Futurist Thomas Frey: Did you hear about the spy who was caught stealing huge amounts of data by hiding it in the DNA of his skin? Officials couldn’t find any trace of the information on him so they eventually had to let him go.
If you haven’t heard of that story, it’s because it hasn’t happened…. yet. The technology is still a few years away from being viable, at least at a price anyone could afford. As an emerging technology, DNA storage, with it’s ability to store over 2 petabytes of information on a gram of DNA, may not be practical for another decade or so.
However, knowing that it’s not only possible, but also likely, even with this brief mention of it, changes our understanding of the future.
Ideas are like pixels floating in space. With only a few, they look like random dots on a thousand mile canvas. But with the right lens these ideas can form recognizable patterns, turning random dots into clear visions of what’s coming next.
The clarity with which we see into the future is directly related to the number of idea fragments we manage to piece together.
Once our ideas reach critical mass, that’s when the fun really begins. Idea pixels, properly arranged, create a working model of the world to come, along with a roadmap for both business and personal strategies.
But here’s the most amazing part. Those with the clearest vision of the future will naturally rise to the top, becoming critical influencers, industry leaders, and voices of authority.
The future favors the bold! Are you sufficiently well-informed to act boldly?
If not, here are a series of backcasting scenarios specifically designed to help you start connecting the dots and add to your own understanding of what the future holds.
Backcasting is an often used forecasting technique that starts with defining a desirable future and then works backwards to identify technologies, policies, and operational plans needed to build a path between the present and the future.
With backcasting, a successful outcome is imagined and the question is asked: “what do we need to do today to reach that vision of the future?”
Backcasting from scenarios is a bit of a jigsaw puzzle through which a shared picture of the future is created, and pieces are put together to get there.
Here are a series of eight rather diverse examples of backcasting scenarios along with a series of lead-in questions to help stimulate a discussion.
Scenario #1: Newspaper headline reads: “First hurricane ever controlled by humans”
Mankind has been employing various techniques for controlling the weather ever since we first set foot on the earth. Every time we wear clothing, build houses, or put a roof over our heads, we do it to control the weather on a micro-scale.
However, controlling the weather on a macro-scale, such as the weather over a city or an entire country, is still a ways off.
A number of people have already filed patents on technologies they claim will mitigate the impact and damage associated with hurricanes, including one with Bill Gates name on it.
- How long before we have the ability to control an entire hurricane?
- What are the likely technologies needed to make this happen?
- What methods would we use to test and validate the effectiveness of the system or technology being used?
Scenario #2: Newspaper headline reads: “Doctor visits declined 20% over the past year.”
Every industry has its own set of gatekeepers and the medical profession is no exception. At the same time, disruptive entrepreneurs are working overtime to circumvent the status quo.
Many startups are focusing on the concept of “our empowered self” – self-diagnostics, self-monitoring, self-treatment, and more generally, self-aware healthcare.
- With humans living longer, and enjoying a more sedentary lifestyle, is it realistic to think our relationship with healthcare professionals will decline?
- What are the technologies most likely to make this happen?
- Will the current healthcare debate in the U.S. congress be rendered moot with future technologies?
- How long before we actually see this headline?
Scenario #3: Newspaper headline reads: “Wireless power used to light up invisible light bulbs in the middle of a room”
Binary power is a term used to describe two otherwise harmless beams of energy intersecting at some point in space, creating a source of power. Think in terms of two invisible beams intersecting in a room and the point at which they intersect is a glowing point of light.
This technology could also be used to beam energy to moving vehicles – cars on the road, planes in the air, and flying drones everywhere. Keep in mind the first demonstrations of wireless power happened well over 100 years ago.
- Will having users link to wireless power networks in the future be similar to linking to Wi-Fi networks today?
- Can we make wireless power safe and easy to use, so it’s not harmful to birds, animals, and insects?
- How long before we can eliminate the power lines into houses altogether?
Scenario #4: Newspaper headline reads: “New gravity-controlling technology demonstrated, reduces gravity by as much as 50%”
Newton’s laws of gravity provide us with a description of how the forces of gravity affect us, but not what gravity is. Even today, gravity remains a mysterious force, whose nature and attributes have confounded researchers for centuries.
