Philosophically, we know that we should be thinking about the future: Of our industries, of our particular businesses, of the world around us and ourselves. But how do you actually do that in a meaningful way so that it leads to helpful action and not worry or judgement-clouding stress? Is the market research industry thinking about the future in the right way? GenPop spoke to Amy Webb, CEO of the Future Today Institute and author of The Signals are Talking.
GenPop: Why do businesses need to be thinking about the future?
Amy Webb: Because if you are faced with sudden change, that sense of fear kicks in and you make a decision under duress. Sometimes the decision that gets made is to ignore the changes that are pretty clear to everybody else. Unless you are willing to go to uncomfortable places and to meet that anxiety and fear about change about the future you know then you become shackled by the present and we call that the paradox of the present.
GenPop: How far into the future should we be thinking?
Amy Webb: If the goal is to try to hear signals in the present in order to anticipate changes that are on the horizon and to do that in a meaningful way with data then you’re really looking at anywhere from 12 months to 10 years to 20 years. The government of the UAE came to a very smart realization that fossil fuels aren’t going to be around forever, but that region’s wealth very much came from drilling for oil. So one of the smart things that that government has done is establish a cabinet-level office that is dedicated to strategic foresight and they put together these plans that are pretty far reaching. It started with one to 2021 and then they went a little further and went a little further. They now looking at the 2070s. This is about shifting the UAE’s economy away from oil to something else. It’s not something that happens overnight. It’s something that happens over a very long time. That’s a long transformation. For that reason it makes sense to go deeper far into the future.
As part of the GenPop Q&A with give the subject the chance to ask a question of you, which we field on the Ipsos Omnibus. Webb wanted to know how if Americans are futurists. Read our discussion of the results.
If you’re a product manager for certain things you’re looking five to 10 years down the road. If you ask somebody if you’re a university and you’re trying to figure out which departments should get more funding then you’re looking closer to 20 years down the road because if you think about kids who are being born now what does the world look like when they matriculate. If you’re a medical school if think 20 years in the future we will be within the realm of things like precision medicine and genomic editing which tells us that our traditional M.D. degree probably doesn’t make sense. So you would need to start thinking very critically and carefully about what are the other skills that a doctor an M.D. would need 20 years into the future to make them adaptable to make their jobs you know to make them competitive to help them serve humanity.
GenPop: We are in market research. So we’re in this weird position of helping others prepare for the future but I’m not sure that we as an industry spend enough time thinking about our own future what should we be watching out for as researchers.
Webb: Technology is the connective tissue that spawns different industries and sectors and workforces. People have a very different relationship to technology. It’s very individual. If the market research that you’re doing is about what people want to have in a restaurant. Well that question isn’t just about food or service. Once they’re in the restaurant, people have phones with them and people will have gotten there in a car and all of these other things you kind of need to take. For that reason you can’t just segment out the standard age categories as you might have before or use all of the exact same demographic data. I think you have to sort of start thinking a little differently about how you’re doing the research and maybe even thinking in terms of one to one right which sounds crazy. My hunch is that because everybody experiences the world in a very different way because of the technology that they use that we may need to think a little bit differently about how we’re doing research.
GenPop: How do you know if something is a trend, or just trendy?
Webb: One good example of this is autonomous vehicles. If you think about it the autonomy trend has been around for thousands of years since the Sumerians put wheels on a chariot to help them out in wartime. The goal and the trend has always been about getting people and objects from point A to point B with as little energy expended from us as possible. Self-driving cars feel very timely because we hear a lot of headlines. Trends are not siloed within one space, they usually emerge as different unconnectable dots across these different sectors and coalesce around something that’s bigger.
If you think about the checking-in phenomenon, the manifestation of the trend was Foursquare and Get Lost and SCVNGR right. But the trend itself wasn’t the check-in. The trend itself had to do with location based networks buried within our phones and that our phones were going to be harnessing location based networks to do other things for us. That together with the linking of some other things meant that now when you get off your plane if you’re if you’re on a Delta flight the moment that you hit the hit the ground you’ll have an option for an Uber to pick you up and a car will be waiting for you by the time you leave the airport.
GenPop: Your book talks a lot about ideas from “the fringe” and how they impact seemingly unrelated industries. How do you find those things and how does finding the fringe vary from industry to industry?
Webb: Looking through newspaper stories and maybe some market research and magazines – the market research piece of this is very very important. The fringe is that place where people are starting to experiment. You have pre-publication academic research. You also have market research but not market research in a specific area that you’re researching. But instead adjacent areas – it’s different for everything that you might be looking at. This is where businesses miss the opportunities that I might be able to see that are right in front of them. This is how people get smacked up with the harsh reality of the future when it arrives. Did you feel like “Wait a minute when did all this happen? How is this possible?”
It’s because you weren’t paying attention to the fringe the whole time.
Is the fringe itself being impacted by technology trends? Are these experiments happing in more places as the media and Internet landscape themselves fragment?
Webb: The problem with our current information landscape is that there’s an enormous amount of it. What do you pay attention to?
We have an added concern now that there’s a proliferation of content that’s fake. Everybody’s familiar with the fake news stories but there are a number of people who are creating bots and also Web sites that are publishing content that looks like it’s bona fide research and it may even have by-lined from researchers whose names you know and it may not even be political content in any way but it’s incorrect content. The bigger challenge is not where to go to get the information but how can you develop a better sense of data and news and media literacy so that once you get to what you’re looking for you can you know trust that you can do something with that information.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.