[Editor's note: this post reports on a set of predictions from Berlin based digital strategy consultancy Third Wave GmbH. These predictions were made in February of this year, but I felt they were interesting enough to share and reconsider as we near the end of 2012. I also like the method and approach used to create the forecasts. It is my opinion that Transhumanism isn't in something in the future but rather something that is happening right now around us. Here we see how through forward looking design and strategic business thinking, Transhumanist ideas are entering mainstream business practice and also every day life. For those who are interested, the Third Wave is a reference to Alvin Toffler's book of the same name.]
Around the end of the year, media outlets regularly try to out-predict each other. Particularly in tech journalism, The Next Top Ten Trends To Watch or The Top Apps For 2012 are everywhere. They’re easy to write and get clicked and linked like crazy, so editors love these lists. Who’s to blame them? I openly admit: Even though I grin smugly while doing so, I read these lists myself. I’m as guilty as anyone.That said, we wanted to go beyond just a top 10 link list, both in breadth and depth. So we asked a bunch of peers and friends to share some thoughts with us. What are the main drivers of change in their respective fields, what does that mean, and what type of change do they hope for?We tried to capture specific insights into different fields & industries (deep knowledge), expectations (what will happen) and desires (what should happen).Among those we asked were designers, scientists, strategists, and a few people who, like us, squarely “sit in between the chairs”, as the Germans say. A big thank you to those brave souls who took up the challenge: Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino, Dannie Jost, Georgina Voss, Mike Arauz, Sami Niemelä, Stefan Erschwendner and Tamao Funahashi. Your input is much, much appreciated. You’re awesome.
Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino is an interaction designer & entrepreneur. She is the co-curator of This Happened London and a collaborator at the design partnership RIG London. She has been focused on the “Internet of Things” and its implications in the design of everyday products since 2005. Her work has been exhibited at the Milan Furniture Fair, London Design Festival, The Victoria & Albert Museum and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Dr Dannie Jost has been Consulting Science Advisor and Senior Research Fellow at the World Trade Institute (WTI), NCCR Trade Regulation, Law Faculty, University of Bern, Switzerland since 2008. She works in policy and regulation issues where science, technology and trade are involved. Work in progress includes advising federal agencies on the scope of action for nanomaterial regulation within the framework of international trade law.
Dr Georgina Voss is a Research Fellow at the Faculty of Arts, Brighton University, and also holds teaching and visiting positions at Sussex University and the Science and Technology Studies Department, UCL. Prior to this, Georgina was the Research Manager at Tinker London where she managed the Homesense Project. Georgina has conducted research for organizations including MIT, the European Commission, WIRED UK, and BERG; and has been an invited speaker at renowned international conferences.
Mike Arauz is a Strategy Director at Undercurrent, and lives in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Since moving to New York City in 2000, Mike has led many lives. Starting as a theater actor and director, Mike studied acting at The Atlantic Theatre Company, and performed improv and sketch comedy at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre.
Sami Niemelä is a designer. He is also one of the founding partners and the creative director of Nordkapp, a Helsinki-based design consultancy. At times, he lectures about design to business people and likes to talk about cities, behavior, ubiquitous computing and cyborgs in public.
Stefan Erschwendner is co-founder and managing partner of the interdisciplinary think tank LHBS in Vienna, Austria. LHBS is specialized in cultural innovation and helps companies and brands to understand how emerging patterns of human behavior across categories can create new opportunity spaces for branding and innovation.
Tamao Funahashi is a freelance photographer, born in Tokyo, living and working in Aomori city. A graduate of visual art communication design from Musashino Art University, Tokyo, she has worked in museums (Aomori Prefectural Museum and Munakata Shiko Memorial Museum of Art) and newspaper companies (Asahi Shimbun and The Nikkei) for 10 years. Her photos have been featured on CD and DVD covers, in books and magazines, and also at some galleries.
We tried to make these slides (A glimpse into the near future ) primarily an embeddable version of this blog post. You’ll find the blog post pretty much copied and pasted in the speaker notes on Slideshare. You’ll find them on Slideshare right next to the comments.
We asked for unstructured responses to two questions and ran a qualitative analysis, clustering individual ideas by field and into the (slightly fuzzy) categories “drivers”, “indicators”, “implications” and “hopes”.
To be respectful of the participants’ time, we didn’t require any particular format. Some responded in bullet points and idea sketches, some included screenshots. A few sent more or less fully publishable longform. (Dannie actually wrote more or less an essay which we posted over here.) Either format was fine for us, and that way we received a wall chock-full of ideas and data points:
After compiling everything, we went at it in a quite exploratory way, adding our own insights, expectations and hopes, and compiled it all in this blog post.
