Friday, May 1, 2015

Using long-term trend assessment in business strategy

Slides from my lecture for post-graduate students in Trendwatching at the University of Ghent, April 2015

1) ways to discover long-term trends
2) why companies need to track these trends
3) how companies can assess these trends in the light of their strategy
4) my advise to young trendwatchers

Thanks to the great audience! I wish you all the success and fun in using trends in your future endeavours.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Some preliminary thoughts on the 3d industrial revolution

My slides for an introduction of a debate tomorrow about the 3d industrial revolution. Wish I had 3 hours for the intro, but I only have 30 minutes... so had to make some tough choices ;-)

Friday, February 27, 2015

My favourite Beta startups for the moment, and the story they tell...

I love monitoring startup initiatives. The collective vision –and, let’s be honest, gut-feel- of all these entrepreneurs is a source of intelligence any trendwatcher should cherish. Sure, many will fail, or struggle for long years before getting any success. Nevertheless, all these initiatives are an answer to certain demands, even if these are often too small to serve successfully. But to me, they tell a story nevertheless.

Here’s my pick of favourites from the companies that appeared on Betalist last couple of weeks, and the story they tell. 

I’m often asked what the ‘future of social media’ will be. There are many answers to that, none of them really easy or trustworthy. But for the immediate future it is rather clear that we will enter a period of extreme fragmentation of the market. Call it the ‘toothpastization’ of social media. Two of the startups on Betalist (in recent times) are a vivid example of this: Dooers , a community that aims at sharing advise on the best items for any activity, and Travelabulous , a social version of the Lonely Planet, so to speak. What strikes me with these initiatives, and many others, is they tend to focus on providing tangible advise to questions or challenges. It’s social media with a plus…

Talking of which, when combined with crowdsourcing and you get Flotsm, my favourite for the moment, despite its name. Flotsm promises to ‘Harness the wisdom of crowds. Make better decisions. Connect with minds, freely’. A promising agenda, and certainly an initiative I’ll follow closely… 

Another favourite of mine, but for personal reasons, if Teachery. In the era of MOOCs, Teachery offers virtually anyone to become an online teacher, and eventually earn a buck with it… this will undoubtedly unleash a wave of creativity to many researchers…

There’s been plenty of initiatives in the area of the ‘sharing economy’. Yerdl, Eggs & Rabbitholes, etc. Anything new? Well yes: Paperclip adds localization to it, so as to find items to trade your unwanted stuff with right in your neighbourhood. Not sure what the revenue model is for these initiatives, but I love them nevertheless (or perhaps because of that).

Follow this space for more to come!

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The 3d industrial revolution... what's in a word?

I will give a presentation on the 3d industrial revolution in a couple of days. As a preparation, I naturally had to go through the latest thinking of Jeremy Rifkin (whose book The Third Industrial Revolution somehow launched the idea).  

In his latest book ‘The Zero Marginal Cost Society: The Internet of Things, the Collaborative Commons, and the Eclipse of Capitalism’, Jeremy sees the Internet of Everything as the starting point of a society that produces any kind of value at no additional (marginal) cost, almost free, so to speak. The term (and the logic) is somewhat hard to grasp, but more important are the supporting trends that Jeremy picked to showcase this major shift. I took the liberty to summarize them in the graphic below:

Makes sense, though in my humble opinion there is much more happening. In my eyes the fundamental shift that is currently happening has an impact on why we produce (and consume) things, how we conceive them, how we make, how we market them and, ultimately, the environment in which we do all this:

But is this the “3d industrial revolution” at all? Difficult to say. For sure all these trends, taken together, will change certain aspects of what we came to call our capitalist system. But will it revolutionise it? Not necessarily. It might shake it and it will certainly challenge its logic. But this doesn’t need to be an ‘or-or’ story, all these trends can perfectly develop next to the systems of which they are an alternative…

Welcome in the world of ‘and-and’. Something to reflect on...

Saturday, February 21, 2015

What our economy can learn from nature... 'The blue economy' by Gunter Pauli

When and how did humanity go wrong in our way to conceive things? We only had to look around us to see how things are conceived in an efficient, effective  -sustainable- way… Welcome to the amazing world of biomimicry…

There are a tremendous amount of ways we can learn from nature to (re)use our garbage for other means, to generate energy, or to make buildings ready to face nature’s biggest calamities. ‘The blue economy’ provides a hundred of these examples, and he’s still collecting more.

