Caveat, these are specific to my own interests and attention in higher education and information technology, but also in regards to energy, material science and sensors, since these last three sectors will have feedback effects on the other trends.
Forecasting? Not Possible
People I have spoken with about the future know I am suspicious to the point of incredulity about any kind of ability to predict or even forecast accurately the future. Think about it–if you could even know for certain the stock price of a single stock within a 24 hour time period, you would be a millionaire in no time. The recent Hawaii 2050 exercise only received my scorn (and certainly no link love). Folks, that is 42 years in the future, what are you thinking! What did we know about 2008 back in 1966? Absolutely nothing. All guesses wild, all certainties rendered ridiculous if not sublime. (For more information on the past and current practices of futurology, see the wikipedia article.)
My position is informed by a strong interest in forecasting methods, including a graduate course by a professor who worked with the early forecasters at RAND. I am not saying forecasting is nonsense, but rather that it is much more constrained than people generally think. Why? Well it just isn’t comforting to know that we really have no idea what specifically (as opposed to generally) our future will be. However, what is the better position: to be blissfully unaware that we do not have such control, or to know that, and thereby be able to act in ways that render more effective the control we do have?
That said, when we talk about the future using the language of forecasting, in many (most) instances we are telling stories. What’s so wrong or bad about that? Well, nothing, mostly. However, when a state agency spends tax dollars on an exercise that has no measurable outcomes and takes up people’s most valuable and inelastic resource, time… well then.
Students of forecasting understand that we both over- and under-estimate what will change over the medium term, and cannot be sure which is which. I don’t know anyone who believes any of the Gartner 5-year projections, but they do represent a realm of possibility, something of an overstated yet under-characterized scenario.
Some of the best science fiction can not only generate tangible scenarios, but to some degree invoke them into existence. Neal Stephenson‘s Snow Crash (1992) had within in The Metaverse, a vision of an immersive virtual world which Linden Labs took as their design goal (without the immersive part), and 12 years later we have Second Life. Snow Crash also has versions of Google Earth in Earth, Justin.TV in the Gargoyle and an advanced approach to semantic reasoning in The Librarian (not yet realized).
Appropriate Time Horizon
Vernor Vinge‘s Rainbows End (2006) is set in 2025, 17 years hence (20 when written). Vinge, an extremely talented science fiction author claims that all he did was extrapolate current trends. This is about as far as one could rationally say one could think about the future. There is also the concept of the pipeline, the time it takes innovations and developments to make it to the marketplace where they can be adopted, such as the process for FDA approval for newly discovered drugs or the time it takes to build manufacturing capacity for new solar cell production, etc.
I believe that while we can talk about 20 years, and daydream, we cannot actually think about it in the sense of rational thought. We simply don’t have the tools. I want to suggest that 10 years is about as far as a time horizon we can deal with. Now some may accuse me of giving up on the future; nothing could be further from the truth. Which is wiser and more truthful: holding a conference about what the future may be in 42 years, or working toward where we need it to be in 10? One approach has a sense of involvement and responsibility. The other is simply fantasy.
So what should we look at for the next 10 years? There are trends which appear to be growing quickly or at least steadily, sometimes chugging along under the radar. These particular trends have the ability to upset not a few rather largish apple carts. It is not that we know what the outcomes will be, which beaches these waves will impact, and how the various landscapes will be transformed. What we can do, however, is sense these trends, and then vigorously pay attention to them. We can begin by imagining what and how changes might manifest.
Any item on the list should be, first and foremost, obvious. Why? We are talking about a 10-year time horizon so there should already be a sense that these things are either the next big thing, or that they are going to have an impact on our lives. In addition, the trends should have feedback effects with other trends. They should as a constellation of trends exert gravitational force on each other.
At the 10-year horizon, we tend to underestimate in terms of breadth and magnitude of impact of large-scale trends. The point is to look for items that will be big and messy (touch many things) and think through the implications and possibilities.
For your musing pleasure, I present (and for future blog posts, will discuss) twenty trends for the next ten years.
Twenty Trends for the Next Ten Years
- Open Source
- Open Content
- Open Standards
- Cloud Computing
- Social Media
- Online Video
- Online Education
- Smart Mobile Devices
- Wireless Broadband
- Augmented Reality
- Virtual Worlds
- Serious Games
- Information Visualization
- Novel Interfaces
- High Cost of Energy
- Global Warming
- Novel Materials
- Sensor Networks
This posting handily provides me with a wealth of (at least 20) topics for future blog posts, namely what these are and how they are impacting and may yet impact our lives.