Futurist Thomas Frey: Last week I got into a discussion with a friend about the concept of self-contained water. If you think in terms of picking up a bottle of water, only without the bottle, you get the picture.
Rocks are self-contained, baseballs are self-contained, so why can’t we devise some way to make water self-contained? Yes, we have ice, but I’m referring to a more usable form of water.
As an example, if water itself could be used to form a somewhat hardened skin around a small quantity of water, we could create 100% consumable water with zero waste.
An industrial design team in London has come the closest with something called “Ooho,” a blob-like water container made out of an edible algae membrane. While it still involves using something other than water, it does give us clues on how to make a container out of what we’re trying to contain, in this case water.
As we imagine our way through this design problem, many more questions come to light. Should it be flexible like a plastic bag or a bit more ridged like a typical water bottle? What is the ideal shape? Should it be a cube for easy stacking, have a handle for easy holding, or spherical just because it looks cool?
Even a container made of water will get dirty, so how do we clean the dirt from the side of a solid water container? More water?
More importantly, what is the optimal size for a self-contained water container? Should it be cup sized, quart-sized, gallon-sized, or larger? Or maybe marble-sized or pea-sized water pellets would work best.
Should the water be “eaten” like tiny liquid snacks that could be popped into your mouth at any time? Perhaps we would want flavored water like cherry water, tea water, coffee water, or chocolate water.
Maybe we don’t actually eat or drink the container. Once the inside water is gone, it may be possible to just discard the bottle onto a lawn or flowerbed, as a form of enviro-littering, and wait for it to re-liquefy, sending a few drops of moisture to the thirsty plants below.
How would we fabricate the container part of water? Would it somehow be molded, pressed, 3D printed, or simply sprayed onto a form?
The process I’ve just described is what I call “situational futuring,” where we begin to explore the implications of some future technology. Here’s how this can be used as an effective futuring tool.
Much like dropping a rock into still water and watching the ripples form in every direction, situational futuring begins with a central idea, which grows into a series of rippling thoughts, issues, and questions expanding in every direction.
Unlike the study of macro or megatrends, situational futuring is a micro-futuring process that begins with a single invention, tiny idea, or what-if condition and expands from there.
The process begins with an initial scenario and asking some of the standard who-what-when-where-how-and-why questions. Probing deeper, questions formulated around things like timing, monetary implications, disruptive effects, symbiotic partners, who-wins-who-loses, wild cards, policy changes, and strange bedfellows will help expand your thinking even further.
This works particularly well in a brainstorming environment where thoughts and ideas can be quickly sketched out, described, or clarified so more can be added.
Inside these moments of micro futuring is where the real treasures live. Companies wishing to expand their product line, service agencies seeking to streamline their processes, or design engineers wishing to gain a new perspective will all find this to be a valuable tool.
44 Examples of Situational Futuring
It all starts with the initial idea, so here are some examples of starting points designed to begin the conversational thread of situational futuring.
1. 3D Ice Printers – A 3D printer designed to work exclusively with ice could be used to make ice sculptures, ice containers, ice cubes with your favorite liquor inside, ice logos for companies, and much more.
2. Water Harvesting Irrigation Spikes – Will it someday be possible to add atmospheric water harvesting ground-spikes next to every plant or tree in our garden? These devices will pull water from the air to irrigate nearby plants.
3. Quantified Self Skills Analysis – As employers lose confidence in traditional transcripts and college degrees as a predictor of success, they will turn towards more sophisticated attribute-matching systems for sorting through the ultra-granular quantifiable-self and finding the closest fit. People who don’t make the shortlist for a job opening will be given an auto-generated overview of their skill deficiencies and ways to improve upon them.
4. Real-Time Healthcare Monitors – Rather than doing the snapshot-in-time testing that doctors do today, analyses will increasing be made in real-time through sensor networks that pull data over an extended period of time from our skin, organs, and even our brain as these tools evolve into hyper-analytical portals into our own metabolism.
5. Wireless Power – Will having users linked to wireless power networks in the future be similar to linking to Wi-Fi networks today?
6. Swarmbots – Groups of flying drones that move like flocks of birds, schools of fish, or swarms of bees have become known as swarmbots. How long will it be before we see the newspaper headline that reads: “10,000 tiny flying swarmbots perform flawlessly together?”
7. Cure for Aging – Life expectancy is getting longer, but the usefulness of the human body has traditionally maxed out somewhere around 120. Will it someday be possible to find a cure for aging?
