A decade ago, I began creating an end-of-year inventory of signals, outliers and trends in an effort to hit January 1st running. Of all the decisions made in the past year, which would have lasting impact in the coming months? Which big upcoming anniversaries and events might cause an acceleration of change? Were there inflection points lurking around corners? What uncertainties could I identify now and begin to prepare for? Far from being a nostalgic look back at what was or might have been, or a list of predictions for what would definitely happen, this inventory was something entirely different: a way to think about the evolution of technology, science and humanity as a long continuum.
I started sharing my end of year inventory with the Future Today Institute’s clients, who found it to be an invaluable resource. I also found out about a clever hack: our clients were using the inventory as a companion to our annual Emerging Tech Trends report to aid in their strategic planning for the year ahead.
So for our last FTI newsletter of 2018, I’m sharing the inventory with you. I’ll warn you in advance: this is a very long email. Keep it in your inbox or download and save the PDF version. The point is not to breeze through what’s here, but to refer back to it often. Our goal is to find patterns and confront uncertainty often. We like to save surprises for the holidays –– we hope they come gift wrapped and bring cheer, delight and joy.
– Amy Webb
First, a look back.
Lots of decisions were made in 2018 –– some which were entirely or partially within our control and others that were made on our behalf, or in secret, or areas of the world unknown to us. We won’t know the outcomes immediately, but we do know that every decision made influences the future. It’s important to track these decisions and ask: what impact could this decision have on delivering our preferred futures? Which stakeholders will benefit/ lose? What are the risks and opportunities that could unfold?
Privacy and Personal Tech
- Facebook made decisions which led to Cambridge Analytica using consumer data without their knowledge. And then Facebook didn’t consider it a breach of privacy and trust until the public –– and eventually Congress –– found out.
- Twitter made decisions about its algorithms and what constitutes hate speech and intimidation, effectively preserving the status quo.
- Kids and parents made decisions about Fortnight –– the world’s most popular game.
- Consumers made a decision to buy peripherals rather than investing in newer phones that haven’t added features or functionality. The sale of smartphones plateaued worldwide. Apple’s new iPhone XS didn’t wow consumers as expected. Samsung sort-of revealed a phone with a foldable screen, but didn’t mention when or whether it would go on sale.
- Consumers also made decisions about their digital privacy. Overwhelmingly, we decided that the benefits of using our devices far outweighed the drawbacks of third parties scraping and using our data.
Court Decisions, Policy and Regulation (tech and science)
- The EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) took effect, and decisions leading up to that point and even after meant that the internet began to splinter. Depending on where in the world you live, you are now seeing different versions of news websites and stories. You may not have access to some content.
- In the US, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai made a decision to roll back laws intended to protect consumers and the open internet.
- Cities decided to allow transportation-as-a-service companies to set up shop including electric scooters and bikes, along with ride sharing apps.
- SCOTUS ruled that law enforcement must get a warrant to access your past location data from wireless carriers and others. It also ruled that states can now force retailers to collect sales taxes during online transactions.
- Lawmakers in the US decided not to develop a national strategy (or even point of view) on biology, artificial intelligence and automation.
Court Decisions, Policy and Regulation (non-tech, non-science)
- Lawmakers chose not to act after gunmen murdered American citizens at a school in Parkland, Florida, a bar in Thousand Oaks, California, a synagogue in Pittsburgh, a newsroom in Annapolis, Maryland and some 250 additional mass shootings during 2018 alone.
- In the US, federal courts decided to allow AT&T to complete its $85 billion acquisition of Time Warner.
- Lawmakers decided to confirm Bret Kavanaugh as a Supreme Court Justice.
- India’s Supreme Court decided to decriminalize homosexuality.
- Chinese scientists made decisions to use somatic cell nuclear transfer, genomic editing, and other techniques to modify animal, plant and human life.
- Chinese lawmakers approved a constitutional change removing term limits for its leaders, effectively making Xi Jinping China’s President for as long as he lives.
- China made sweeping decisions about climate science, diplomacy throughout Africa, Southeast Asia and Latin America, and how to manage its population.
Climate and Earth Science
- Decisions by Kenyan leaders led to the extinction of the northern white rhinoceros. The world’s last male died in March.
- The UN’s IPCC released its Special Report on Global Warming, warning that “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society” are needed to ensure that global warming is kept below 1.5 °C. So far, the status quo has been preserved.
- The Trump Administration made decisions to effectively ignore not only the IPCC report, but many existing climate data and models.