Please note that the absolute majority of the ideas in here come straight from our participants. With the volume of ideas and their overlap, it was impossible to directly reference every point of input, so we highlighted just a few quotes. It’s the participants who collectively deserve the credit. Again, thank you!
There are a number of key drivers of change as well as megatrends that stand out. We’re keeping them deliberately fuzzy as there’s plenty of overlap between these. They influence and reinforce each other.
Our panel sees a few very concrete drivers built around technologies as well as global external factors at work:
Some of the key ways these drivers manifest are the following. We’ll dig deeper into these and many more.
One thing becomes clear. Our experts all agree that we live in interesting times. Things are changing, and rapidly so. Nothing stays as it is; the status quo turns into a state of flux. While in some, mostly global contexts this includes massive collateral damage (global financial markets, global warming), there are plenty of cracks and new, as of yet largely unregulated areas where innovation thrives.
Let’s break it down by categories. The boundaries are blurry as everything is increasingly connected. Squeezed in between the expectations are the hopes, the desired development as our expert panel and we see it.
As the global economy remains shaky at best, we expect things to go smaller, more granular. This means further rise of freelancers and talent networks. Innovation is coming increasingly from startups and other independent actors rather than big R&D departments. As global governance systems – unable to adapt quickly enough to new realities – fail to some degree, there are cracks in regulation where bottom-up innovation thrives. This can happen in more formal contexts, like when big corporations try to get a piece of the cake by establishing VC-style investment divisions. Or it can happen by way of Sterling-esque “Favela Chic”-style street smarts.
This comes with a certain rise of more self-reliant communities as trust in institutions is shrinking. We expect to see manifestations of this in many places. The local food movement along with urban gardening is just one of the first and most obvious. The growing popularity of Collaborative Consumption projects is another.
Speaking of institutions, mass media are entering the endgame of this second phase of the web. The fight for control over and profit from the internet is on. The established players (broadcasters, telcos and infrastructure providers like Time Warner, Verizon etc) and the new establishment (Google, Facebook, Apple etc) will fight it out. Expect nasty lawsuits, mergers and acquisitions and plenty of chaos. In the short term, this is likely to be at the expense of consumers. Media and content industries will have to re-invent themselves bottom-up to cope with change and harness new technologies.
What’s interesting is that the business models of all these companies are very diverse. There’s a lot of overlap certainly, but there’s also a lot of diversity. Seeing who breaks through with Content? Social network management? Relevance? Convenience? User experience? to establish new dominance will be a fascinating battle to watch unfold.
–Mike Arauz, Undercurrent
Sami Niemelä shares the story of an election campaign project he’s been involved with pro bono, getting candidate Pekka Haavisto to the final election round:
Our spark lit a fire and pretty much started a perfect storm. The old media is clueless about this, it’s clear they have no capacity to understand the mechanics of mesh democracy and social media.
What he’s hinting at is this: media outlets don’t have the basic understanding to see what’s going on, so how could they even begin to harness the change? We think it’s important to note that this is what happens at the organizational level – individuals inside the media outlets might be very well versed, yet there are internal and external factors that prevent appropriate action. In some cases the org chart gets in the way, in others the profit margin just doesn’t easily allow major changes to the otherwise “functioning” business. Working around these organizational restrictions is a major road block. Again, size matters as smaller units are more agile.
In terms of economy and businesses, we’ll increasingly see the effects of what has been going on for the last few years: Whatever is touched by “digital” is changed massively. The impact is usually most visible in the business model, in organizational structures or in product development, but every single field is affected.
Apropos product development. We expect to see a period where the product design & development industry will suffer just like the content industry did. Collaborative design processes, open source hardware and 3D printing in all its shapes and forms will uproot this whole industry in ways hard to grasp yet. Particularly the open, flat infrastructures we see evolving in 3D printing today will have profound impacts driven by hobbyists and free market demand alike. We have seen the first Kickstarter projects that collected north of one million US dollars, and we expect crowdsourcing to gain in importance quickly. Some companies will harness this demand and make it work for themselves – imagine a high-priced, gorgeously designed and strongly regulated market for (DRM’d) 3D print models by Apple, maybe even before the decade is over.
Which companies will dominate in this New World Order? Our guess is: the ones that best adapt their business model to truly harness sharing. Incentives to make your creations available to others could be financial – kickbacks, discounts etc – or non-financial: sharing is caring, as the old saying goes. From today’s point of view, Google and Facebook are obvious candidates to leverage this redistribution of data, just as Apple could build a strong platform for sharing. However, this is a fickle, fast-moving industry, and a strong contender might come out of nowhere. We dare not make a prediction.
