Spontaneous gifts are perhaps the best of all. A few weeks back, my friend and former colleague Adrian Bentley of Just Good Ideas gave me a book he had stumbled across. Produced by TechTV, the Catalog of Tomorrow is a more grown-up Book of the Future (the 1979 version), bringing together predictions from a range of experts across a variety of fields. Published 15 years ago, the predictions it contains feel ripe for revisiting.
The book features a foreword by Paul Saffo, an expert in forecasting who teaches at both Stanford and Singularity University. In just a few hundred words, Saffo offers some of the smartest statements about futurism and forecasting that I have yet to read. For a start, he points out that forecasts will almost always be wrong, for if it were otherwise, we would all be bystanders, watching a pre-determined path unfold. Rather, we are active participants in shaping our future. The purpose of futurism is not always to say what will be, but to show what can be. To light the paths, not fix the route.
Saffo also points out that even those who have been famously wrong in their predictions have gone on to profit from the unfolding reality. Tom Watson of IBM, who predicted a market for just a handful of computers, is a notable example.
The point is that we should not be afraid of making forecasts. Nor should we be afraid of being wrong — try though we might to be right.
Saffo also refers to another issue to which I often point: predicting ‘what’ is generally easier than predicting ‘when’. As he puts it, ‘most ideas take 20 years to become an overnight success’. The direction of travel can be absolutely clear, but the speed of the journey is determined by many variables: legal, societal, technical and more.
My first experience of this was five years ago, when on BBC 5live on New Year’s Day I predicted that there would be a consumer-grade 3D printer on the high street for under £300 by the end of 2013. I was wrong — it took a couple more years.
In fact, I have only around a 50% hit rate from the predictions from that show. I don’t think any of the predictions are wrong, but half are yet to come true:
I predicted commercial applications by end of 2013. That’s technically correct but this really hasn’t taken off in a big way yet.
I thought we’d be charging our phones weekly, not daily by now. Battery tech has improved but not to the point that it can feed our power-hungry devices for more than a day at a time.
I predicted more wirelessly connected gadgets starting to take over some of the functions of the phone. Again, I think I’m technically correct here, but beyond headphones and fitness trackers, this is yet to be a major trend.
Ultra High Definition
I proposed that 4K would succeed where 3D failed. Nailed that one at least.
I predicted the expansion of fitness trackers out into other connected health sensors. This isn’t totally mainstream yet but loads of people have sleep monitors and blood oximetry sensors, so I’m counting this one as a win.
I suggested that in 2013 we would start to take electric cars seriously. Yesterday I found out that second hand hybrids and EVs are selling for more than their original purchase price. So yeah, I’ll claim that one.
Predictions are fun. But they are a tool. A way to make people think about what might be.
Make some predictions of your own. You might not get them all right, but in the process of making them, you’ll probably think harder about the future than you have in a while.