- Amazon, Google, Apple, Microsoft, Oracle, Salesforce and IBM all made decisions about how to provide products and services to the US government and military.
- Executives at many big tech companies made decisions to post tweets and Facebook screeds, which had varied market consequences.
- They decided to testify in Congress or to send their deputies instead. But they didn’t often share actionable insights.
- Microsoft decided to buy Github for $7.5 billion.
- Wireless carriers around the world began deploying 5G next-gen technology –– while lawmakers waited to weigh in on ecosystem standards.
- Michael Dell made a decision to take Dell Technologies public again.
- Companies everywhere made decisions about what to include in their employee behavior policies. Or they made decisions not to develop or even revise them. Some companies chose to deal with sexual misconduct scandals by doling out lucrative severance packages rather than disciplinary actions.
- Intel made decisions about how to alert the public, and how to clean up after the Spectre and Meltdown processor vulnerabilities.
- Some of the world’s largest companies, universities and government agencies made decisions that resulted in massive security breaches: Marriott, Under Armour, Macy’s, Panera Bread, Whole Foods, Gamestop, the Department of Homeland Security, Rail Europe, FedEx…there are too many to list.
- Companies large and small made investments in startups and incubators.
- R&D departments made staggering developments, product teams came up with exciting new ideas and projects, and innovation continued to bubble up across different industry sectors.
Geopolitical and Geoeconomic Decisions
- Countries around the world, including the US, France, UK, Germany and many others, made decisions about whether to intervene in Syria’s civil war –– and they made decisions about whether to accept or reject Syrian refugees.
- Donald Trump decided to withdraw the US from the Iranian nuclear agreement.
- Donald Trump decided to terminate the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia.
- The Trump Administration made decisions to separate families seeing asylum and to deploy forces to the southern US border.
- Under Donald Trump’s eye, the US also announced it would withdraw from the UN’s Human Rights Council.
- Donald Trump also decided to wage a trade war with China.
- And he decided not to attend centenary celebration honoring the end of WWI.
- The US Commerce Department decided to ban American companies from doing any business with Chinese firm ZTE. Then Donald Trump decided to intervene, forcing the Commerce Department to shift its course.
- The UK decided not to hold a second referendum on the final Brexit deal.
- Canada decided to fully legalize cannabis for recreational use.
- Donald Trump stepped in to a deal between chip giants, personally quashing Broadcom’s attempt to buy Qualcomm.
- Donald Trump also made decisions to accept invitations to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
- Space agencies worldwide made decisions to allow dozens of companies to launch tens of thousands of cubesats and other micro satellites into orbit.
- Universities made decisions about their curricula, which impacts the future of our workforce.
- Car manufacturers made decisions about how rapidly to scale electric vehicles and autonomy.
- Large agricultural companies made decisions about investing in new autonomous technologies and genetically modified crops.
- Boards of directors made decisions about board composition, which impacts who’s making critical decisions in the coming years.
- The Big Nine Tech Giants –– Amazon, Google, IBM, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft in the US, and Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent in China –– made choices about data, algorithms and autonomous decision making. These choices affect each and every one of us.
Now, a look forward…
Our 12th annual Emerging Tech Trends Report launches in March 2019. We are currently tracking 300 trends across 25 different industry sectors. Here’s an inventory of some of our initial key findings for 2019:
- For better or worse, regulation is coming in 2019. Even if proposals for regulation stall or ultimately fail to pass, going through the process will prove a serious distraction and cause pain for big tech companies.
- China will assert prolific dominance in 2019 across multiple areas: economics, technology, infrastructure, data collection and mining, artificial intelligence, bioengineering and diplomacy. We should anticipate data breaches originating from China rather than treating each case as new and novel.
- Russia will similarly continue efforts to influence citizens in Western democracies using a variety of techniques.
- Smartphone sales will start to decline; smart peripherals will see a bump. We expect to see many new kinds of wearables: connected performance clothing, headbands, shoes.
- We will start to see city-scale projects that harness electric devices (think IoT, but much larger in scope), traditional infrastructure and citizen data.
- We’ll see the convergence of several game changing technologies, such as AI and genomics, and quantum computing and encryption.
- We’ll see further consolidation across media and tech.
- Interfaces won’t just be screens that we look at. In 2019 we’ll begin to see new kinds of interfaces: biophysical, sound wave, light, gesture and of course, voice.
- We’ll begin to ask questions about the implications of anthropomorphizing AI agents. For example: How do our experiences change when an AI agent is taller or shorter than us? What if it has a distinct gender? What if it has a deeper or higher voice, relative to our own?
