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What Will Matter In The Future?

This is the talk I gave at Startup Fest, Montreal, 13 July 2012, more or less. Advice to a new crop of developers, entrepreneurs and start-up junkies, where I am basically saying ‘Hey! Take a look over here! You don’t have to build yet-another task list app, or another check in tool, or another social news aggregator tool.’ There are still green fields in domains that matter, more than dedicating time to get people to click on ads.

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What Will Matter In The Future?

For the past ten years, I’ve principally been investigating the rise of social tools and their impact on media, business, and society, with particular attention to the future of work. That’s what I’ve been doing at Work Talk Research.

It’s the convocation time of year, so I am going to pretend that I am giving a graduating class some hard-won advice. So here’s my talk for the start-up class of 2012, entitled ‘What will matter in the future?’

And the future is officially arriving in 18 minutes.

My high level goal is to get you, those here today, to break out of the rut, to counter Jeff Hammerbacher’s observation that ‘the best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads’. 


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Speculative Design, Not Science Or Art

It’s hard to define yourself by what you are not, but I will start there. I am not a venture capitalist, and I am not currently a startup entrepreneur, although I have worked in or led a lot of startups that built award-winning products. Since the late ’80s, I have been involved in raising over $25M in venture funding, often earning a solid return for investors, although I have been involved in some of those monumental failures where we are supposed to be ennobled and wised-up afterward. So, by that measure I am wise and noble.

Over the past five years or so, I had considered myself as a futurist, growing out of the technology/economic perspective: predicting markets and technological trends. But I recently came to a growing realization that my best work wasn’t really grounded in scientific analysis or projecting mass trends. And although I have been trained as a computer scientist, neither that nor my grounding in social science has played the most critical role in my inquiry into the social web and social tools.

I’ve come to realize that my best work has almost exclusively been based on design thinking — ideation about ‘imaginary appliances’ as the outgrowth of design constraints that represent a take on a future environment. This is how I worked best with a broad and shifting cast of partners and clients, like AOL, Bitly, Freshbooks, and others. My by ‘best’ I mean ‘impactful’ which also includes those monumental failures that the posters in the lunchroom are always talking up.

So, I now think of my work as speculative design, which could be a talk all by itself. But today I am just introducing this as background, or context setting.

Metaphorically, my work is like dropping a rock down a empty mineshaft and listening for the echoes to build a mental image of the depth and shape of the space below.


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Speculative Design

I am not the first to use the term speculative design. It’s been in use for some time in the world of cultural criticism and political theory. Its a set of ideas about how to use hypothetical objects — imaginary appliances, as I say — to help people think about the cultural and social context for the technological and societal change that built objects can have in the world.

I really like this iteration/reflection fluctuation that Mitter talks about — which in my practice takes the form of explorative design mockups and workshops, helping clients and partners lean into a design space.

So, with that as a proviso, here’s some thought experiments or open-ended questions about what will matter in the future, or to turn it into a speculation: what sort of futures can we think about that will help us find things to do that will matter. And specifically, for the speculative design class of 2012, to think about interesting things to build.


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It is the business of the future to be dangerous. - Alfred North Whitehead

We shouldn’t think about the future as a smooth, comfortable extrapolation of the mundane. We are over that. We have moved into the post-modern, where new norms prevail. Some characterize our new world as VUCA: unsurpassed levels of volatilty, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity.

So, don’t fight it. Think about spiky futures, with big discontinuities. Futures with massively disruptive technologies, sweeping movements, and tectonic eruptions anywhere you want to look.

Don’t think safe: Think dangerous. Reject the official future.


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Whatever the Web touches, it consumes

It it an almost safe thought to say that the web will continue to disrupt. But it’s time to look farther afield than checkins, news aggregation, and businesses moving their IT into the cloud.

Look for niches where the web hasn’t eaten everyone’s lunch, yet. TV looks frothy, but what about education? That’s 500 years old.

Small scale manufacturing? Grown architecture? Transit?


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The world is changing from solid to liquid.

Print media has been transformed, and now: tablets, tablets, everywhere. We watched the transformation of the music business, and a dozen other adjacent areas over the past 10 years.

What’s next? What else will move from cold to hot? The deep answer is: everything that is slow, centralized, and massive can be coaxed or shocked into being fast, networked, and fragmented.

Is the political chaos and gridlock in the US a function of the liquifying political system? Our systems of governance are based on electing a very small number of people to represent all the rest. Can we cut out the middle man in politics like we have in buying books? What would web-mediated direct democracy work like? Feel like? Smell like? The Pirate Party in Europe is using a platform called Liquid Feedback, which is central to their inner workings, but is a speculative design for the rest of us.


