The inspiration for this post comes from James Saye who responded to my #AskAFuturist thread on Twitter with this question: “What have you been most wrong about in the past?”
The short answer is that I got lots wrong, particularly in the early years when I was less cautious about making actual predictions (this is a surprisingly small amount of the work of a futurist). But having analysed why I was wrong, there is an incredibly consistent theme. I don’t think I have been very wrong (if at all) about *what* is going to happen. But I was consistently wrong about *when* it would happen. And always in the same direction. I was too positive, or optimistic.
It took me a few years as a full time futurist to learn this lesson, and it was part of the thinking that went into High Frequency Change. There are many factors that get in the way of possibility becoming reality.
But you don’t care about theory do you? You want to know when I was wrong! OK. Let’s dive in to some examples.
Wearables? Ahead of their time
For the first two or three years I was working full time as a futurist, I was consistently underestimating the time it would take for technological possibilities to become everyday realities.
Take this example from an interview I did with CNBC back in 2014. Here, I was rather forward in predicting the uptake of wearables. Sure, the smartwatch has been something of a success (Apple alone now sells more watches than the entire Swiss watch industry), but wearables are not yet truly ubiquitous. And the smart glasses I could see coming back then are probably still five years away.
Do I still believe that we will start to use other devices as our primary digital interface? Absolutely. A small cloud of connected devices can provide a much lower friction interface to our digital world if their interface is truly intuitive. But right now, the experience still isn’t that slick, even with the Apple Watch. And charging it remains a bit of a commitment.
We’ll adopt more wearable tech when its use is just natural. Take the smart shoe inserts I reviewed a few years ago that connect to your navigation app in your phone and tell you when to turn left or right without looking at your screen (themselves worthy of a retrospective blog post at some point). At some point I think we will have more tech like this that takes advantage of our other senses, other than sight and sound, to subtly feed us information. But such devices being so ubiquitous as to be a normal part of your everyday trainers? That’s still some time away.
A smarter office? Not yet
How about this interview I did with CNN, also in 2014, about the future office. Here, I am incredibly optimistic about the timeline for some technologies: eye-controlled cursors, smart glasses, and VR video conferencing. All of those are here of course. They were here in some form in 2014 when I did the interview! I had (and must get back from the person I lent it to), a USB eye-tracking interface from a company called The Eye Tribe, that was already pretty slick. But slick enough to replace (or augment) the mouse or touchscreen? Not quite yet. But I think we’ll get there, even if it is just part of the smart glasses that I still think are coming – eventually.
Hey, at least I was sceptical about implanted microchips…
I’ve written in the past about one of my most optimistic moments about the pace of change: my conviction that a lot more stuff will be 3D printed. This seems to make so much sense rather than manufacturing for an uncertain market on the other side of the world and shipping finished goods at great expense – both financial and environmental. If we can manufacture on demand, then we should. You can read the full article here. TLDR: there are many barriers but eventually additive manufacturing becomes a lot more mainstream in (the alternative to) mass production.
The end of Facebook
Perhaps the timeline I have got most wrong is around the decline of Facebook. Based on this post I was already predicting its decline back in 2011! The gradient of that decline has been a lot shallower than I expected. It continued gathering users in new markets even as it lost them in others, and it made the transition to mobile better than expected. Still, one day it will be eclipsed – not necessarily as a company, but as a network.
Back to the theory
The lesson I learned from all this, is that it’s not enough for things to be possible, or even highly desirable for the relevant audiences, in order for them to happen. There are many social, cultural, legal, financial, and behavioural barriers to change. These are much harder to predict or even understand than the primary drivers of scientific possibility and objective benefit. Or in short, it’s much easier to predict what will happen than when it will happen. These days I am much more cautious about the pace at which things change. Hence, in High Frequency Change I tried to analyse some of the factors that inspire and delay change, making that more nuanced argument about what moves fast and what doesn’t.
What is important when developing strategy though, is the possibility of high frequency change. As the current crisis has shown, there is enormous value in preparing for accelerated change rather than optimising completely for your current environment. This is a theme I return to in my next book, Future-Proof Your Business. Watch this space…