We hope to see Arduino, prototyping and 3D printing become more accessible and gain the power to democratize the means of production. Only then will we also see growing ecologies of businesses built around these tools. It will be thriving, exciting, and very, very normal.
Tech & Web is a wide field. Since we recruited strongly from that background, this is also at the very core of our collection of predictions. So let us divvy this up into smaller chunks.
We’ve established the dominance of the digital already. Its younger, but no less powerful sisters are ubiquitous 3D printing and rapid prototyping as well as the Internet of Things. Overall, we expect networked technology to become even more ubiquitous, and more invisible. This is right at the intersection of two notions mentioned before: everything becomes smaller & more granular, and there’s a new data layer spanning all aspects of our lives.
We used to like our technology visible as a sign of high tech quality – we proudly displayed our TVs, stereos, computers. It stood out. But as technology became ubiquitous, we entered a phase of humanized and intuitive technology, popularized by the likes of Minority Report and iPhones. Now we are seeing the rise of invisible technology – technology simply baked into daily life, utilized but non-intrusive.
–Stefan Erschwendner, LHBS
From a design perspective, this changes a few things. A networked environment can and should be able to react more contextually and more appropriately to our needs. Interfaces should become more subtle; gestural interfaces will proliferate and turn technology even more into a true extension of ourselves. Ambient technology ranging from playful applications like the Bubblino to more work-related tools like interactive whiteboards become more powerful, and if not more useful, then at least smarter.
The proliferation of gestural interfaces (iPhones and Android touch-screen mobile phones, iPads and other touch-screen tablets, and XBox Kinect-type motion-driven interfaces) will have a quiet, yet seismic affect on disintegrating the boundary between the technological and the human. In the more distant future when we take the integration of digital/computer with our physical and mental selves for granted, we’ll look back on these few years as one of the major milestones along that road, due in large part to how gestural interfaces contributed to making technology a true extension of ourselves.
–Mike Arauz, Undercurrent
The looming problematic that is the third industrial revolution is going to open up some interesting design challenges. Design has a chance to truly influence and make the world a better place here. A long as we as an industry get over the needs and wants of selling glorified sugar to infant children.
–Sami Niemelä, Nordkapp
Consumer electronics will be better designed and much better networked then today, thanks to the open web. Once it becomes industry best practice to put APIs on our gadgets and services and we can more easily make our things talk to each other, our experience will be a league better.
On the other hand, not all things look bright. We and our stuff are becoming ever more digitally connected. Yet this does not mean that we will always feel more connected on a personal level. There will be the occasional feeling of intense loneliness, as well as a demand & need for smaller, more protected social networks. Think the next iteration of Path or Instagram. The group/list/circle concept is as yet only rudimentarily developed. We think that will change as social software and non-human actors grow more sophisticated.
The rise of indie tech movements isn’t going to slow anytime soon. We already mentioned makerbots, 3D printing and collaborative design. Add the more techy flavor of the DIY/craft scene, physical computing and group funding and you get a pretty potent mix. This means a massive change in how we perceive physical goods. If that doesn’t replace the current system of massive, mainstream-oriented production, then at least it will complement it through small production runs and mass customization. We’re talking about the real thing, not swapping colored pieces of plastic. Remixing will increasingly be applicable to physical goods, like toys. Today we see only the tip of the iceberg, the equivalent of the home computing movement in the 70s. Industrial production as we know it today will experience a profound disruption. Who will turn out to be today’s Wozniak and build the next Apple?
I hope these kind of products and services we may see in the near future will come with open-source platforms that allow you create your very own network and run it on a server of your choice. To find the right (or better) balance between access and security, convenience and control, global approach and local action, etc., more positive interactions and discussions will be needed for sure.
Physical goods will face piracy in very similar terms as digital goods today when consumers can just print knock-off toys and spare parts. Intellectual property will be redefined yet again.
Arduino has become a ubiquitous tool, rapid prototyping at home will become ubiquitous and as interesting as a hammer or a set of nails. Which means that ecologies of businesses will grow around the tools. You hire a plumber to fix your kitchen even if you could probably figure it out yourself don’t you? Will you have your furniture designed online and press print? Most probably.
–Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino, RIG
As a side note, who is responsible if a 3D printed object fails? Current laws might struggle just a tad with this.
