Understanding possible futures is all about signals — and there is no shortage of them. A dominant conversation these days is focused on how to sense these signals, derive foresight, and respond. While foresight helps us see possible futures, the next challenge is moving from a high degree of uncertainty to some level of actionable certainty. That step in the process is a combination of science and art. Signals manifest themselves through the current and emerging building blocks that shape our future — and they are coming at us from every corner of society. Since I don’t believe in prediction, I will focus my year-end post on signals to look for in 2022 across four key areas.
Building sustainable futures
As sustainability drives dialog around the world, the appreciation for massive and rapid science and technological advancement grows. In this next chapter of human development, our ability to build sustainable futures reaches new heights — heights we have not seen since the second industrial revolution. The signals to look for in 2022 include an expected acceleration in the various science and technology building blocks that enable this future. Given that the growing focus on purpose is not a fad, a key signal to look for is the intensification of that focus. Driven by activist investors, shifting generational views, money flows, and societal trends, purpose likely converges with this expanding set of building blocks to illuminate possible sustainable futures. Where the inner innovation wheel represents human development from that second revolution, the outer circle captures an array of possibilities across our areas of well-being. Signals in the coming year will be very instructive as it relates to the realization of that wheel.
THE FUTURE OF WORK
In this recent post I describe the current resignation phenomenon and the signals it represents. Those signals are a potential foreshadow for a very different work future. Demographic shifts are clearly in view: an aging society, a drop in global fertility rates (exacerbated by the pandemic), and a fall in working age population. These trends represent a significant departure from the previous 30 years, where the world experienced a significant labor supply shock. Globalization and the aggressive movement of women to the workforce drove a significant increase in working age population. With it came a stagnation of wages and an extended deflationary period. Demographic shifts and deglobalization have the potential to shift this dynamic, with the pandemic illuminating existing movements in that direction. The future of work represents a convergence of shorter-term trends like hybrid work, remote work, and the impact to cities, with these longer-term trends. Look for additional markers in 2022 to shed more light on where this future scenario is heading.
As referenced in the context of building sustainable futures, the science and technology building blocks available to society are exploding and converging in ways that accelerate the pace of change. Look for this pace to accelerate yet again in 2022. Driven in part by the pandemic, significant breakthroughs in key areas are likely next year. We have seen virtual reality reach new heights, to the point where the Metaverse is now a trending topic. Virtual presence is likely to accelerate, with a ripple effect across multiple domains. The applications of this advancement are in turn both fascinating and frightening — as described in this recent post on the great reduction. Imagine a day where you can virtually reconnect with a dead child. Artificial intelligence is likely to experience rapid progress next year — and the ripple effect of this progress potentially staggering. Imagine a day where our children have AI partners that learn about them in ways that advance their education and nurture the human characteristics that will be so critical in the automated world that is emerging. The signals to look for are breakthroughs in areas like robotics, artificial intelligence, digital currencies, and the metaverse. If signals indicate breakthroughs, then we are likely to see a pulling forward of possible futures.
Our capacity to innovate is likely higher than it has ever been in human history. The sheer number of building blocks and their combinatorial nature expands the possibility space. That space represents both opportunity and disruptive stress. In 2022, innovation journeys will increasingly explore these possibilities, with a growing focus on foresight. 2021 saw an enhanced appreciation for what is likely a transformative future. With it comes an appreciation for seeing possible futures, and a realization that rehearsing those futures is the only path forward. Expect more focus on painting pictures of possible futures, storytelling, rethinking traditional views of strategy, and applying experimentation to the visions, business models, and strategies of organizations. The signals to look for include more organizations experimenting (rehearsing) possible new business models, an increased demand for foresight, engaging think tanks and futurists, and a focus on driving organization wide innovation cultures. A key signal that I will be looking for is leadership appreciation for strategic uncertainty. As mentioned in an earlier post: “Forget 10-year visions. Forget 5-year roadmaps. Forget three-year plans. Long term is a year. Short-term is a month.”
With that as a motto, follow the signals. Understand what signals are relevant for your future. Those signals span several areas: society, geopolitics, economic, business, science, technology, environment, and philosophy. So, let the signal watching begin. 2022 could be a pivotal year on multiple levels. Happy New Year!