How to Spot the Future

Photo: Brock Davis

Thirty years ago, when John Naisbitt was writing Megatrends, his prescient vision of America’s future, he used a simple yet powerful tool to spot new ideas that were bubbling in the zeitgeist: the newspaper. He didn’t just read it, though. He took out a ruler and measured it. The more column inches a particular topic earned over time, the more likely it represented an emerging trend. “The collective news hole,” Naisbitt wrote, “becomes a mechanical representation of society sorting out its priorities”—and he used that mechanism to predict the information society, globalism, decentralization, and the rise of networks.

As clever as Naisbitt’s method was, it would never work today. There’s an infinite amount of ink and pixels spilled on most any topic. These days, spotting the future requires a different set of tools. That’s why at Wired, where we constantly endeavor to pinpoint the inventions and trends that will define the future, we have developed our own set of rules. They allow us to size up ideas and separate the truly world-changing from the merely interesting. After 20 years of watching how technology creates a bold and better tomorrow, we have seen some common themes emerge, patterns that have fostered the most profound innovations of our age.

This may sound like a paradox. Surely technology always promises something radically new, wholly unexpected, and unlike anything anybody has seen before. But in fact even when a product or service breaks new ground, it’s usually following a familiar trajectory. After all, the factors governing thermodynamics, economics, and human interaction don’t change that much. And they provide an intellectual platform that has allowed technology to succeed on a massive scale, to organize, to accelerate, to connect.

So how do we spot the future—and how might you? The seven rules that follow are not a bad place to start. They are the principles that underlie many of our contemporary innovations. Odds are that any story in our pages, any idea we deem potentially transformative, any trend we think has legs, draws on one or more of these core principles. They have played a major part in creating the world we see today. And they’ll be the forces behind the world we’ll be living in tomorrow.

1. Look for cross-pollinators.

It’s no secret that the best ideas—the ones with the most impact and longevity—are transferable; an innovation in one industry can be exported to transform another. But even more resonant are those ideas that are cross-disciplinary not just in their application but in their origin.

This notion goes way back. When the mathematician John von Neumann applied mathematics to human strategy, he created game theory—and when he crossed physics and engineering, he helped hatch both the Manhattan Project and computer science. His contemporary Buckminster Fuller drew freely from engineering, economics, and biology to tackle problems in transportation, architecture, and urban design.

Sometimes the cross-pollination is potent enough to create entirely new disciplines. This is what happened when Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky started to fuse psychology and economics in the 1970s. They were trying to understand why people didn’t behave rationally, despite the assumption by economists that they would do so. It was a question that economists had failed to answer for decades, but by cross-breeding economics with their own training as psychologists, Kahneman and Tversky were able to shed light on what motivates people. The field they created—behavioral economics—is still growing today, informing everything from US economic policy to the produce displays at Whole Foods.

More recently, the commonalities between biology and digital technology—code is code, after all—have inspired a new generation to reach across specialties and create a range of new cross-bred disciplines: bioinformatics, computational genomics, synthetic biology, systems biology. All these fields view biology as a technology that can be manipulated and industrialized. As Rob Carlson, founder of Biodesic and a pioneer in this arena, puts it, “The technology we use to manipulate biological systems is now experiencing the same rapid improvement that has produced today’s computers, cars, and airplanes.” These similarities and common toolsets can accelerate the pace of innovation.

The same goes for old industries, as well. The vitality we see in today’s car industry resulted from the recognition that auto manufacturing isn’t a singular industry siloed in Detroit. In the past decade, car companies have gone from occasionally dispatching ambassadors to Silicon Valley to opening lab space there—and eagerly incorporating ideas from information technology and robotics into their products. When Ford CEO Alan Mulally talks about cars as the “all-time mobile application,” he’s not speaking figuratively—he’s trying to reframe the identity of his company and the industry. That’s testimony to a wave of cross-pollination that will blur the line between personal electronics and automobiles.

The point here is that by drawing on threads from several areas, interdisciplinary pioneers can weave together a stronger, more robust notion that exceeds the bounds of any one field. (One caveat: Real cross-pollination is literal, not metaphorical. Be wary of flimflam futurists who spin analogies and draw equivalences without actually identifying common structures and complementary systems).

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