Just an example: from the coffee bean plant we use approximately 0,5% to produce what we know as coffee.  The remaining 99,5% is burned or laid to waste, producing nothing but toxic gasses either way. How can we do better? It just proves to be that the remains of the plant are extremely fertile ground to grow exotic, yet very nutritious mushrooms – currently grown mostly in China, though using coffee plant waste it could grown in other parts of the world as well. This would require very few changes from the coffee farmers, and as an additional positive side effect it would create additional jobs, generate additional revenue for the poor farmers and it would solve some of the food challenges in poorer regions of the world!

This example shows the power of Gunter Pauli’s central theme: through a better way to use natural processes we can both generate a more sustainable environment and generate more wealth for more people. Both, so Pauli argues, go hand in hand. However, and here comes the real clue, to realise this these initiatives would by nature be local! Gone, globalisation. Gone, profit maximisation for irresponsible multinationals!

Natural ecosystems do not evolve to become monopolies, producing ever more standardised output. Instead they tend to align the efforts of a multitude of smaller initiatives and processes, so Pauli shows.

This does not require a revolution, just a smarter way of doing things. We can heat our buildings in much the same way as termites keep their habitat at equal temperatures.  We can use specific trees to combat erosion and at the same time grow silk worms, whose silk in turn we can use to produce shaving blades (instead of using Titanium) or in cosmetics (instead of using chemicals).  We can make buildings fireproof by using lemon shrill instead of Brome. We can produce energy using temperature differences (like zebra’s do), or through algae (who in turn have the ability to clean water and get CO2 out of the atmosphere).  Examples abound.

So where did we go wrong? Pauli argues that the reason might lie in our inclination to think linearly –instead of in cycles. We are trapped in a certain logic that does not work, at least not optimally. An unreasonable, irrational paradigm. 

Another example: traditional economic thinking (very much embedded in the opinion of each one of us, consciously or not) dictates that productivity gains (and hence economic growth) can only be obtained by using less workforce by production unit. Well, better think twice. As Pauli shows, productivity gains can be realized by using more workforce! How? Just copy nature’s wisdom… After all, it’s been gathering this wisdom for trillions of years…

This book definitely challenges our traditional way(s) of thinking…

A wonderful and exciting read !

PS: continuous research on this subject can be found through Pauli's organisation Zero Emission Research and Initiatives

'This changes everything', review of Naomie Klein's book

Naomie Klein is definitely one of my favourite opinion maker. Give her a subject, any subject, and there she goes, studying every angle of it for a couple of years, turning every argument and counter argument several times, avoiding no taboo at all. Of course, I don’t mean to say that she is neutral, no opinion maker is, nor should he be.

So when Klein focuses her mind on a topic as vital as climate change, I’m paying attention, hoping for her to uncover as inconvenient a truth as she did in the shock doctrine.

‘No time’ is certainly not free of controversial statements. For instance, early in the book Klein comes to the somewhat bewildering conclusion that climate negationists are in a way bigger believers in climate change than most of the adepts of the green movement. The have become negationists just because the consequences of the inconvenient truth are just too difficult to bare. Dealing with the climate challenge means transforming a global system which up to the present is just too comfortable to live in, and hence unacceptable to give up, or to start thinking about how to change it. Klein wouldn’t be Klein if she wouldn’t attack globalisation once in a while.

Neither does Klein spare the green movement. In her eyes it has fallen in the trap of the negationists, by combatting their arguments and thus speaking their language. Most of the green initiatives are far from green anyhow, as Klein exhaustively proves. 

So Klein turns her attention to a third movement. One that arguably is still a bit messy and blurry, but is showing its impact in every single part of the world. Klein calls this movement ‘blockadia’ – a bit pejorative to my taste, but who am I? In Klein’s eyes Blockadia is the sum of all the small initiatives that are taking shape to oppose the excesses of the current system. These initiatives are quite organic, judging from the vast amount of examples Klein provides in her book. They sometimes pop up from nothing, instantaneously, and sometimes disappear as quickly as they came, as soon as the message is conveyed, or the aim reached. Some of them grow in (or out of) proportion, morph into other forms, change directions and dissolve naturally. But more importantly, these movements are constituted by a multitude of different people, dependent on the purpose they serve. From middle-class people opposing the construction of a dangerous pipeline in their back yard, to natives claiming their rights on ground, according to Klein all of these are part of that bigger movement, Blockadia.

This is not a book about climate change as such, but rather about how people –and, perhaps, humanity- is dealing with the consequences of that change. Blockadia in that respect is bound to grow as these consequences will become more and more apparent, and will affect a growing amount of people all around the globe. In Blockadia Klein sees some reason to hope for a better future. Whether it will be enough, however, no one can tell… 

A valuable read nevertheless...

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Population pyramids: Powerful predictors of the future

A fascinating crash course in demographic studies, and why this is important in order to anticipate the future...

