrate what the world might look like.

How do we conduct futures storytelling? One thing worth mentioning: these stories are not groundless. We weave the stories of the future from a collection of today’s trends and anecdotes, and go to more extremes to highlight future dilemmas. Furthermore, we develop the stories using the elements of fiction—setting, character, conflict, point of view, etc.—to make the stories resonate better with the audience. Similar to the popular TV series Black Mirror that terrifies people with tales of technology nightmares, our stories aim to leave business leaders contemplating the opportunities and challenges the future has to offer, if today’s trends continue to collide.

Take “The Imagination Economy”, one of our business futures. We present a world shaped by XR (extended reality) technologies through the eyes of a tech journalist who lives in 2023. We let her conduct extensive interviews, find out why consumers enjoy XR tours and how CEOs construct XR business empires, as well as dig into the debate between critics and supporters. By reading her feature article, today’s leaders can start to picture which type of XR pioneers they can transform into, what future XR services consumers might demand, and where the backlash may come from.

Lord Byron said truth is stranger than fiction, but there is no doubt that the two combined can provide powerful insights into the future.

Read more about the Imagination Economy and the other business futures our research uncovered, click here.

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