8. Driverless Cars – How long will it be before we see the first highway in the U.S. to be designated as a “driverless-cars only” highway?
9. Space Colonies – In what year will there be an election for the first President of the Moon?
10. Billion-Cam Video Project – What kind of business will be needed to connect 1 billion live video cameras to the Internet? What can a billion-cam network do that a million-cam network can’t?
11. Centralized Law Project – Very few countries have their laws posted in a central repository. In the U.S. the laws, rules, and regulations are so numerous and obscure that few people know what laws are governing them at any given moment. How would that change if all laws were required to be posted on one central online website?
12. Dream Recorder – It’s easy to forget our dreams, even before we wake up. Is it possible to create a “hit-play-to-record” device that would allow us to visually or mentally archive our dreams?
13. Reviving the Extinct Species – Should extinct species be brought back to life? If so, where would they live, and who would manage their existence?
14. Self-Cleaning House – This long-time dream of housewives is finally within reach as smart home technology, combined with the Internet of Things, begins to invade our lives. What are the current missing pieces and what technology could be used to fill the gaps?
15. Animal Communicator – With early stage natural language translators already in existence for humans, the next step will be a technology that bridges the communication gap between humans and animals. Will this ever be possible and how would this affect our human-animal relationships?
16. Global Elections – When will we see the first global election with over 500 million people voting from at least 50 different countries? Will they be voting for a person, or voting on an issue? If it’s a person, what position will that person be running for? And, if it’s an issue, what issue will be so compelling that everyone wants to vote on it?
17. Human Cloning – Science fiction movies often show cloned bodies grown over a long period of time. But 3D printing of replacement bodies will likely be a quicker option. How long will it be before someone 3D prints their own replacement body, and what are the implications of this kind of technology?
18. Space Based Power Stations – The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) recently announced its 25-year plan to build the world’s first 1-gigawatt power plant in space. Is it possible that another country will build one before Japan, and what effect will this have on today’s power industry?
19. Your Future Self – How much, and in what ways, should you invest in the person you will become 5-10 years from now? What are some different ways for you to quantify the return on your investment?
20. Future Countries – One hundred years from now, will we have more countries in the world or less? Will it someday be possible to create micro-nation states, and how could they be leveraged to influence global thinking?
21. The Age of the Dismantler – Every industry will eventually end, and this requires talented people who know how to scale things back and dismantle things in an orderly fashion. How long will it be before we begin a full-scale effort to dismantle the national power grid?
22. Controlling Weather – Weather control technology is still in its infancy. In what year will we see the first hurricane stopped by human intervention and what is the technology that will be used?
23. Hyper-Individualized Medicine – Professor Lee Cronin at the University of Glasgow believes we will soon be using 3D printers to replace traditional pharmaceuticals with hyper-individualized medicines that are printed specifically for the person at the time they ordered them. What are the likely health and business implications from this kind of technology?
24. Crypto Currencies – Bitcoin is the first crypto currency to make major inroads as an alternative to national currencies. What will be the first major banking system to accept deposits either from bitcoin or some other crypto currency?
25. Atmospheric Water Harvesters – Several new technologies have been developed to extract moisture directly from the air. These have become known as atmospheric water harvesters. How long will it be before we see the first city to harvest 100% of its water supply from the atmosphere?
26. Ultra High Speed Transportation System – Today’s high speed trains max out around 300 mph. However, vacuum tube transportation systems, like the one being proposed by ET3, have the potential to exceed 4,000 mph. Once implemented, how will a technology like this affect the airline industry?
27. Genetically Engineered Athletes – Will genetically engineered designer babies, often referred to as super-babies, grow up to become super-humans? Will the prospects of creating bigger, faster, stronger humans change the rules for professional sports?
28. Mass Energy Storage – We are now entering the early growth stages of what will surely become a huge global industry – energy storage. In what year will we see the first mass energy storage system capable of storing enough energy to power a city of 1 million people for over a month? How will that impact the price of power?
29. Large Scale 3D Printing – In April the Chinese company, WinSun Decoration Design Engineering, created the first 3D printed house. They not only printed a house, they completed 10 houses in a single day using a massive printer that was 490 feet long, 33 feet wide, and 20 feet deep. How long before this same technology can be used to 3D print much larger items such as ships, stadiums, aircraft, and even floating islands?
