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How to Think Like a Futurist #IoE

Preparing for tomorrow’s panel at Fast Company’s Innovation Uncensored event in New York has been an interesting process. That’s because I’ve been asked to describe how I predict the future rather than what the future will look like. This topic caused me to focus my attention inward, rather than looking outward as I usually do.

Accurately predicting the future can be challenging. As Niels Bohr, a Danish physicist who received the 1922 Nobel Prize in Physics for his contributions to understanding atomic structure and quantum mechanics, once said, “Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.”

While predicting the future isn’t an exact science, it can be accomplished with surprising accuracy. Here’s how I do it.

      1)   Scan by casting a wide net: Clues about the future reside in many places. That’s why I constantly conduct research; create prototypes; read books and papers; watch videos; speak with customers, coworkers, and colleagues; peruse social media; attend events; and browse the Internet. I use all of this information to sense the trends that indicate the vector or direction things are heading. Getting to this point, however, is only half the battle.

      As I consume information, it is important not to let human bias interfere—at least not at this stage. For instance, people often fear and resist new ideas. Take the Internet of Everything (IoE), the next evolution of the Internet that will connect people, process, data, and things to the Internet. A common and immediate reaction to my blogs about IoE was concern about privacy and security. While skepticism is healthy and warranted, it can get in the way—especially early in the thought development process.  Given this, it’s critical to approach futurism with an open mind, uncluttered by previous biases.

      2)   Vet with proven techniques: Once the trends are developed, I use a scenario-planning technique that allows me to envision future states from just a few years to decades. I then use a process called “backcasting,” which, in essence, is the opposite of forecasting. With forecasting, you start at a current state to envision what’s possible. With backcasting, you begin at a future state and consider the events that need to occur to enable that scenario. Once these events are identified, I apply a set of filters and use a weighting system to determine their viability.  Filters often take the shape of questions. Will a specific technology exist in that time frame to enable a given event? Are there dependent technologies or events that need to be considered, such as energy sources? Will the future scenario be accepted and adopted because it solves a real problem?

      3)   Validate, communicate, and learn: Future states that pass the vetting process are then reviewed by a close circle of coworkers, colleagues, and even family members that I trust to provide honest feedback. Each of these groups has a unique perspective due to their current role, past experiences, and relationship to me. Based on their input and additional reflection, I either 1) revise my vision and move to the next step, 2) proceed directly to the next step without changes, or 3) discard and start over.

      The future states in which I have high confidence are then developed into thought leadership materials such as white papers, presentations, and even patent submissions that are communicated through various channels, including speaking events, customer discussions, the Internet, and social media. The “final step” is to listen to the feedback and then apply the key learnings to the beginning of the process to start the cycle all over again.

It is important to note that there are dozens of techniques that people use to predict the future. The key to success is determining which processes and tools work best for the way you think and work.

If you would like to learn more, come see my colleagues and me at Fast Company’s Innovation Uncensored event as we discuss how future thinking works, and the big ideas and solutions that will be coming into play in the near and distant future. If you can’t make it, I’d love to know what you think, along with which techniques and processes you use to better understand the future.

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