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Future Insights: What is & How To?

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A future insight can be derived from exploring and testing a well-informed hypothesis about the future. It presents a unique idea or perspective about the future that is intended to help the imagination travel ahead in time to occupy, question and test not-yet-existing contexts and conceptual spaces.

A future insight is not predictive, nor is it the ‘answer’ to how the future will unfold. Instead, by providing just enough evidence in its articulation and establishing just enough logic and reason for its composition and meaning to be understood and taken seriously, a future insight suggests what could be. In short, a future insight is part fiction that has been written upon observable facts.

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In writing future insights, we presume that innovations or some significant changes will occur downstream. We account for and synthesize thoughts about what new relationships might take shape in the world, why those relationships take shape, and what their nature might be. We consider how existing behaviors might change and how entirely new behaviors, needs, desires or hopes might emerge or be shaped by the incremental or disruptive forms of change, progress that are – or might be – just around the temporal corner.

Future insights are different from regular insights in two ways. First, because they are about that which can be years out, a future insight is different from a regular insight in that it occupies a more hypothetical space and is rooted in latent, rather than manifest, potentials, capabilities, capacities, relationships or behaviors. And second, future insights require the conceptualization or construction of contexts that do not exist, whereas regular insights can be teased out and extracted from our past and present experiences. Where a customer insight might represent a system of values or unarticulated needs and expectations that emerge from an experience of past and present-day conditions and which can be observed, talked about and described, the uncovering of a future insight must establish a picture of future conditions, communicate the qualities and characteristics of those conditions, and then evoke and explore an experience within them in order to gain a better understanding of what might be. From this, we articulate the insight.

How do we do this? We begin by taking a methodical look at past and present capabilities, contexts and conditions for clues about what might come next. In doing so, we collect Signals and Drivers, inputs typically extracted from the social/cultural, technological, economic, ecological and political landscape.

To uncover future insights, we amplify and project these contemporary signals and drivers into the future and then explore and debate the possible nature and meaning of them and the relationships they might impact.

An excellent example of this process can be found in George Orwell’s celebrated dystopian fiction, 1984. In the book that most of us read in high school, Orwell presents many insights into the proliferation of electronic media, computation and surveillance technology as an appendage of the totalitarian state. A chilling example of how present day observations (circa post war Europe) can transform into future insights that, decades later, ring true, Orwell creatively amplified a number of existing signals and drivers to articulate a future context that we now recognize as being incredibly insightful.

Beyond paying closer attention to the writers of our time, how can we begin to form images of the future in order to uncover insights about it? Consider three ways.

First, monitoring Requests For Proposals, investments in R&D, patent filings and the introduction of new technologies provides a rich overview of what capabilities might be on the horizon. By questioning the qualities, characteristics, potential applications and strategic intents of these inputs – as well as their implications on existing systems, relationships and conditions – we can shape clearer pictures of what the future might look and feel like.

For example: If you were watching DARPA’s program investments in “Total Information Awareness” a decade ago you might not be too surprised by the recent emergence of biometric ID in vending machines, more natural and powerful speech-to-text technologies, remote sensors, “smart-grids” and increasingly sophisticated predictive analytics that mine the worlds open source information for patterns and cues to what might be coming next.

Second, spend more time questioning the potential impact of current events. The Global Financial Crisis, The Seventh Billion Person or What’s Going On In Egypt are all playing a role in shaping the lifestyles and behaviors of millions of people worldwide. In addition to acknowledging the significance of such events, studying the popular media and p2p expressions that surround them helps us learn about how the future might unfold by questioning how the goals and priorities of people effected by these events might be changing and how value is being redefined. From this, we begin to create more human centered pictures of the future that illustrate new behaviors and conditions for discussion, debate and review.

Third, “futuretyping”, or prototyping the future, is a critical step in building rich fictional worlds, images and artifacts that help test hypotheses about the future. By providing a story, artifact, model or map that illustrates relationships between things that might be brought into the future, possibilities are made more tangible and easier to consider. Here, future insights can come from how others explore, react and respond to what might be.

Organizations that draw on future insights do so for a variety of reasons. One is to help them establish strategic goals. In doing so, they are not afraid to test and challenge assumptions or raise big questions about how present day and short-term decisions and actions may or may not be the right ones. Another is to re-orient their strategic intent. Here, a future insight might identify long-term threats and opportunities that can only be approached on a strategic level such as the need to form new partnerships and alliances, the investment-in fundamental research, the development of new core technology platforms and the re-definition or re-evaluation of current business models and processes. Finally, future insights can form the foundation of great organizational stories. Often more exciting and even compelling than the traditional consumer insight, the future insight can be used to capture the attention and imaginations of stakeholders- and, in the process, help to establish a more compelling and cohesive vision for growth that empowers and motivates the organization.

So, if you’re sitting back consuming the latest syndicated Trendwatching and or market analyst report thinking you’ve got your future all figured out – think again. Trends are just one input – (measured + manifest behaviors) – meaningful future insights are more complex; their discovery and articulation requires drawing on, questioning-testing and synthesizing a lot more information.

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Written by mlincez

February 25, 2013 at 7:51 pm

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