Innovating the Future: From Ideas to Adoption: Futurists and Innovators Can Teach Each Other Lessons to Help Their Ideas Succeed

By Denning, Peter J. | The Futurist, January-February 2012 | Go to article overview

Innovating the Future: From Ideas to Adoption: Futurists and Innovators Can Teach Each Other Lessons to Help Their Ideas Succeed


Denning, Peter J., The Futurist


Innovators and futurists ought to have a symbiotic relationship. Often, they do not.

The futurist aims to help us understand how trends and events will shape the future, so that we can chart our business and policy courses to bring us to a future that most appeals to us. The innovator, on the other hand, aims to realize a possible future by getting ideas (i.e., possibilities for the future) adopted as practice in our communities.

Many would-be innovators ask in frustration, Why do my own good ideas often go by the wayside and other people's bad ideas get adopted? Why do I invest enormous time and resources to systematically generate new ideas, only to see much of my effort go to waste? Leaders in all fields fret and fume over these questions. They want to improve their innovation success rates.

Increasing success and reducing wasted effort on the path to innovation are very important goals. Many people believe innovation is the key to economic development, technological progress, competitiveness, and business survival. Policies that enhance a nations ability to be innovative are constantly in public discussion and are hot topics among politicians and business leaders. Futurists collaborating with innovators can contribute to these goals.

I have been investigating these questions for many years and have learned many things that I wish I knew when I was younger. Based on these investigations, my colleague, Robert Dunham, and I wrote a book, The Innovator's Way (MIT Press, 2010, innovators-way.com). I will share here some excerpts from the book as a guide for innovators--and futurists--who are trying to get their ideas adopted.

The Work of Futurists

Most futurists see their mission as investigating how social, economic, and technological developments will shape the future. Futurists help others understand and respond to the coming changes. They also help apply anticipatory thinking to issues facing education, business, and government. They do this by a variety of methods, of which these three are the most common:

1. Revelation of current realities. Sometimes the prevailing commonsense interpretation of what is happening and how it will shape the future is not well grounded. It is a belief, but is not supported by data and observation. Futurists examine the data and propose new, well-grounded interpretations. They then examine how policy and action might change to align with the reality.

Peter Drucker was a master at this. His book The New Realities (Harper-Business, 1989) is loaded with examples. My favorite was his chapter "When the Russian Empire Is Gone," in which he analyzed economic data, conversations of politicians and the media, and moods of Russian citizens to conclude that the Soviet Union would soon fall. The collapse occurred within a year of when the book was published, much sooner than he expected.

2. Extrapolation of trends. When a trend can be detected in some measure of performance, futurists can calculate future values of that measure and draw conclusions about the consequences. In 1965, Gordon Moore noticed a trend in computer chips: Every year, the transistor count doubled for about the same price ("Cramming More Components into Integrated Circuits," in Electronics Magazine 38, April 1965). Many people started using Moore's law to gauge whether the computing power available in a few years would support their new technology offerings. Though not a law of nature, it became a guiding principle that has sustained the computer chip industry for nearly 50 years.

In The Age of Spiritual Machines (Viking, 1999), Ray Kurzweil claimed that the same trend was evident in four previous generations of information technologies and would be present in technologies that supersede silicon. Based on that, he extrapolated 50 years into the future to predict a "singularity" around 2030, when he believes artificial brains will become intelligent. …

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