So often, the problem with predicting the future is that we attempt it based only on what we know today.
Of course, the limits of space and time make gazing accurately into the future pretty difficult – I’d have won the lottery by now if that wasn’t the case.
But when considering what’s around the corner I find myself thinking of the stars.
This isn’t just because, by nature of the relationship between time and space, they allow a glimpse into an era that we’ve not yet encountered. In fact, the reason is far more tangible than that.
Here’s my TedX talk, where I outlined my views on why we need to stop predicting the future, but instead create it.
Look to the Stars
The Square Kilometre Array project – known as SKA – is an international effort to build the world’s largest radio telescope. Once complete, it’ll have more than a square kilometre of collecting area.
There’ll be thousands of dishes and up to a million low-frequency antennas enabling astronomers to monitor the sky in a way that’s never been possible before.
And the reason this makes me think of predicting the future? Because the idea for SKA has been kicking around in astronomer circles since way back in the early nineties.
In fact, it was first discussed in 1993 when astronomers realised they needed a next generation of telescopic equipment for scientific discovery.
It was another few years until the concept of an array of telescopes was proposed, but at that time the processing power required felt like it was lightyears away from becoming a reality.
But that didn’t stop those pioneering scientists from creating for a future that didn’t exist yet. They had faith that the technology required in terms of processing power and data transmissions was something that would happen in time.
More to the point, they didn’t say, “it could happen.” They said, “it should happen.”
They predicted that in 25 years’ time they would have the technology available.
And today, that technology is ready.
Inventing with 1,000 Steps
There’s a real lesson to be learned here about harnessing ambition and directing it towards the challenges we want to take on.
However, the picture I’ve just painted perhaps obscures an inevitability. No project is smooth sailing all the way: you have to anticipate some degree of failure.
And when that failure does come? Well, you’ll be in great company.
Thomas Edison made thousands of unsuccessful attempts at the light bulb before he got it right. When asked what that failure felt like his answer was reportedly that he didn’t fail 1,000 times, rather “the light bulb was an invention with 1,000 steps.”
Some in the world of start-ups consider failure as a rite of passage. “Fail fast and break things.”
But that’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m saying that failure is something to measure yourself by to ensure you’re being innovative enough.
In my line of work, if you’re only failing half the time then you’re probably being too conservative.
If one in every two projects results in a product for the market, then chances are you’re simply building a product for a market that already exists. That’s not a bad thing per se, but it’s also not – in my book – what would be considered innovation.
So, this isn’t about saying “it’s OK to fail.” It’s saying “I need to fail. Only when I fail enough will I succeed.”
What Innovation Really Looks Like
Now, it’s very easy to pontificate on these things. But providing real world examples can be less straightforward.
I’m lucky enough to be involved with a huge range of different innovation projects, working on everything from smart cities to connected cows, vehicle-to-grid energy, and connected and autonomous vehicles – or CAVs.
It’s the latter of these that I want to explore in this instance.
For me, CAVs represent the technology that will bring the greatest disruption over the next decade. They’re going to completely change the way we think about mobility.
We’re currently working on project called the Smart Mobility Living Lab, which involves testing connected and autonomous vehicles in the centre of London – a complex urban environment, infinitely more challenging than the made-to-measure test circuits these vehicles have been trialed on to date.
When I talk about this project, I’m very mindful of the language I use. For me, these aren’t ‘driverless cars’ – or rather, they aren’t just driverless cars. Because instead of thinking in the language and processes that apply to today’s world, we should be considering the future: the world that hasn’t arrived yet.
The natural evolution of what we have today is that we are gradually removing the driver from the vehicle, by making it more and more intelligent.
This will lead to very clever cars in our cities, that have the same problems that we have right now.
We need to think differently. Instead of talking in terms of ‘taking the driver out of the car’, let’s think more in terms of putting a lift in the street: introducing the idea of journey becoming a movement from A to B with just the touch of a button.
It means we can adopt innovative thinking in lots of other ways too.
A New Perspective
We’re imagining a world in which we don’t have traffic lights, signs, car parks or all the things that we’re used to seeing today. A world in which our children won’t know the fear of their first driving lesson.
Yes, we will test and validate driverless cars – because we need to do things safely and in steps. But we also need to think much bigger and longer term about what the future of mobility actually means.
But again, it can feel easy to pose these kinds of questions. In reality, we need to come up with ways of making things happen.
Creating, Not Predicting, Together
The challenges we take on are bigger than any individual or organisation can meet on their own. That’s why we run our projects as co-innovation initiatives, working in partnership with government, start-ups, academia, and other technology companies.
But one of the things I’ve learned is that getting people on board can be difficult enough on its own – and to succeed there are three layers that you need to pull together.
Firstly, it’s about the hard return on investment, or ROI – a saving or an earning. People are much happier when they see a financial return for the efforts.
Then you have what we call the ‘soft ROI’: the intangible benefits, without a clear measurable return. I think about these as ‘the things that make people happy’. If you’re a politician, it’s what helps win over your electorate; if you’re a boss, it’s what makes your staff go above and beyond.
But what excites me above all is the third layer.
These are the use cases we explore on our projects that have a transformational impact: the things that change the world, that open up new scenarios and possibilities. Creating the future, not just predicting it.
My experience is that you can’t have the third layer without the first two, which can sometimes lead to compromise – an inevitable part of any partnership.
However, I’m unable to compromise on my strongest view about how we should get to the future: by creating, not predicting it. Let’s build the world we want to thrive in, together.