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The impact of automation and robotics on the labor market

Seems like a lot of bright people are seriously investigating the impact of automation and robotics on the labor market nowadays. According to most, we're heading some serious storms in this regard. Not only is automation destroying plenty of blue-collar jobs, but with the avenge of smarter devises and self-learning software, even white collar jobs could suffer from this trend in the long-run.

However, as Andrew McAfee brilliantly explains in this TED talk, as automation first and foremost benefits the corporate profits, it will no longer do so in the future if this keeps on destroying jobs - companies will simply have no consumers to sell their products to if all jobs would disappear. This somehow pleas for a guaranteed minimum wage (or a different way to re-distribute corporate profits, if you'd ask me, this could be done in other ways than a minimum wage).

The vision of labor-free citizens that spend their time thinking, discussing, making art and designing new things while robots do the hard work, is reappearing. Sounds pretty sixties and tech-utopian, perhaps. But why not? Whether we want it or not, we are already facing a completely new logic in the way our society gets organized. Trends like 3D printing, climate change, crowdsourcing, sharing economy etc etc already are impacting the very fabric of our society. If you project all of these trends on a larger scale (okay, a very dangerous thing to do for any forecaster) you see a completely new society emerge.

How exactly this will unfold is obviously very hard to predict. No doubt the path to this transition will be painful for many, as is the case with all transitions of this magnitude. But if we're all looking in the same direction, it might lead to something better at the end... it just might...

Thursday, February 13, 2014

The art and science of prediction (Nate Silver's 'The Signal and the Noise')

“This book is less about what we know than about the difference between what we know and what we think we know”, writes Nate Silver somewhere at the end of his book. He could not have phrased it more beautifully. Our brain is a remarkable instrument that, when it comes down to predicting almost anything, contains a substantial amount of techniques to mislead us. Of course, these techniques often helped us to survive in tougher times, but they fail us miserably in the area of future-watching. Just as an example: apparently we have a bad habit of neglecting certain risks just because they’re too hard to measure…. Not sure how far this will get us in terms of survival, however…

The solution? Statistics. According to Nate Silver, that is. He’s not saying statistics can predict everything (or, for that matter, anything) –‘all statistic models are faulty, but some are useful’- but at least it can provide us with a more accurate picture of the (possible) future(s).

Chapter by chapter Nate applies this thought on very specific subjects, ranging from the American elections (his specialty), to weather forecasting, earthquakes, economic growth and climate change, to more tangible topics such as poker, chess, or beating the stock market (which, he concludes, is impossible).

Fascinating material, and some conclusions linger on for quite some time. For instance: the level of uncertainty of prediction increases when the system we study is non-linear and dynamic (which sounds intuitive at first, but is very often forgotten, for instance when governments predict next year’s GDP), or when the data we start with is not accurate enough (like with weather forecasting). We also need to watch out not to ‘overfit’ our models (adapting it with the data we have at hand), as we often do with predicting earthquakes. Sometimes we can use models developed for one system onto another system, like applying the power-law distribution we use for earthquakes onto the event of future terrorist attacks (which results in a somewhat bewildering conclusion).

The central thought Nate Silver uses across his book is the formula of Bayes which, for the curious people among you, looks like this:

[xy] / [xy + z(1-x)]

X = the initial likeliness you would attribute to an event.
Y = the ‘positive possibility’ (the likeliness of an event without taking x into account)
Z = the ‘negative possibility’ (the likeliness of the event not taking place).

Believe it or not, but with this formula you can even calculate the likeliness that your partner is cheating on you! The key figure in the formula is the ‘x’, the likeliness you grant to an event accuring –which implies that the overall likeliness gets more accurate as you gather more experience or knowledge about the event (if your partner cheated on you in the past, the ‘x’ would increase, and hence the overall likeliness in a particular event as well).

Strangely enough this thought process can be applied to virtually any system (or prediction), though dependent on a number of factors it can produce totally different outcomes, with different levels of accuracy. The world will never be predictable, but with a sensible use of statistics it can become a little more so…

Fascinating reading…

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Meet the new Meat

...have to love this quote, just because it makes you think "A vegetarian in a Hummer is more ecological than a meat eater on a bike"... meat has some future though:

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Why CSR is moving to the core of corporate strategy

It still strikes me that people look surprised when I talk to them about CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility). To many, CSR is just a fashionable word for ‘greenwashing’, a handy way to disguise activities that are far from ‘responsible’ at all. Others see CSR as an argument to attract a new breed of clients, or a way to attract Generation Y employees who –according to plenty of surveys- would prefer to work for a socially responsible employer.

