Future Focus: Envisioning The Possibilities Ahead

Every year in October I have the pleasure of participating in the CEO of the Year Gala sponsored by Chief Executive Group. This year’s winner was Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce. His acceptance speech was both refreshing and inspiring – as was the moderated discussion he had with last year’s winner, Ken Frazier, former CEO of Merck. As part of the event, I participate in a CEO roundtable discussion with a theme that I help shape. The theme this year was envisioning possible futures. It was a great conversation captured in this article that was just launched by Chief Executive Group. I highly recommend this read. The article provides a view into what CEOs are thinking – with a series of quotes from the session – like the one below.

“We’re dealing with unpredictable change, but also rapid change, or what I’ll call high-torque change.”

Fred Hassan, Partner, Warburg Pincus

Prediction Versus Foresight

A colleague recently shared this visual produced by the Disruptive Futures Institute. The visual does a great job of describing the difference between prediction and foresight. The Disruptive Futures Institute is a Think Tank offering education, research, and thought leadership on adapting to our increasingly complex and uncertain world. I believe this uncertain world puts a premium on rehearsing possible futures. As depicted in the visual, the need to rehearse versus predict emanates from an environment of multiple unknowns and broad possibilities. This environment is characterized by the sheer number of existing and emerging building blocks that are converging across domains.

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What Do Patents Tell Us About AI In 2023?

Foresight is all about signals and they come from various sources. History provides us with an incredible number of signals, with other sources including venture data, market research, academia, analysts, think tanks, and experimentation. One critical source of foresight is patents. This recent article provides an example of patent data as a source of foresight – in this case, focused on artificial intelligence (AI).

In conjunction with the global AI market growth, the number of patents for AI technology are on an upswing, and a general survey of patents for AI technologies shows just how innovative these industries are becoming

Rose Acoraci Zeck – ANALYSIS: Patents Forecast Widespread Reach of AI Tech in 2023

Analysis of AI patents shows that the number of patents issued by the US Patent & Trademark Office for AI technologies has surged over the past five years – from 3,267 in 2017 to 18,753 in 2021. The types of patents and their applications provide a window into AI in 2023. FinTech is identified as a key area of advancement driven by AI, with a focus on blockchain, cryptocurrency, contextual mobile banking, and crypto coin generation, mining, and exchange. In the health and wellness space, patent analysis indicates that AI innovation includes enhanced disease diagnostic technologies and optical devices that monitor brain activity. At a recent CFO and Board Director event that I participated in, sustainability was a dominant topic. Many seek to understand the role of technology in addressing the pressing issues of sustainability, climate change, and environmental issues. Patent analysis provides examples of how we may address these issues in the future.

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Scenario Planning Thoughts From Futurist Peter Schwartz

Are you curious, imaginative, and collaborative? If so, you have what it takes to be a scenario planner. This brilliant video via Peter Schwartz is a must see.

A Focus On “What If?” Versus “What Now?”

A quote from a recent book The Genesis Machine captures the importance of focusing on the future. “If we encourage ‘what if?’ questions today, we can avoid ‘what now?’ questions in the future.” As far as I am concerned, that quote says it all. Rehearsing the future is complex, given the uncertainty and volatility of the environment. Signals emerge from multiple domains, and they converge in ways that shape futures. As we identify signals, ‘what if?’ questions help us explore the possibilities.

Multiple sources exist that help with rehearsing. One such source is a what if YouTube channel. This channel has a large subscriber base and covers a broad range of topics like, space, humanity, environment, health, and others. Exploring these what if scenarios helps us expand our thinking, open our minds, and challenge our cherished beliefs – as highlighted in the quote above.

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The Raging 2020s

The signals are coming from every direction. To understand the future, signals illuminate possible paths. As I have written multiple times, history provides a wealth of signals. Looking at similar historical periods provides insight that feeds foresight. A book I recently completed did an incredible job of using history as a source of signals. In The Changing World Order, Ray Dalio explores all the major historical empires, the world order they presided over, and their eventual collapse. In doing so, he points to several signals that are shining bright red. Decision-makers would be wise to understand these signals.

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The Critical Need For Foresight

Foresight is growing in importance – and it is great to see leaders focused here. In this world of complexity, uncertainty, and rapid pace, generating foresight is not easy. It is a moving target, with change dynamics altering even the safest predictions. We need look no further than the impact of COVID-19 on the pictures of possible futures we were painting just 18 months ago. As difficult as it is, we are fortunate to have people like Alexandra Whittington around to help. She recently tweeted a pandemic influenced view of the future of population, work, and lifestyles.

In some cases, COVID-19 exacerbated trends that already existed. For example, birthrates were already dropping around the world, a phenomenon that grew more acute in the past 18 months. Africa was viewed as the outlier, contributing to future population growth even in the face of declining fertility rates. If the 2020 Oxfam study referenced in the visual below is accurate, a reversing of family planning gains could drive more growth.

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Future Thinking

I’m struggling with the term disruption and its effectiveness in driving urgency. Most definitions describe a radical change in an industry or business strategy, and most involve the introduction of a new product or service that creates a new market. My struggle is not with this decades old view of disruption, but its application in the context of our exponential world. The word disruption is viewed through a traditional lens. I end up in debates about the validity of a disruptive scenario as viewed through this lens, versus the massive implications of these future scenarios viewed through an exponential lens. The ensuing dialog focuses on:

  • Coming up with disruptive innovation before our competitors do
  • Embracing protectionist behavior to block a disruptor
  • I’m not worried, regulatory hurdles in my industry block the impact of disruptors
  • I’m safe, my industry is very stable

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