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Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Consumer foresight: the futurists alternative to science fiction
Article Type: Thinking long-term From: Strategy & Leadership, Volume 40, Issue 1
The Intel Corporation, the multinational chip maker, has experimented with using science fiction to think about long-term technology planning. Its “Tomorrow Project” recruited four professional science fiction authors to prepare an anthology of stories based on Intel’s development projects. These stories stimulated the imagination of the R&D team to consider new possibilities for technologies of the future. Is this a practice worth copying?
Maybe. It’s true that prescient science fiction writers have anticipated technological advances. For example, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle wrote about iPad-like computers in 1974, a year when Steve Jobs began attending the Homebrew Computer Club and when advanced mainframes that flew moon missions were the size of a small garage. As early as 1966, the television program Star Trek began introducing the world to concepts like the flat screen TV, the personal digital assistant, magnetic resonance imagers, replicators and miniature communicators, almost a decade before the mobile phone (weighing in at 2.5 pounds) was invented. But I have also seen examples of business and government managers employing science fiction to envision the future that were neither awesomely predictive nor useful. Most such exercises produce both poor fiction and flawed forecasting. My view is that the real value to imaginative thinking about the future is not envisioning just the technologies but rather anticipating how they could be used to address the social and personal needs of consumers in the future.
In fact, the best science fiction always has been about people, not technologies. An alternate model for envisioning products of the future is the Japanese technology roadmap. When I first saw one some 20 years ago their complexity reminded me of old astrological charts, but they offered so much more. The Japanese planners had a particular talent for seeing progressions of multiple technological developments flowing toward ever-improved products. They also thought in terms of decades rather than quarters. In the late 1990s I was asked by a Japanese consumer-product company to do something different: generate alternative progressions (scenarios) of consumer value rather than technologies. The client wanted maps that showed a hierarchy of consumer value in the US for a particular product decade by decade from 1950 to 2050 – 50 years of history and a 50-year projection of trends.
Where does one start with a 50-year forecast? One option was science fiction: just speculate, be creative, and let the chips fall where they may. Instead, my team explored and found several long-term trends based on demographic, economic, cultural, generational factors. We held expert focus groups to learn how these trends might change in the future due to many factors, including but not exclusively R&D trends.
From this experience I learned to respect the willingness of Japanese companies to learn how foreign cultures and markets are evolving, a striking contrast to the short-term market research than American companies do. US businesses have a bad habit of assuming that the people of other cultures are more or less like Americans, wanting the same kinds of products with similar packaging. But this particular futuring project taught me that in the eyes of the Japanese we Americans are as strange as aliens from Mars.
The consumer maps, based on historical data and trend projections modified by expert judgments, showed how some consumer values arose and then disappeared while other values changed over time. For example, oddly in a world of packaging, the styling of products in this particular category became less rather than more important to consumers. Energy efficient design became valued more than high style. Safety has always been an issue for consumers, but the meaning of safety greatly changed over time, from how the product might harm the user to how the product might protect the consumer from external threats. Of course, information technologies emerged as important value toward the year 2000, with more and more applications to the year 2050.
My conclusion is that businesses need more stories about consumer value and behavior in the future, ones that portray social conditions and the environments in which future consumers will deal with their problems and needs. Business need such stories to envision the mindsets of future consumers and the modes in which they will shop in order to stretch current thinking about product and service development.
This is exactly the principal value of well-written scenarios, ones that generate stories rather than quantitative projections of future consumers and their environments. The scenario method migrated from the theater to corporate planning. Using it, managers can visualize alternative futures that are described in terms of the actions and motivations of customers, competitors, and government regulators. Much like a play, scenarios can illustrate possible circumstances in which certain decisions are more likely than not to be successful. Seen this way, the lessons of evolving customer necessity can inspire invention.
Stephen M. MillettPresident of Futuring Associates LLC, located in Columbus, Ohio (firstname.lastname@example.org). Previously he was the resident futurist at Battelle, the world’s largest, independent research and development organization. He is a Contributing Editor of Strategy & Leadership.
2. The Mote in God’s Eye, a science fiction novel by American writers Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, published in 1974.