To counter this skepticism I often explain that CSR is increasingly getting to the core of corporate strategy. Even better: in many industries CSR has become an imperative. To show why, let us take a look at this graph:

The vertical axis shows the source of motivation for CSR: is this imposed by society, or is it a company’s own initiative? The horizontal axis shows the impact of CSR on a company: does it involve its core business, or does it only impact the ‘business periphery’ (the context) of a company?

We now obtain 4 segments, each reflecting a different behavior to CSR:

The lower left segment (‘must do’s’), where CSR is imposed by society but touches the business’ context, is where we find activities that companies must comply with. A fair treatment of employees, honest communication, compliance with the law, etc. Nothing too exciting here.

In the upper left segment (‘good to do’) we find the numerous corporate foundations that each company from a certain size feels obliged to possess. This space is pretty crowded, and hence offers little room for competitive differentiation. In a certain way this segment is responsible for the skepticism I talked about earlier: what good can we expect from the foundation of an oil company when, due to bad practices, the mother company causes a natural disaster?

But it starts to get really interesting once the CSR activities touch the core business of corporations. The lower-right segment (‘major threat’) is clearly a danger zone companies would want to avoid. Think of how BP had to review its activities after the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Or think of Coca Cola, whose products were boycotted for years throughout India because of its bad management of water in a plant in the Southern State of Kerala. This factory was located in a region that is increasingly suffering from water shortage, hence the anger of the local farmers for Coca Cola’s water spoilage, and ultimately the boycott throughout India. To be fair with Coca Cola: they since reviewed the water usage  of their factories, and even win sustainability awards with it. In each threat lies an opportunity…

Now to my point: in order to still gain competitive advantage from the overpopulated ‘corporate foundation’ activities, and to avoid the threat of society imposing changes on companies, more and more companies move to the upper right segment (‘major opportunity’), where the core activities of a company are used to do social good. is a good example of this, since it uses plenty of Google’s tools at the disposal of aid organizations after a natural disaster. Some would call this a clever way to position its products favorably (‘cause marketing’), but I just wonder how many day-to-day users of Google know about this initiative…

Other examples include the many traditional energy providers who increasingly put sustainable energy at the core of their long-term strategy. Or take technology company Siemens, that recently completed a reorganization where each business unit now focuses on resolving one specific societal challenge (ageing population, mobility, sustainability, etc). But the most impressive example is probably Umicore, who transitioned from a (dirty) mining and natural resources company into a world-class recycling company, and now consistently appears in the lists of most sustainable companies worldwide.  

This movement becomes inevitable in many industries. The two ‘forces’ we discussed are driving companies to put their core products at the service of their CSR activities. But there is a third force at play: in this segment companies face an increasing competition from social entrepreneurs, who very often threaten the overall business model of the industry, and at any rate are eating market share from traditional players. Pure providers of green energy are a good example of this, but also the multiple initiatives that have to do with the ‘sharing economy’, which are forcing traditional players to at least ask themselves the (vital) question whether they should join or fight this movement.

Admittedly, these three forces will play with different intensity dependent on the industry you’re in, but from the multiple examples I have seen in recent times, I can only conclude that virtually no industry will remain unaffected by them.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The future of democracy: towards a 'participative' democracy?

I recently had the chance to read the essay of David Van Reybrouck ‘Against elections’ (‘Tegen verkiezingen’, in its original title). As far as I can see it has not yet been translated in English, which is a bit of a shame, since it poses some pressing questions on the current functioning of our democracy, as well as its future.

The starting point of the essay is quite comprehensible:  there are two vital criteria for exercising ‘power’ (in the democratic sense, that is): efficiency and legitimacy.  Most Western democracies are in crisis on both these criteria. Elected powers are decreasingly regarded as the safeguard for an efficient organization of society; and in many cases the very basis of their power is questioned. Result? Ever fewer people are participating in the elective process, and those that do tend to vote in an increasingly volatile way.

This is what Van Reybrouck calls the ‘democratic fatigue syndrome’, and according to him this fatigue mainly results from the fact that we tend to assimilate ‘democracy’ with ‘elections’ all too often.

Elections, however, are a relatively new phenomenon, at least in relation to democracy. When we look at what is vastly considered the birth-state of democracy (the Athens of the ancient Greeks), we see that this democracy was to a big extend based on a lottery. A lottery among a small selection of citizens, surely, but still, this had some considerable advantages. For instance: since the ‘power’ of decision takers was by definition limited in time, they were more inclined to take measures that reached further than their tenure of this power (instead of just taking short-term measures to make sure to get reelected).