While multi-purpose devices like the iPad will grow in popularity, they will not at all kill single-purpose devices like the Kindle. This follows a rough pattern. New products will end up as features in multi-purpose devices for less demanding consumers, while power users will always favor dedicated devices. The core of adaption stays in the software and the surrounding ecosystem. As iOS and Android have shown us, functionally largely equivalent devices and services can be used to create very different types of ecosystems.
Speaking of ecosystems, Social Media services are run by companies and thus legitimately need to earn money. The rules of user consent and privacy will be put to the test. The privacy wars will be one of the big conflicts in the years to come. Always remember: if you’re not paying for the product, you are the product. If you’re not paying, you’re being sold.
Things get smarter, and by “smarter” we really mean more connected and responsive. In households we can already see the first steps of networking, but smart homes are still quite a way off. The more interesting innovation in the field doesn’t come from the big R&D departments but from more bottom-up, user-centric design studios (like our friend and contributorAlexandra) and hobbyists from all kinds of backgrounds.
In the automotive industry, things look a little different as car manufacturers explore new technologies but won’t just let any hobbyist play with their software. They get support from the big tech companies like the Facebooks and Googles. Driverless car, anyone? Again, gestural interfaces will also help control both your car and your home in more human, intuitive ways. And while we’re putting chips in our environment, let’s not forget pets and humans, either: RFID chips might make a good implant if there’s a valid, convincing use case that is so good that it tops the inherent creepiness we associate with chip implants today.
A field that will see massive change is the health and fitness sector. Over the last couple of years we’ve gotten a first glimpse at where things are going through the Quantified Self movement. There’s a lot more to come, though. What we know today as the Quantified Self (QS), the measurement of body and behavioral data for further analysis, will become more embedded in our daily lives as sensors get cheaper and network usage gets both easier and more ubiquitous. QS will get a simpler, more snappy name; seem less strange as applications are mainstreamed and become easier to use; be more hidden and embedded. The challenge will be to find more meaning and relevance in the measurements and, as boundaries between humans and technology grow ever more blurry, to make sure that the necessary privacy safeguards are in place. Non-human actors, namely bots in both the software and the hardware sense, will find lots of use in medical contexts.
Nike Fuelband is a start, esp. its Swatch-time like common measurement. But it’s not enough yet. Context makes it relevant when it should be the other way around.
–Sami Niemelä, Nordkapp
We hope that we will, on a global as well as local scale, be able to close thegrowing technology gap between rich and poor. Technology can empower and democratize, or it can be exclusive. We think that inclusion is key.
We hope to find a balance between access & security, between convenience & control, between global & local needs. All of thesedichotomies axes represent legitimate needs and agendas that often are highly complex. Yet this is where we as a society need all the smart minds we can find.
We hope that our networks, including the Web and the Internet of Things, will be free & open, as this is the basic foundation for true innovation and democracy. To harness the smarts of the tech community, we need a true read-write web.
We hope to see more mature & more valuable social networking software. More nuance and sophistication, more focus on user needs than marketers’ needs. In other words, not just iterations of Facebook, but a different paradigm.
In the face of even stronger globalization, the need for cultural identitygrows stronger again. What will be the primary point of cultural reference? Nation, city, block, tribe, operating system?
Global mobility, especially among young professionals, fosters a lifestyle of less – at least in terms of physical ownership. The lifestyle of “digital nomads” isn’t a rare exception anymore, but becoming the norm in at least our industry. And no matter where you are, chances are your data lives in the cloud anyway. The physical things you own can easily become a burden rather than an asset. Again, we refer to our trusted Guide To The Clutterless, Mr. Bruce Sterling for guidance on what to keep – and what to give away.
Education will change drastically. The US model of university funding is broken, yet it is copied and implemented across the globe. The #Occupy movement featured student loans prominently, and for a reason. More educational material than ever before is available online for free. Yet questions of how to curate and how to validate & certify knowledgeacquired this way remain. Will a Harvard degree stay the most desirable standard of education? Which institutions could provide validation services? Maybe Open Badges are a careful step in the right direction.
Everyone hot-desks, people have lockers, the buildings are empty vessels for activity. (…) It’s education as office work. We all know hot-desking only works for journalists, that it kills ideas, innovation and community building but it’s the most efficient use of space for education as a corporate activity. Education will be powered by corporations not government.
–Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino, RIG
School design, after hardly changing for the better part of the last century, is taking a sharp turn towards corporate settings. This is just one of many symptoms of the corporate influence on education. It’s a double-edged sword: on one hand, big companies step in where governments don’t provide the best education, and help get students ready for their careers. On the other hand, this kind of education is aimed primarily at streamlining corporate careers. Do we want a Google University? How would it be biased? Is it a bad influence or good for choice? Questions we can only ask, not answer.
