Start Thinking Like a Futurist

Oct. 8, 2014
As keynote speaker, futurist Jack Uldrich urged everyone at Emerson Exchange this week to step away from the daily grind and think about the future. Technological capabilities are skyrocketing everywhere, and we need to change the way we think about them if we’re going to jump that curve.

Wearable technology. 3D manufacturing. Nanotechnology. Robotics. Sensors. Genomics. Computers. Big Data. Renewables. Collaborative consumption.

Each one of these is a technology to be reckoned with on its own, full of promise for continued advances. They are all technologies whose capabilities are doubling every 10-24 months. Put them all together… Are you ready for what the future holds?

“All of these trends aren’t creeping up linearly. They’re shooting up exponentially,” said Jack Uldrich, the keynote speaker this week at Emerson Exchange in Orlando, Fla. “If you really want to think about the future, you have to jump that curve.”

Uldrich is a futurist who spends time thinking about such things. And he has a suggestion: Spend time thinking about such things.

“Step away from the daily grind to read, think, reflect,” he says. “Because your world is constantly changing. If you don’t pick up on these subtle changes, you’re locked up.” In fact, take a whole Think Week for yourself.

So here’s some fodder to get you started. During his keynote, Uldrich touched on some of the activity going on in each of the 10 technologies mentioned here, explaining some of the incredible potential each of them has.

For example, there’s already wearable technology like Google Glass being used today in the oil and gas industry, enabling maintenance technicians to have information at their fingertips, to know exactly what to do with a malfunctioning valve or pump in the field. “It’s only going to get better,” Uldrich said. “But you have to start jumping that curve and inspiring ingenuity.”

Doubling technological forces takes shape in many different forms. Many people are familiar with the semiconductor industry’s Moore’s Law, named after Intel’s Gordon Moore, who predicted that the number of transistors in an integrated circuit would double every two years. That law can be conveyed in several different ways, including in economic terms—the point being that you can get a whole lot more computing power today for a whole lot less money. (Case in point: The coveted 32 GB memory sticks that Emerson gives to industry press at its events are 64 GB this year, even though they otherwise look exactly the same.)

And look at what’s happened with the cost of 3D manufacturing: “What you need to understand about 3D printers is that five to six years ago, on average, they cost about $100,000,” Uldrich said. And yet 3D printers are expected to be available for consumers by next year for $299. I know my kids already have one in their middle school classroom.

GE expects to be printing aircraft engines by 2016, Uldrich noted. And the world’s first zero-gravity 3D printer was just launched into space last month to manufacture parts in orbit.

In many cases, technology is progressing in a way that makes it that much more accessible to more people. In robotics, for example, the Baxter robot from Rethink Robotics is available now for $20,000, enabling small and medium-size manufacturers to be competitive with manufacturers abroad. Pervasive sensing, a key theme at Emerson Exchange last year, is that much more pervasive today, with sensor technology not only improving but becoming much less cost-prohibitive.

And the $150 million it used to cost to sequence your genes has been cut in half every four months so that by the end of 2012 it cost $10,000 and by the end of 2013 it was $1,000, Uldrich said. “By the end of the decade, it will be more expensive for you to flush your toilet than for you to sequence your genome.”

We’re getting smarter along the way. Well…our devices are anyway. We might laugh sometimes at the answers Siri comes up with when you query your iPhone, but she’s been getting increasingly useful, and is expected by get 1,000 times smarter in the coming decade, Uldrich said. “We’ll go from a world where we ask our devices questions, to where they’ll get so smart that they’ll tell us what we need to know before we know to ask the question.”

Amazon has a similar goal with the use of Big Data. What they’re predicting now is that there will come a day that anything you want on Earth, you’ll get from Amazon. “The goal is to know what the users want before the users even know they need it,” Uldrich said.

Nanotechnology has significant potential. It could make solar energy radically more efficient, Samsung has already demonstrated a self-healing nano-material for its phones, and the list goes on and on. Five years ago, nanotechnology was a $100 million global industry. Today it’s a $10 billion industry, and it’s expected to hit $100 billion by the end of the decade, Uldrich said.

The point of all of this is that technology is changing fast. It’s changing our world around us, and we need to keep up. Not only keep up, but get ahead of the curve.

Our readers are predominantly engineers, but I think Uldrich’s reminder bears mentioning nonetheless: “If a technology doubles 10 times, that doesn’t mean it’s going to be 10 times as big; it means it’s going to be 1,000 times as big,” he said. “Each one is a quantitative leap ahead.”

Uldrich has other advice to get yourself prepared for the future: “Give up on answers. Stick with questions,” he said. “Ingenuity stops because we think we know the answers.”

Get yourself a mentor. A reverse mentor, actually. One of these kids who understand the new technologies perhaps better than us old folks do, and can help us come to new insights.

Experience pre-mortem on a regular basis. It’s like a post-mortem, but before your company dies. Imagine that it’s 10 years in the future, and you’re out of business. What didn’t you see coming? Not only will that help you avoid some of the pitfalls, “you will find areas to innovate into,” Uldrich said. “Once a year, I encourage you to do this.”

A key message from Uldrich: “If you’re not thinking about the future, who exactly is?” Perhaps your competitors…

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