But this system of lottery has been with us ever since. The leaders of the city-states of Venice and Firenze were selected through a combination of lottery and elections. Philosophers like Montesquieu and Rousseau even warned that a system based on elections would ultimately benefit the aristocracy. This probably explains why the lottery method disappeared altogether from the constitutions of the US and France after the revolutions: the people writing these constitutions had nothing to gain from a system based on lottery… It leads to the somewhat bewildering conclusion that the system of elections was never meant to be democratic in the first place!

But things are changing. We see an increasing amount of initiatives based on ‘participative democracy’. In Texas (above all places!) a decision about investments in wind energy originated from the feedback of its citizens; in Japan the population took part in a decision about the pension system; and in Iceland the inhabitants contributed to the development of a new constitution.

These initiatives (and multiple others, most of them can be found on the website were not merely referenda, but genuine efforts to take decisions on a collaborative basis. This could lead to a a complete new model for our democracies, such as the very sophisticated ‘multi-body sortition’ method developed by Terrill Bouricius.

This is not necessarily the ‘ideal’ state of a democracy –arguably there is no such thing. But what’s for sure is that a more participative form of democracy is preferable over an election-based one, and as the increasing number of examples show, the idea is catching on.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The classroom of the future: delusion or necessity?

I have followed a lot of discussions about the use of technology in classrooms lately. Personally I thought it was a no-brainer: if schools want to educate pupils in how to function in society, they need to reflect this society as well as possible, right? Well, skeptics have a point as well: don't we want schools to reflect values that don't necessarily have anything to do with technology? Additionally there's a practical side to this: how to pay for it all if education already eat huge portions of an ever shrinking budget... and how fast can we realistically educate teachers on how to use technology efficiently in the classroom?  

As always the answer will lie somewhere in between these two opposite visions.

So, first: is there a need for using technology in the classroom?  I would think so, if only because it enables great improvement in efficiency of teaching, and in personalizing the pace and content of the classes to each individual pupil:

So how might this integration of technology in the classroom look like? If you want an extreme example, look at this vision of HP:

In comparison, Intel's view of the future classroom contains pretty much the same elements of smart computer usage, gamification and collaboration, but somehow looks much more feasible on the short term than HP's:

Looks impressive, right? But obviously it will take a while before getting there, I'm afraid... In the meantime, we'll have to go step-by-step, and perhaps this example of a school in a remote community in Arizona, shows how small-scale introduction of technology can already lead to huge improvements (be aware that this is an advertisement by Samsung, but try to watch behind the ad here): be continued, no doubt ;-)

Monday, January 6, 2014

56 Megatrends Fact Sheets 2014, invaluable input for your planning and innovation sessions!

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List of megatrends covered in the document:

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Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Trends in Clean Technology (adoption)

Slides from my intro speech at a debate about the adoption of clean technology and sustainability practices ate the KULeuven (University of Leuven)

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Some advise for young (aspiring- futurists

I had the opportunity to give a lecture to (brilliant) post graduate students in 'Trendwatching' at the Hogeschool Gent. Ended my presentation with some advise for those of them who would make it their profession, which might be of interest to some of my readers:

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The vanishing corporation

Of course, the future is never extreme... but there are some very distinct signs that corporations as we know them are bound to evaporate as they are increasingly opening their operations to the external world. This won't be happening for all companies, obviously, but in one form or another it is already happening to many... Here's how:

Monday, November 25, 2013

The future of personalized medicine... not so fast

In my speeches I very often talk about personalized medicine as a showcase of an unavoidable future. After all it makes sense, no? Instead of prescribing medicines based on the average result they have on a test group (with many failures as a result), personalized medicines could provide patients with exactly what they need in order to cure. Result? More effective health care. Ah, and let's not forget: cost reductions!

But the real key to making this happen is DNA profiling, or, to be more precise: genome sequencing. As far as I know this can be done relatively easily and at a rapidly declining cost. What I didn't know was that the idea of using genome sequencing in health care provisioning still needs some way to get adopted by the health care providers in the first place!

This brilliant -and entertaining, even for those like me who understand very little about DNA and medicine-speech explains you why that is, and why genome sequencing should be used in the future:

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Urbanization in India, challenges and opportunities

With 16% of world population living on 2% of the world's land mass, no doubt India has some challenges to resolve... Two third of Indians still live in rural areas, though this is rapidly changing since an increasing number of them move to the cities. This in turn forms another challenge, since most cities are ill equipped to absorb the extra population, at least not in a sustainable and healthy way. The city of Surat however shows that it can be done...

We will see the same challenges in other parts of the world that are coping with emerging megacities. I wonder whether new solutions will arise from them.

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