- We’ll start to reframe conversations around privacy rights in the wake of new connected devices and spatial computing environments. Examples: Who owns the rights to my face? What if my face gets hacked? Do the walls of an office –– the physical walls –– have the right to privacy? Who should be the gatekeepers of our geolocation data? If the answer is everyday people like you and me, what would be required to make sure we’re not setting ourselves up for continual problems, considering that a lot of people don’t actively update passwords and firmware?
- What is the fate of nationalistic movements worldwide? What about shifts in geopolitical alliances? How will they impact other areas of everyday life?
A few key anniversaries and events to keep on your radar
- The UK will leave –– probably –– the EU
- The 50th anniversary of the first lunar landing
- NASA’s New Horizons probe is scheduled to reach Ultima Thule, the most distant point we’ve ventured in space
- In China, it’s the 100 year anniversary of the May Fourth protest movement, and the 30 year anniversary of the bloody suppression of student-led demonstrations in Tiananmen Square
- The 2020 election cycle begins
Preparing for 2019
Leaders often make common errors as they make strategic decisions about the future: they under-predict or over-predict change. The reason? Most of us find uncertainty uncomfortable, so we are reluctant to confront it. We can’t solve for future uncertainty, but we can prepare ourselves to think critically about signals and decisions –– to understand all the dependencies we should consider that might impact the future.
I use my inventory to create axes of uncertainty. I use the bullet points from the Look Back section above and write two possible, opposite outcomes like this:
Then, I create a matrix of uncertainty, like this:
I mix and match bullet points and signals to create lot of different axes, which I use to contemplate the coming year. I’d encourage you to do the same, and to tailor the axes to your organization specifically by adding your own uncertainties. What would the outcomes of each quadrant look like for your organization? Your community? You, personally?
Strategic Time Horizons
Our FTI clients are always thinking about the future. But most often, the established planning timeframes aren’t optimized for strategic foresight. Executive leadership get into a rut of three to five-year planning routines, or they believe that planning beyond five years is simply pointless given all the technological disruption. This is a common blindspot for many organizations.
To effectively plan for the future, organizations need to learn how to swim in different lanes simultaneously. For any given uncertainty about the future — whether that’s risk, opportunity or growth — leaders must think strategically about tactics, strategy, vision and systems-level change. In practical terms, this means that you need to think about uncertainty in 2019 at the same time you’re planning for 2024, 2029 and even 2039.
For example, your organization might be wondering about the future of artificial intelligence. To effectively plan for the future, you must research and plan for the next 12-36 months (tactics), 3-5 years (strategy), 5-10 years (vision) and 10+ years (how AI might cause systems-level change, or how your organization could catalyze that change for your benefit).
This is the map we use with our FTI clients. With the uncertainties and decisions in our inventory, how will you position your strategic thinking differently in 2019?
Think Exponentially. Act Incrementally.
We cannot know exactly what the future holds –– which is an excellent reason to track signals and decisions not just at the end of the year, but all year long. Don’t wait for your next big quarterly meeting to make decisions. Broaden your thinking, look for intersecting vectors of change and figure out ways to make incremental decisions as often as possible.
At the end of every year, I also like to take a personal inventory of the people and organizations who support and elevate our work at FTI. I would like to thank Stern Strategy Group, and especially Danny Stern and Mel Blake, who are wonderful business partners and have been the primary drivers of our growth. Jennifer Alsever and her partner Doug Brown at Campfire Content have assisted us with our newsletters and reports this year, and they’ve been an invaluable resource. Des Dearlove and Stuart Crainer at Thinkers50 have connected me with world class strategists who have helped broaden and enrich my own thinking. To all of them, and to you our readers, I’d like to offer my deepest appreciation.
We are preparing for a very busy Q1. Here’s where we’ll be just after the new year:
Marketplace New Year’s Day Tech Talk: Tune in to Marketplace on New Year’s Day for our annual chat about the year ahead.
World Economic Forum: We’ll be in Davos all week. FTI’s Amy Webb is speaking on several panels. If you’re going to be there, please let us know if you and your team would like to meet up.
National Association of Broadcasters: We’ll be speaking with industry leaders about the results of our future of broadcasting workshop series.
Company Conferences: We’ll be at internal conferences for PricewaterhouseCoopers and the GAO in February.
SXSW: The launch of FTI’s 12th annual Emerging Tech Trends Report in March at the South by Southwest festival in Austin.