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Technology is everything invented after you turn thirteen.

The killer app of 2017 will run on a platform that doesn’t exist yet, won’t be called an app, the platform won’t be called a platform, and 50-year-olds today would not understand if I explained it to them.

I don’t mean the next generation of iPhones, or even Google Glass, per se. But Google Glass is a great example of speculative design (perhaps) morphing into actual product. But even if it turns out to be the next Newton — a colossal failure that coalesces technical limits and cultural blinders — Google Glass is a crack in the wall, the boundaries defined by the form factor of last generation computing: the laptop. And it hints at ubiquitous or ‘calm’ technologies, where computing is like electricity: available in every wall.

The biggest killer app in human history is…? Nope, cooked food. The most important application of fire, and way more important than printing press. Prior to that early hominids spent 8 hours a day chewing.

We need to study other places where people spend way too much time, or energy, doing things.

40% of the energy in US homes is expended on cooking food: it’s 10,000 years old, and time for an upgrade. As a general rule, if you are looking for something big to work on, find something that hasn’t changed in thousands of years.


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The frontiers of the future will the ruins of the unsustainable. - Bruce Sterling

Sterling’s tantalizingly bleak and oblique wisecrack has to be considered from the prospect of both real and virtual ruins.

Only 5% of the plastic from recycled plastic shopping bags is reused, because there is no demand. What if Makers start to reuse plastic bags in the home, in 3D printers? What if I could model and manufacture iPhone cases from those bags? Or planters? Or light shades? Or fruity-flavored condoms?

What can we do with the suburbs when no one wants to live there anymore? Will we be dismantling the strip malls, and turning the suburban ring around American cities into farmland, again? Note that 40% of the food eaten in Shanghai is raised within the city limits.

Are globally interconnected financial systems unsustainable? Can a local, round Earth be better than a global, flat earth?

I have been following food tech for a few years, and that’s happening, but slowly. It’s growing quickly though: it’s one of those spiky, fearful futures.

Can we dismantle the industrial food system before it has a Lehman moment, and the world’s dicey, massively interconnected, patchily regulated food system crashes like the housing market?

Why can’t we reconnect our unemployed people to local, resilient food production? The old systems won’t work: we are losing migrant Mexican workers to a rising Mexican economy, and many of the historical large-scale farm regions are suffering chronic drought. Who thinks it makes sense to grow a tomato — 90% water — in a California desert and ship it to New York City, which has over 45 inches of rainfall per year?

Reconnecting people to their food will be huge.


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The central economic imperative of the new economy is to amplify relationships. - Kevin Kelly

Kelly’s observation is derived from technology/economic thinking, but helps to set a backdrop for the next decade: the social revolution has another five or ten years to run, at least.

But, there better be undiscovered angles to amplifying relationships that are not directly tied to dating, recommending restaurants or what shoes to buy, and not based on posting status updates on Twitter or Facebook.

We’re living in a time of amazing growth in human density. Over 50% of the world is now urban, and projections are that 70% or more will be urban in 2020. Meanwhile, in parallel, the social web is also increasing human density by amplifying — and increasing the value of — human relationships. These are two sides of the same coin.

Meanwhile, less that 12% of Americans want to live in the suburbs. In fact the suburbs are emptying out, with the young, affluent and old moving to core cities and towns, and the sprawl filling with the poor and dispossessed.

Over 30M Americans now live alone: a record, and  growing trend. This is approaching 50% in the most advanced and affluent countries of Europe. Turns out these folks are more socially connected that married counterparts, and get out more to social and cultural events.

So how about tools for this increasingly urban and singleton world? More of the share economy, building apps to help people sharing household work projects like working in the yard, setting up a garden, or painting the house?

The world moving past the nuclear family, and into something more atomic. Can we build applications that can make us more connected, even when things seem to be pulling us apart?


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Closing Thoughts

Marshall McLuhan said ‘we look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future.’

We can’t know the future, especially today in the post-normal. It’s unlikely to be like yesterday.

Rachel Armstrong said recently that the problem with ‘the future’ is that it’s not the future at all: it’s a version of now. It’s the distillation of predetermined cultural prejudices and preconceptions, it’s not a map, or even a good science fiction story.

But you can design revealing toys that explore our preconceptions, construct ‘imaginary appliances’ to help us trick our way out of the corner we have painted ourselves into. And it might be that the corners with the most paint — the hardest problem spaces — might be the most rewarding areas of exploration.

Remember that when we look into McLuhan’s rear-view mirror we are seeing ourselves just as much as the road behind. And walking backwards into the future means we have to sense our way, cautiously stepping backwards and listening for the echoes.

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