Lessons from Back to the Future Day: Four Rules for Better Predictions

Lessons from Back to the Future Day: Four Rules for Better Predictions

Lessons from Back to the Future Day: Four Rules for Better Predictions

Last week was the most hectic week since I started Book of the Future. Not least because of Back to the Future Day, the date that Marty and Doc went forward to in the second instalment of the trilogy.

For me this meant 30 broadcast interviews, ending with a Sky News satellite truck parked outside my house. In them I made all sorts of predictions about the future: gadgets disappearing into clothes, furniture and accessories (an old theme), artificial intelligences augmenting us but also displacing humans in the workplace, and new materials starting to have a dramatic effect on the way our world looks.

Only now, few days later, am I getting to finish the blog post I started on the day, considering what makes predictions accurate — or not.

Entertainment over Foresight

The producers of Back to the Future had no interest in accuracy. According to the director, they chose gadgets that made them laugh. But still, they got a lot right: flat screens, video calling, tablets and drones. All realities today. And I’m fairly confident we will see home hydroponics bays as an increasingly normal kitchen appliance in the not-too-distant future.

But the flying car, portable waste-fuelled fusion generator and the hoverboard? Not so much.

So how might you go about making accurate predictions of the future? There’s no hard and fast rules — there are simply too many variables. My Intersections methodology is valuable for helping you to understand what you need to focus on next, but looking further out you need some broader rules.

Here’s what I’ve taken from a few years making longer term predictions.

1. What Is Easier Than When

If you can follow the science you can make a pretty good guess at what could be. If it could, and it offers genuine advantage, then it probably will be at some point. But nailing down that point in time with any degree of accuracy is incredibly hard. Who would have thought it would take so long for 3D printers to go truly mainstream? Not me.

If Back to the Future were a real exercise in futurism you could perhaps forgive them for believing faxes would still be around in 2015, and conversely, getting a little ahead of themselves with the hoverboard.

2. Two Decades from Lab to High Street

This is a very rough rule of thumb, but if you look at a lot of major innovations it seems to take about two decades for them to go from the first breakthrough in the lab to being a serious, mass-market product.

If the science hasn’t been discovered yet that supports a breakthrough you want to see, then I’m afraid you’re going to be waiting a while.

3. Don’t Underestimate the Human Factor

People are often a drag on progress as well as its driver, and that’s not always a bad thing. Legislation and regulation are often there to protect people (as well as being abused to protect some organisations’ market positions). Even outside the law, you have to deal with simple human factors of fallibility, preference and acceptance.

Until these can be overcome for a particular technology, it is never going to be mainstream. And humans all adapt at very different speeds to change. It’s not just a generational thing.

Even if something is possible, and economic, you need to factor in a period of time for it to be regulated and accepted.

4. Simple Economics

Just because something is possible doesn’t mean it’s viable at any price. A surprising number of people may join the auctions for Nike’s self-lacing shoes, but they’re unlikely to be economic to produce at a mass market price any time soon.

I don’t trust most drivers with their cars on the road, let alone in the air. But even if flying cars were self-piloting, I think the economics of keeping them in the air would mean they won’t be a mass market product until the cost of energy generation falls dramatically.

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This article is by Tom Cheesewright. This post forms part of the Futurism series. For more posts on this subject, visit the Futurism page.

Tom Cheesewright


Futurist speaker Tom Cheesewright is one of the UK's leading commentators on technology and tomorrow. Tom has worked with a huge range of organisations across a variety of markets, to help them to see a clear vision of tomorrow, share that vision and respond with agility. Tom draws on his experience to create original, compelling talks that are keyed to the experience of the audience but which surprise and shock with unexpected facts and examples.

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