Every year, the tech industry likes to make predictions for the next year. That can be tricky as technology trends rarely align with the calendar year. For identifying broader trends and more fundamental changes in the landscape beyond just individual cool new products, it, therefore, makes sense to take a longer view.
Taking a longer view is what foresight work is all about.
When it comes to foresight, it is essential to look at the world with as broad a perspective as possible. That is why Telstra partners with the leading futures think tank in the world, IFTF. The Institute for the Future is a Palo Alto-based non-profit that has been around for half a century after being spun off from the RAND Corporation and typically considers the future with a 10-year horizon.
What the IFTF calls this decade is The Age of Distributed Superpowers.
As the world has become more connected and complex, as technologies and ubiquitous connectivity permeate our lives, corporations and individuals alike have seen a new set of powers come to their disposal – powers that can create impact faster and with more reach than ever before.
The Internet is enabling us to shift the public narrative seemingly overnight; rapid technological transformation is creating pressure for regulatory overhauls, altering the rules; markets are being re-invented almost overnight; data-centric tech companies pose an urgent competitive threat to many incumbent organisations that have enjoyed decades of relative stability.
We have already witnessed some early examples of these superpowers in action.
We see them in the remarkably fast creation of new or disruptive business models, from the rise of Uber to the electric scooters taking over cities globally; the latter went from being nowhere a couple of years ago to being practically everywhere today.
It’s not all awesome, of course.
Disruption inevitably has downsides as well, and the same powers that drive growth and innovation can be harnessed for other purposes. Not only do they enable quickly capturing opportunities, but vulnerabilities in our systems are also discovered and then exploited at breathtaking speeds and at massive scale, leaving critical infrastructure from hospitals to the power grid vulnerable to attacks.
What has enabled this state that is simultaneously scary and exciting, brimming with potential but also fraught with systemic risk?
Much of it has to do with connectivity – both the digital and the physical kind.
Humanity can look at the result with some pride – physically connecting the world has enabled a plethora of good things, such as aid to be delivered to disaster areas, and food to be transported to countries struggling with famine. Countless lives have been saved, and countless others enriched through industries like tourism.
Digital connectivity has an equally impressive list of good outcomes; it has enabled much more efficient operations of almost everything. From sectors like agricultural production to entertainment and connecting people globally, technology has had a transformative impact over the past decades.
However, there is a flip side to every coin. Especially in recent years, we have come to appreciate that not everything that happens online can stand the light of day – sometimes, we know the technological communities we have built are swarming with roaches, but we’re scared to turn the lights on. Unintended consequences often cast a shadow on even the best of intentions.
Using the superpowers responsibly
Recognizing the likelihood of unintended consequences, and as we enter deeper into the age of distributed superpowers over this decade, we need to do so with a sense of humility, and a sense of positive purpose.
It behooves us to consider Kranzberg’s First Law of Technology:
Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.
What he meant with that is the all technical developments have environmental, social and human consequences that go far beyond the immediate intended use of the technology – and the same technology can result in radically different outcomes when introduced in different contexts and circumstances.
This is why we – as a nation, as organizations, as communities, as individuals – need to approach the future with eyes wide open, acknowledging the potential for our tools to produce unintended consequences, and deploy them in a thoughtful, considerate manner.
What can we expect in the 2020s, then?
We can expect more markets to be re-invented and more rules to be re-written: by 2030, for example, it seems likely we might routinely be BBQing beef patties that come not from slaughtered beef, but either from lab meat or plant-based alternatives.
In futures thinking, it’s common practice to think of the future in terms of three cones expanding from today: possible futures, being all the possible ways the world could turn out to be – obviously, a vast range of scenarios. Then we have the probable futures, which are the scenarios the world seems to be heading towards currently. Finally, we have the preferable futures – for the lack of a better word, the utopias we would all like to happen.
What the emerging superpowers are doing is expanding the cone of probable futures.
Technologies like connectivity, communication, data processing, storage and artificial intelligence remain at the core of most future scenarios, so it’s our moral duty to do everything in our power to try to shift the window of probable futures to overlap as much as possible with the preferable futures.
In other words, to the best of our abilities, use the new superpowers for good.