30. Water Bullets – Non-lethal weapons employ many different technologies, but using water bullets could be the easiest to use and also the least dangerous. Are water bullets a likely candidate for non-lethal weapon technology, and how long before police forces are equipped to use them?
31. Crowd-Sourced Court System – If a court system were developed using crowdsourcing to form its jury decisions, what things would have to change in our current justice system? Would this be a fairer kind of justice and who would be the early adopters?
32. Instant Sleep – The workaholic’s dream. People who need to finish an important project, but are feeling exhausted, would simply walk into the instant-sleep chamber, and Voila! In a few seconds they would walk back out, fully rejuvenated and raring to go. Is this possible?
33. Global Language Archive – Over the next century nearly half of the roughly 7,000 languages spoken on Earth will disappear, as young people abandon native tongues in favor of English, Mandarin, or Spanish. Do we have a moral obligation to begin archiving our languages in a central repository as a way to preserve our cultures, and in many ways, our humanity?
34. Legalized Marijuana Movement – Tracking very similarly to the end of prohibition in 1929, the legalization of recreational marijuana in Colorado and Washington is paving the way for other states and counties to follow suit. How long before the marijuana is as prevalent as alcohol in nightclubs around the U.S. and around the world?
35. Perpetual Self-Filling Canteen – In a world where people continually die from lack of hydration, one of the most-needed devices is a handheld canteen that is constantly extracting moisture from the air. What are some of the ways a technology like this can be used and how large of market could a technology like this create?
36. Downloadable Personalities – If you had the ability to create a new “personality” for your conversational computer, with some new personality-builder software, what features would you want it to have? Who are some of todays best-known celebrities that would likely show up as downloadable personalities for your computer, car, or robot? How would this affect your relationship with your machines as well as other people?
37. Nano-Netting – Using super strong fibers so small that they are invisible to the human eye, nano-netting will provide a fibrous support structure that is visually non-intrusive but capable of keeping out insects, birds, and other unwanted animals. But this technology will also enable objects to be suspended in air with seemingly invisible support. Invisible fences, invisible screens, invisible cars and windmills will all be possible. What kind of market will there be for invisible netting like this?
38. Electron-Based Information Storage – Yes, Moore’s Law is still in effect, but we are still a long ways from using electrons as the basis for our storage medium. How long will it be before this happens and how will achieving this milestone for ultra tiny storage particle change the tech industry?
39. Seed Capitalists – In the startup business world there is a huge gulf between initial concept and fundable prototypes. This dearth of funding options will require an entirely new profession. How will the introduction of seed capitalists, who specialize in high-risk early stage startups, change the entrepreneurial landscape?
40. Avatar Relationship Managers – As the foibles of humanity enter the realm of autonomous, freethinking avatars, people will find it necessary to both manage and limit the often-dangerous relationships that our avatars get us into. Will this be a near term problem?
41. Anomaly Zero – The medical problems most people have can be traced to changes in a single cell. Anomaly Zero is the first detectable sign that something is wrong. We may not be able to spot a change in a single cell, but can get far closer than what we detect today. So how can we use our pursuit of Anomaly Zero to intervene before major damage begins?
42. Robotic Earthworms – The most valuable land on the planet will soon be the landfills because that is where we have buried our most valuable natural resources. In the future, robotic earthworms will be used to silently mine the landfills and replace whatever is extracted with high-grade soil.
43. Movable Holes – If you drill a hole in the wrong place, will it someday be possible to simply move the hole. Will this type of technology ever be practical? If so, how will movable holes be advertised and sold?
44. Flashdark – As a device that works the opposite of a flashlight, the “flashdark” can be used to shine “darkness” onto any surface. So if you’re getting too much sun on the beach, shining darkness on yourself becomes an easy solution. Does the invention of the “flashdark” violate our current laws of physics? Even so, is it still a viable technology?
How much power and influence do predictions have? Do predictions sometimes influence an event to happen? Are some more of a self-fulfilling prophecy than a prediction?
The answer depends on many factors. Who is making the prediction, how credible are they, how many people are actually paying attention to it, and are there other factors we may not be aware of?
As with most predictions, some of the ones above are far more likely than others. But the true value in this kind of list comes from giving serious consideration to each one of them and reaching your own conclusions. And situational futuring is a fascinating tool that can help you do exactly that.
In this context predictions become an important tool, even when they are wrong.
Author of “Communicating with the Future” – the book that changes everything