The past is a poor guide to the future

October 2015

Here’s a thought experiment for you: Think ahead ten years and imagine that no one needs office or retail real estate in the way they need it today. No-one needs to go to an office to do any of their work, and everyone can discover, purchase and have delivered to them any item of clothing, or food or whatever in just a few minutes.

Now don’t let that thought be pushed aside as crazy. Think back ten years and consider that then there were no smartphones, no tablets, no social media to speak of, no Uber, no Airbnb, no Google Docs. Can you honestly say you expected to be doing what you do today ten years ago?

You didn’t did you? And today there are 2 billion people with smartphones, 1.4 billion users on Facebook and hundreds of millions of people who daily use the likes of Twitter, Whats App and Instagram. With 1990’s supercomputers in their pockets vast swathes of the world’s population are spending much of their day doing things that simply did not exist just ten years ago.

So think forward, but abstractly, based on the one thing we can be certain about, that technology is exponentially increasing in power and speed and simultaneously becoming cheaper and cheaper. Consider what might be if everyone has devices 16 or more times faster than now, multi gigabit mobile broadband, unlimited data storage, ubiquitous super high definition screens, and personal artificial intelligence assistants. Imagine Google’s mission to ‘organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful’ has been achieved.

You’re now thinking backwards from the future, rather than projecting a future based on iterating from the present. And that makes all the difference. Not digitising the past, but imagining what might be possible with tools that do not exist yet.

Many people today say planning is vital, but the worse thing that could happen to you if you set a five year goal is that you achieve it. Because the world will have changed by then and where you thought was the place to be will no longer be where it’s at.

So in ten years time we’ll be deep in an age of information abundance, with extraordinary communication tools at our disposal. We can do so much with so little it beggars belief. What then do we, as humans, bring to the party? And where do we want to do it?

Human capabilities change but human needs do not. Barring adding ‘Batteries and Wifi’ to the base, Maslow’s hierarchy is immutable. What is our value add? What we bring is the ability to innovate, interact with complex objects in unstructured environments and apply social intelligence to problems.

The thought experiment ends therefore with defining what spaces, what places we will need under these new circumstances. It’s not a matter of the death of the office or the high street, it’s about understanding the fundamental customer needs and developing the appropriate product.