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How to tune in to signals of change to forecast future trends

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Some have said that no one could have predicted that COVID-19 was a serious risk that could spread worldwide and kill millions. But Toronto-based BlueDot did just that. Before the World Health Organization sounded the alarm on the new viral threat, BlueDot’s AI software had detected a warning. Its founder and CEO, Dr. Kamran Khan, was paying attention.

On New Year’s Eve 2019, Khan saw that BlueDot’s “early warning system” generated an alert over 27 cases of a flu-like illness in Wuhan, China. Khan immediately recognized the similarity to the 2003 SARS virus that had killed several of his colleagues. BlueDot’s AI system was able to identify the telltale signal early in the pandemic because of its powerful access to worldwide data.

Khan is an infectious disease physician, so he knew all information needed to catch a dangerous new virus early on. BlueDot pores through medical bulletins, livestock reports, and ticket sales data from airports. How BlueDot was able to detect the risk so early and predict its spread from there was documented on a CBS 60 Minutes episode last April.

Khan and the AI platform he built caught the world’s attention for being among the first to sound the alarm on a trend that defined 2020. BlueDot’s predictive technology turned him into a recognized futurist overnight. But not every futurist needs an AI platform. 

Futurists are people who know how to tune the trend dial and focus on the strong signals broadcasting what’s coming next while filtering out all the noise around them. There’s a clear market advantage in knowing what trend is going to change the world next. Enough so that leading technology firms specifically hire futurists or foresight experts to help them tune in, including Google, Salesforce.com, Intel, IBM, and Microsoft. 

BlueDot was only able to forecast the pandemic because it had a database of signals to build from. Signals are like the tea leaves that futurists read to know what’s coming next. The trick is knowing how to pick out the signals from the noise. I asked several futurists to share their techniques.

checking smart watch

Consider second-order effects 

Sometimes identifying the right signals involves identifying clear future trends that seem likely to play out as planned but then thinking about the second-order effects that will cascade down from those plans. 

A second-order effect refers to the idea of cause and reaction. If someone’s plan is successful, it will have the expected result. But there may be other consequences that arise from that situation that no one could predict. 

Looking for linkages between loosely connected systems can help a futurist identify a new trend that wasn’t obvious initially but becomes apparent when you trace back the connections. Take an example from Cathy Hackl, a futurist and the author of The Augmented Workforce, who sees a connection between the current plans for space exploration and the careers that her daughter might consider in the future.

“I spend a lot of time listening to my kids. In many ways, they are the signals,” Hackl said during a session of Nokia’s Real Talk 2020 event.  “Last night, my [10-year-old] daughter told me, ‘Mommy, I want to become a lunar food scientist.’ If we go back to the moon and eventually on to Mars, children are going to see opportunities beyond just this world.”

Many stakeholders are investing in plans to send humans and robots into space. NASA has a series of missions that include putting the first woman on the lunar surface by 2024. In this decade, the European Space Agency, Russia, India, Japan, and China plan to go to the moon.  And private firms like Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic hope to create a suborbital tourism business, with flights that would allow passengers to experience zero-gravity conditions for at least a few minutes continuously. 

Space exploration could lead to a whole new set of careers. Today, the industry is most promising for engineers and physicists, but for children currently going through primary school, the landscape is much broader. More typical lines of business such as legal, marketing, business development, and operations will expand as more organizations push into the stars. 

If even some of the organizations investing in the space industry are successful, the impact on the future job market could be huge. With children already imagining themselves working in a context that’s out of this world, the next order of changes could be how educational institutions plan new programs to meet that demand. 

Open-minded scenario planning

To understand the future, sometimes you must live it. Elina Hiltunen, a keynote speaker and futurist, did just that when she had an NFC chip installed in her hand to use as the key to her house.

“I just waved my hand, and the lock recognized me,” Hiltunen told the Nokia Real Talk panel. “It was amazing; I never forgot my keys. I think this is more and more going to happen… we are going to be more like cyborgs.”

Getting technology implanted for convenience might not be appealing to most adults today, but younger generations tend to have more comfort experimenting with new forms of technology. It’s conceivable that implantable technology could become a trend as cultural norms around it shift. Hiltunen also points out that even if implanting technology isn’t going to be very popular in the near term (she opted to remove the NFC chip from her hand after a few years), wearables provide a similar merging of human and technology. A bank in Finland is already sending its customers a ring with an NFC chip linked to their accounts to be used for payments, for example. 

“I do not think that everybody will implant chips in their body, but I think that technology will become more wearable,” Hiltunen says in the interview. “You can have NFC chips in your ring or jewelry. Why bother to implant in your body?”

Hiltunen’s approach shows that it’s essential to have an open perspective to different scenarios playing out in society. While today’s norms mean most people would opt for the wearable over the implantable device, that doesn’t mean it will always be so. Considering what the world could look like in a scenario where it’s the norm to have implanted technology can help understand potential future outcomes. 

Scenario planning should still work with plausible outcomes, says Adib Ghubril, an executive advisor at Info-Tech Research Group. To consider different scenarios that are likely for humans using technology, keep the “four A’s” in mind: augmentation, automation, administration, and autonomy. These terms define all the different outcomes that people want to achieve when they’re using technology. 

“We can look at everything going on around us through the Quad-A model and ask ‘How does that tech improve any of those qualities?'” he says. “If we think it does, then we can start to look at it a little closer.” 

“I do not think that everybody will implant chips in their body, but I think that technology will become more wearable.”

PESTLE framework and clustering 

Using a framework to help with brainstorming different signals and then grouping common themes into clusters can help identify trends. A common framework used by organizations conducting this type of exercise is the PESTLE, which stands for Political, Economic, Social, Technological, Legal, and Environmental. This method is meant to help focus on where changes are coming from and realize its implications.

“Organizations collecting these observations are logged, and signals are clustered together to form trends,” explains David Glazer, the strategy and innovation practice lead at Info-Tech Research Group. “From those, we derive the plausible scenarios by determining the causal forces of the trend, or the drivers.” 

Finding the signals to cluster together logically is the real trick. Involving many different people that bring diverse backgrounds and perspectives can help. Take an example from Hiltunen, who reads the signals specific to e-waste and projects a trend. 

In the environmental context, e-waste is a worsening problem. The volume of technology products in production continues to grow, and the resulting number of devices that are replaced and thrown in the trash grows along with it. These products are difficult to recycle and even dangerous to people and the environment, yet they often end up in landfills. On the economic front, the demand for new devices is higher than ever. The global pandemic required students to learn from home and employees to work from home, and many bought new laptops or Chromebooks as a result.

With device production soaring and e-waste a noted industry problem, Hiltunen predicts that “the circular economy” will be more of a focus, especially for certain rare earth elements critical to manufacturing these new devices. Creating a process to collect devices at the end of their life and strip the raw materials for use in future products would be a logical solution to both problems. 

“We have to be aware of the facts of today and history,” Hiltunen says. “And then use imagination to think what could happen to these facts in the future.” 

Whether you’re using an AI-powered prediction engine that’s plugged into global data sources or just sitting down to brainstorm with your peers, forecasting the future is possible. If you can spend time putting these exercises into practice regularly, you’ll find that you can tune into those signals more efficiently. Soon enough, you’ll be earning some futurist credibility yourself.


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