Preparing for What Is Next
Predicting the future is both extremely valuable and practically impossible. The further out you aim your predictions, the more difficult it becomes. So when futurists take a stab at painting a picture fifty or a hundred years in the future, we pay less attention to the specifics and more to the direction and the possibilities. In Mauro Guillen’s book 2030 (published in 2020), he takes a more reasonable time frame of just a decade. Not surprisingly, his book projects today’s technological breakthroughs and demographic certainties and concludes that by 2030 foundations will be laid for a different trajectory.
The book provides a number of thought provoking facts and projections for the year 2030. For example:
- The birthplace of the next industrial revolution will be sub-Saharan Africa due to the nearly 500 million acres of fertile undeveloped agricultural land.
- The percent of the world’s wealth held by women will have grown from 15% in 2000 to 55%.
- The number of people entering the middle class from emerging markets will reach 1 billion.
- The average 70 year old will live like today’s average 50 year old.
- Half the world’s population will live in areas with serious water shortages.
- Artificial intelligence and blockchain technology will continue to replace many routine manual and clerical jobs creating more challenges to joining the middle class.
It feels like another decade of accelerating technology and environmental strain will provide even greater uncertainty to the political and economic arenas. We are rapidly heading into unchartered territory. Guillen offers several strategies and approaches to better survive and potentially thrive in a world with an aging population, increasing artificial intelligence and digital currencies, and the center of the global middle class no longer being in North America and Europe.
Interestingly, the strategy I found most intriguing involved not looking ahead but looking behind. Guillen makes the argument that many good ideas fail because it simply was the wrong time. He writes, “Yet the history of invention is replete with examples of ideas whose shining moment had not yet arrived because there was no trend to serve as a tailwind.” Bill Gross, the founder of Idealab, a business incubator with a number of billion dollar successes and a fair share of misses, discovered that the number one cause of the difference between those big successes and painful failures was timing. According to his research, timing accounted for 42% compared with the management team (32%) and the idea itself (28%). The founders of General Magic clearly saw the potential of the smart phone and led a highly motivated and skilled team but their introduction in the 1990s came too early. A decade later the internet’s greater capacity and accessibility would enable Apple to bring much of the same technology and staff together to a much more welcoming audience.
Consumer demands and improved technologies may converge to provide the opportunity to take a previous good idea and turn it into a highly valued innovation. Much has been written about how technology has been quickly adopted by lower economic classes in developing countries with limited infrastructure. For example, the widespread use of cell phones to make payments has helped overcome limited access to financial institutions. As more people move into the middle class in these countries, entrepreneurs and innovators will have significant markets to refine ideas and approaches that have previously been both successes and underperformers. This is equally true for products and services tailored to aging populations with greater disposable incomes.
It seems unfashionable these days to talk about long term strategies given rapidly changing technologies and political uncertainties along with an obsession with near term results. Yet, Guillen’s book reminds us that demographic trends can provide a clear picture of likely market segments. An underlying principle in business strategy is to know your customer and meet their needs better than anyone else. Human needs and aspirations generally stay the same. We desire security, pleasure, and purpose. Technological advances allow us to better meet those needs, not transform them into something else. As we think about where to best position ourselves and our organizations to add the most value in 2030 and beyond, we will need to identify the core benefits we must offer to our target markets as they move with some certainty through different stages in life. This allows us to invest in developing core competencies that can be enhanced as technology evolves.