Anti-gravity has been an ongoing theme among science fiction writers ever since H.G. Wells talked about the gravity blocking substance “Cavorite” in his book The First Men in the Moon, but even as researchers have made some inroads, the field of gravity remains poorly understood.
- If someone actually invents a gravity-reducing technology, what is the best way to demonstrate it?
- What are some of the ways a gravity reducing technology will be used in business and industry? Also, what are the potential abuses?
- How long before we see headlines like this?
Scenario #5: Newspaper headline reads: “10,000 tiny flying swarmbots perform flawlessly together”
Groups of flying drones that move like a flock of birds, school of fish, or swarm of bees have become known as swarmbots. They have become the subject of much fantasy and speculation.
“Flying swarmbots will someday serve as our clothing, flying into ‘clothing formation’ on command, reconfiguring themselves according to our fashion moods, changing color on a whim. Once we step out of the shower in the morning, the swarmbots will dry our skin, fix our hair, and take their place as part of our ever-changing wardrobe.”
- Is swarmbots clothing a realistic scenario?
- What are some of the likely ways this type of technology will be abused?
- How long before average people own their own swarmbots?
Scenario #6: Newspaper headline reads: “Mary Williams (generic name) is the first person to live past the age of 200.”
Life expectancy is getting longer, but the usefulness of the human body has traditionally maxed out somewhere around 120. If we manage to break through the 120-barrier, can we also maintain a good quality of life past that age?
Many researchers believe so and are working on exactly those issues.
- Is it possible to alter the body chemistry and cure age-related illnesses so we can begin experiencing radical life extensions?
- Is it conceivable to eliminate death completely?
- How long before we hear about people living past the age of 200?
Scenario #7: Newspaper headline reads: “World’s first 3D printed housing subdivision breaks ground on Monday.”
Using 3D printers to print small objects is easy, but printing something as big as a house will force people to rethink the entire housing industry.
Currently there is a race afoot to see who can 3D print the first house. After the first house, we will see the first bridge, the first commercial building, and perhaps even an effort to print the world’s tallest building.
NOTE: The term being used for 3D printing a building is “contour crafting.”
- How long before an entire house can be “printed” within a single day?
- Will it also be possible to print the windows, cabinets, sinks, toilets, and other fixtures?
- When will we be able to grind up an existing house, reuse the material, and reprint it in the same location?
Scenario #8: Newspaper headline reads: “First highway in the U.S. to be designated as driverless-cars only”
Driverless technology will be implemented in the auto industry in baby steps, first with driverless features and later with totally hands-off navigation systems. Over time the number of driverless vehicles will grow, primarily driven by the aging baby boom generation not wanting to lose their freedom.
As the number of driverless vehicles increases, the difficulties of managing half-driver, half-driverless traffic systems will eventually give way to driverless-only highways where cars can drive closer together at much faster speeds.
- How long before we see our first driverless-only highway?
- What effect will driverless cars have on driver jobs – bus drivers, limo drivers, taxi drivers, etc.?
- How will this affect car ownership, traffic accidents, traffic courts, and parking lots?
- What effect will driverless cars have on the auto insurance industry?
- Who are the winners and losers in this scenario?
Humans use a fascinating set of metrics for making decisions, and one of the key metrics is our vision of the future.
Similar in some respects to a movie projector flashing images of the future on the back side of our brains, our process for making decisions today involves a quick scan of our perceived future to unconsciously insure we’re making a good decision.
Human biology employs any number of internal checks and balances, and this happens to be one of them.
People make decisions today based on their understanding of what the future holds. In fact, our vision of the future permeates virtually every decision we make in our lives. So if we change our vision of the future, we actually change the way we make decisions, today.
At the DaVinci Institute we have a consulting arm called The Vizionarium designed specifically to help companies discover their future.
The methods we use are not about generating lightning bolts ideas from thin air. Rather, it’s a very well conceived process that people enjoy and are quick to embrace. Catalytic innovation occurs when different types of people, ideas, perspectives, and insights collide and mix in new and interesting ways, and that’s exactly what happens inside The Vizionarium.
Once started, it can be used repeatedly over time and will even become part of a company’s DNA.
No, this is not the same DNA that I talked about in the opening paragraph to store information, but rather the internal culture so important in today’s world.
But, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. Is backcasting something you’ve used in the past? Were any of these examples helpful? Let us know if you’d like to discuss this further.
Author of “Communicating with the Future” – the book that changes everything