Increased awareness that the ‘democratisation’ of technology is still a limited process, and that people who can engage in it are still those in regions with fast broadband, access to a free/open internet, access to tablets/PCs/smartphones etc. Aiming to create inclusive processes of social/political/cultural participation, rather than privileging those who already have substantial social and technological capital. In practical terms this means keeping libraries open – maybe opening more of them – as they may be the only space where many citizens can access the internet; not shifting educational tools entirely to ‘e-books’ and online learning; recognising that digital techs complement, not replace, paper.
We should ask equivalent questions for museums. The one thing we already know is this: museums are going to get a tech overhaul as they get more connected. Lots has been happening in that space, and there’s more to come. We recommend looking at the fantastic work our friend Jake Barton has been doing in New York. Networks help us overcome growth barriers. This holds true for the small (self-reliant or mutually supportive communities) as well as for larger societal challenges. Just to name a few: finding better solutions for outdated copyright laws and industry protection. More flexible work visa regulations for a globally mobile workforce including tax models and pension plans that should move with the person. While easily explained historically, the paperwork associated with moving and working internationally creates barriers that stand in the way of global talent distribution and equal chances.
I would like to see my peers tackle financial regulation, social equity, and produce technology that liberates instead of technology that enslaves. A lot of technology today enslaves, it does not liberate. Come to think of it, the same can be said of regulations and laws that are there to guarantee our freedoms but that over time have been highjacked in the service of few and alienate the masses. The results are not pretty. I exaggerate. Still, sometimes it looks like one large group gets the obligations, and a small minority get the rights. That is not the idea.
–Dannie Jost, WTI
Programming and basic electronics skills will be the true lingua franca, and hopefully will be taught in primary school. A key moment of the networked, new century will be when good ol’ hardware stores will install “computing aisles”.
A whole new industry focused on pre-production processes will arise, as opposed to those focused on final products. Instead of IKEA we might go to a cutting & printing place for furniture, toys or spare parts. As one of the leading producers of final products today, Apple merits a closer look. Will they go away, stay largely untouched because their production methods are so advanced, or build a beautiful, highly restrictive and controlled 3D printing platform?
We hope that this Third Industrial Revolution will provide apt solutions for the more-than-just-interesting design challenges the world faces.
We hope that designers will put their skills to use to design for a better world, and focus on values, attitudes and resources that increase quality of life.
We hope that governments invest massively in R&D to foster innovation beyond the high-risk, financially driven free market.
Cities have always been a focal point for innovation and early tech adoption. We expect urban spaces to open up to all kinds of connected things, ranging from smart screen solutions to responsive buildings and vehicles.
Cultural identity, as mentioned before, might be provided or at least fostered on the local level. Think urban “villages” within cities, strong tribe-like connections. These “tribes” might be defined regionally, within the city, or by shared interests, spread out across several cities.
Either way, we can expect that cities will become more responsive, both on an architectural and a transportation level. Truly interesting things won’t happen in the planned corporate cities of East Asia, but in the messy underbellies of big, organically grown cities, ranging from Sterling’s notion of Favela Chic to grassroots tech activism in the hackerspaces of New York, Hong Kong, Berlin, Rio and Shanghai.
Now where does all that leave us? We see some big drivers of change as outlined in the beginning. Across the field and in all disciplines, things are getting more connected. This holds true for the global – world, country, economy, internet – as well as the super local – our homes, our gadgets, our bodies. The network is the absolute paradigm, now more than ever. Decentralization means a redistribution of power. It also means that if you pull one string, something might unravel in unexpected places. If there’s one thing that seems certain, it’s that we’re headed for more complexity, not less. In your business, embrace this complexity. There’s a ton of opportunities in there.
The cultural and socio-economic implications of all these things are huge. In a nutshell, we expect culture to thrive while parts of the content industries fail. Yet, the overall global economic structures will lead to certain uncertainties that foster small, bottom-up business and innovation.
That said, this is a blog about digital strategy, so let’s not go to deep into fields where we lack reliable data and rather look at the things we actually know.
Rather than giving any concrete answers, we have more questions for your business.
We hope these questions help you make your organization fitter for the near future.
We have all the reasons in the world to believe that the trends outlined above will, in some way or another, manifest. We’d love to see you take full advantage of them. We can influence the way the world develops – together, in small steps, by asking the right questions.
I’d like to leave you with this quote by our friend Dannie Jost. Seems to me this is the right mental setting for the next few years:
The times ahead will surprise us. I will continue to search for the perfect hot chocolate mix.
See you on the other side.
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