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Visioning the future

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Predicting the future is notoriously difficult, but we can anticipate some growth areas for industry by identifying the areas where people are excited, identifying innovations that are enabling new products and services, and identifying markets where there are drivers for change.

Once you’ve settled on a market or innovation to develop your business around, here are three pitfalls to be aware of.

This has been done before

In France, artist Jean-Marc Cote issued a series of futuristic illustrations between 1899-1901 imagining the world in the year 2000, which were printed on cards and distributed in cigarette packets.

They capture the innovations that were current and exciting at the time, areas of life where people wanted to see improvement and visions of the future that were surprisingly close to our current reality.

Pitfall 1 - identification before innovation

Visioning the future France_in_XXI_Century

Often we can identify what is ripe for disruption but not what the successful innovations will be.

Here the artist identified education as ripe for disruption, with books going into a hopper and being electrically injected into students brains. The effort of learning is something we would all like to simplify.

In the film The Matrix, knowledge was acquired in a similarly low effort, immediate way.  The artist didn’t know enough about future technologies to predict what was going to succeed, but knew that education was a good focus area.  This is still the case within the education technology community, with an edtech conference in London in June 2016.

Over the last 100 years, education has benefitted hugely from:

  • recordings of foreign languages
  • photographs from around the world
  • videos of places and things we would otherwise never see
  • an internet of facts at our fingertips
  • information sharing on a grand scale

The next stage will be virtual and augmented reality to experience things first hand that are:

  • far away (in other countries or in space)
  • expensive
  • inaccessible

Pitfall 2 - beware of the hype

Visioning the future diving helmet

Recently invented things can seem like they have possibilities everywhere and will have huge uptake. In 1899, the recently invented diving helmet appeared to promise mankind easy access to life underwater as well as above ground. Here the image shows supporters watching a fish riding race underwater.

However, once technologies have matured a bit, the niche they actually take up is much smaller than first anticipated. Underwater, that niche was scuba diving, which has become an established leisure pursuit.

The recent innovation in producing the wonder material graphene (the hardest, strongest, most electrically conductive, most impermeable material in the world) is a good example where we are still experimenting in many different sectors for those ‘killer’ applications.

It is tempting to point to the exceptions to early hype expectations, such as the internal combustion engine (for cars, trucks and tractors etc) and the internet, but most innovations produce profits in only a small subset of their potential uses.

Pitfall 3 – the whole context and industry can change in unimaginable ways

Visioning the future robotic barber

Would you be happy to receive a wet shave from a machine operated by someone with their back to you? Robotics had arrived in this illustration, but in imagining this, the artist didn’t go far enough in imagining outside the current fashions of the day, both in clothes and services offered.

Shaving has moved to the privacy of home using safety razors and foaming gels. This move changed the whole context of the industry and the solutions (robotics or not) required. Yes, we still need to shave, no it doesn’t need to be at the barbers.

Robotics is established in manufacturing and now has huge growth opportunities in prosthetics and assistive care for the elderly. Old age in future will not be dominated by care homes and nurses, but rather consumers will spend on:

  • independence
  • friendships
  • recreation in their own homes

Innovations that enable this will win market share.

Sometimes we get it right

visioning the future intensive breeding in agriculture

One example where the futuristic vision was close to today’s reality is in intensive breeding in agriculture.  Chicken was an expensive luxury in the nineteenth century, but now it is an affordable and desired food.

With increasing consumption, particularly in Brazil and China, high-value meat protein is improving the nutrition of the vast majority of the world.  Next steps in feeding the global population will be in developing alternative protein sources such as insects and lab grown meat that are appetising and appealing.

There will always be a need to look to the future to see where the UK can make best use of our capabilities. Innovate UK has programmes of support for companies in four broad sector areas:

  • infrastructure
  • health and life sciences
  • manufacturing and materials
  • emerging and enabling technologies

See our 2016-17 delivery plan for more details of upcoming opportunities to connect with other innovators and win funding.

You can follow me on Twitter: @FionnualaCostel

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