Ed Smith CEng, CITP, FBCS, consulting engineer with BT Global Solutions, looks at the art and science of futurology.

There are many ways to develop an understanding of coming developments in technology and to evolve business plans to take advantage of these advances. However, most methods tend to foster linear thinking and therefore a vision of the future firmly rooted in the present day.

Certainly it can be argued that it is easy to predict which technologies are likely to become important within the next three years since they are the mainstream activity in research laboratories now.

Conventional approaches usually serve a company well, but can be limiting since they do not tend to spot disruptive technologies, as was very nearly the case for Microsoft in the mid 1990s when they underestimated the impact of the internet.

A key question is therefore: how can you build the evaluation of disruptive technologies into your plan? One approach is to look at the work of futurologists and to look at its relevance to IT. Futurology is defined, in the Oxford English Dictionary as 'The forecasting of the future on a systematic basis - hence Futurologist'.

The proponents of futurology focus on thinking outside of the box, making use of the best skills inside and outside of IT to explore the business impact of new and less obvious developments, to consider not only probable but also possible and preferable futures.

Futurology has much in common with the scenario painting technique, used by management gurus such as Michael Porter and the development of counterfactual histories, which examine the alternative outcomes of a given historical situation. These approaches provide insights by asking important, 'what if' questions.

Futurologists often examine a wide variety of scenarios using methods such as the extrapolation of existing technological, political and economic trends, environmental scanning, the Delphi method, visioning, futures workshops, monitoring and morphological analysis.

This boils down to using varying proportions of inspiration and research, sometimes used to make their clients imagine their own future by giving them ideas and exposing them to new possibilities.

One way of understanding the role of futurologists is to examine their track record. Three practitioners, who published in the 1970s and 80s are Alvin Toffler, John Naisbitt and Christopher Evans. Of these, Toffler is probably the best known, principally for his books 'Future Shock' (1970) and 'The Third Wave' (1980). Amongst the events they predicted were:

  • Changes in leadership style, with leaders being managers of adaptation; equipped with a new set of linear and nonlinear skills plus the ability to learn, unlearn and relearn (Toffler);
  • The end of the 9 to 5 working day and the growth of home working, together with a large reduction in working hours (Toffler and Evans);
  • The rise of medical self help, the growth of trans-national corporations, the demise of the nation state, the current broken success model and the rise of the prosumer (Toffler);
  • Telecommuting would strengthen the links with the community and reduce the need to travel (Toffler and Evans);
  • Full time education would end sooner, but more people would intersperse periods of education with periods of work (Toffler);
  • The coming and going of new careers, pointing out that the profession of airline flight engineer came and began to die out within 15 years (Toffler);
  • Major organisations were expected to restructure, with the dominant bureaucratic culture giving way to the task-force led 'ad-hocracy', leading to the replacement of organisational loyalty with professional loyalty and an increasing need to speed up the pace of decision making (Toffler and Naisbitt);
  • The rapid evolution of computers fuelled by closing the software gap, achieved initially through new development methods, more effort being put into software development and the growing body of work from the amateur community; but accelerated (before the end of 1999) by developing the means for computers to programme themselves (Evans).

As can be seen from the above, these findings were in some cases misguided, but it is not the accuracy of the prediction that is important, rather it is the insights provided by adventurous and unfettered thinking. Toffler himself pointed out that 'ancient maps were grossly inaccurate, but without them we would never have discovered the New World'.

This point is borne out when considering early 1980s predictions of the breakdown of communism. Evans ascribed this to the wider availability of communications and cheap raw computing power, coupled with the growing technology gap between East and West.  

The scenario painters, however, based their analysis on the anticipated labour shortage due to declining Soviet birth rates. Most historians would argue that it is too near to the event to express a considered view; however, a counterfactual analysis shows that the fall of communism and the re-unification of Germany were unexpected. 

Having used the benefit of hindsight to assess the track record of futurologists, it's important to consider more modern ideas from practitioners, such as Nicholas Negraponte, Peter Cochrane, Ian Pearson and Frances Cairncross. Some of their key ideas can be listed as:

  • The Negraponte switch states that one day everything that is transmitted by wire will be transmitted through the air (e.g. mobile telephony) and everything that currently goes through the air will be transmitted by wire (e.g. Web TV);
  • Peter Cochrane foresaw the reduction in need for travelling due to the impact of telecommunications and the growth of machine intelligence such that a computer would be on a par with a human being in 2015 (prediction made in 1998);
  • Cochraine provokes a fresh appraisal of key topics, such as his idea of the Netquake, which utilises a Richter type scale relating the severity of a network incident to the logarithm of the product of the number of nodes affected and the downtime encountered;
  • Frances Cairncross looked at how advances in ICT will reshape the economic commercial and political landscape. His assessment lists most of the ingredients required for offshoring.

BT's futurologist, Ian Pearson, claims to track developments across the whole field of technology and society. In their recent book Business 2010 Pearson and his co-author Michael Lyons examine:

  • Radical ideas like self-organising systems and the mimicking of natural phenomena (biomimetics), as well as conventional proposals such as: miniaturisation, wireless devices, low cost computing and networking, the semantic web and artificial intelligence;
  • The economic implications of the exploitation of information, looking at the relative cost of creation and reproduction when compared with more traditional goods and services;
  • Changes in the way financial transactions and taxation are handled;
  • Customer and worker information, whilst important to a commercial organisation, creates a number of issues arising from its exploitation (this has implications for hot IT topics such as CRM systems and contact centres);
  • How the knowledge economy changes the importance of physical assets and commercial relationships;
  • The mixed effect of corporate intranets, which make both devolving authority through outsourcing and the imposition of increased command and control through micromanagement easier;
  • New technology alters the nature of the value chains, which drive businesses, enables their replacement by 'value-nets' and encourages the rise of the virtual company leading to more temporary business relationships.

Who will be the winners and losers in business in the future and why? Pearson suggests that clear management of the needs of all the business's stake holders, adaptability, the right product strategy, an appropriate level of intermediation and the ability to exploit value-nets will be the hallmarks of a successful company. 

IT often sees itself as providing the means for a business to exploit new opportunities and to transform its processes to better meet the needs of its market, thus creating commercial advantage.

In order to achieve this IT needs to understand the political, economic, social and technology changes, over the next three to five years that will create such opportunities. The support of a futurologist can be a powerful tool for anticipating and exploiting future developments.