Nonsense futures of the automobile straightened out by some basic consumer cost-benefit thinking

I’ve been mulling over an S+B interview with Lawrence Burns, former head of R&D at General Motors, ahead of the release of his book ‘Reinventing the Automobile: Personal Urban Mobility for the 21st Century’ (MIT Press, 2010, co-authors Christopher Borroni-Bird and William J. Mitchell.)

Truth be told, the foresight field is littered with predictions about the future of the automobile, from the futurists’ flying car that never happened to the-pumps-run-dry doomsday, and everything inbetween.

Xiao En V Nonsense futures of the automobile straightened out by some basic consumer cost benefit thinking

The Xiao EN-V concept car. Photograph © General Motors / Wieck Media Services Inc

But, judging by the interview, Burns has a higher-quality foresight view of this industry than most, and this because he prioritizes what consumers really value as a guide to what will emerge over any policy principle or ideological interest.

What do consumers really value? “There’s nothing like the freedom they (cars) provide to let us go where we want, when we want, with the people we want to travel with,” says Burns.

“Ever since people could walk, the ability to move when they want and where they want is something people have found very compelling.”

Nothing new, but what he is warding off, in preparing the ground to looking to the industry future, is views of the automotive future that are ideologically colored, particularly those imbued with the virtues of public transport.

Says Burns, “Three major impediments get in the way of public transportation:

  • The first is routes. A public transportation system can’t go everywhere, so people have to have a way to get to and from the stations.
  • The second is schedules. You can’t leave exactly when you want to, so you have to arrive before the public transit system arrives to pick you up, which has major impacts on how people schedule their lives. And unfortunately, those schedules aren’t always predictable, so you have to buffer.
  • The third is that since people have to shift modes from how they get to the station — whether it’s in cars, on scooters, or on bicycles — to the public transport mode, you create a need for parking.”

This balance could change — this is what public transport executives seek to effect. But until there is clear reason to see public-transport pain-points diminishing, there’s no reason to see anything but private-dominated transport in the future (other than very dense urban environments such as Manhattan.)

Pain avoidance

Burns places automotive foresight at the intellectual crossroads between what the majority of consumers really want (or what pain they want to avoid) and what pundits and ideologues think would be a better solution. Guess which always wins?

With that issue solved, the question then turns to what these private vehicles are exactly? Here Burns and co-authors have a vision, but it is more “anybody’s guess.” Their fundamental assumptions is that onboard inter-vehicle accident-avoidance technology is watertight, which means cars don’t need all their defensive armour and can so be far lighter, and therefore use less energy, so battery power and life is no longer the limiting issue it is today. See the concept-car above.

This blog first posted at Forbes Leadership:


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The lessons from Bill Gates’ shaky grasp on the future – 15 years on

Successful people are considered to be better future prognosticators than average. Why? Because it is assumed they must have known something about the future at some previous point in order to become as successful as they are. (Unfortunately Taleb’s various injunctions as to the workings of randomness fall on deaf ears, as do Gladwell’s many observations as to the tricky relationship between cause and effect.)

In 1995, at the height of Microsoft’s power over the economy and the zeitgeist (before Google came into its own, before Apple renewed, etc.) Bill Gates wrote “The Road Ahead,” which was, as one would expect, a broadly techno-optimistic look at the future. Did it see 9/11? No. Iraq War 2? No. The Credit Crunch? No. For a start it only really thinks about digital technology, and that’s going to be a very partial guide to the road ahead, at best.

But, in a recent The Atlantic article, “Bill Gates: More Profit than Prophet,” Tom McNichol evaluates Gates’s foresight on its own terms. As reproduced below, he finds it more “miss” than “hit.”

In general, Gates makes the mistakes outlined in Future Savvy, particularly in predicting the future based on its technological possibility rather than economic or social practicality. He’s short on systemic/feedback thinking and therefore misses side effects and unintended consequences. He also falls into the wishful-thinking bias: mixing up what he and (and Microsoft business) would like the future to be with what it really will be.

This last factor is less a mistake than a classic tool of future advocacy, and Gates would no doubt admit to a bit of this. It is illuminating (and sobering for future predictors) to see how much of the digital future Microsoft had within in its area of control in 1995, which it ceded to others. That lowered Microsoft’s ability to influence the road ahead and therefore weakened Gates’ predictions.

The McNichol analysis (shortened in places):

Prediction: Gates wrote, “Electronic mail and shared screens will eliminate the need for many meetings. … when face-to-face meetings do take place, they will be more efficient because participants will have already exchanged background information by e-mail. … information overload is not unique to the (information) highway, and it needn’t be a problem.”
Verdict: Miss. Gates’s view of e-mail now seems naively Utopian, failing to account for unintended consequences. If anything, e-mail has made workplace meetings more frequent and less efficient. “Didn’t you get that e-mail?” is probably the single most common question posed at meetings, a query that often leads to … another meeting.

The Wallet PC
Prediction: “You’ll be able to carry the wallet PC in your pocket or purse. It will display messages and schedules and also let you read or send electronic mail and faxes, monitor weather and stock reports, play both simple and sophisticated games, browse information if you’re bored, or choose from among thousands of easy-to-call up photos of your kids.”
Verdict: Hit. Gates’s wallet PC is more or less today’s mobile smartphone with voice capability added.

Wireless Networks
Prediction: “The wireless networks of the future will be faster, but unless there is a major breakthrough, wired networks will have a far greater bandwidth. Mobile devices will be able to send and receive messages, but it will be expensive and unusual to use them to receive an individual video stream.”
Verdict: Miss. Today, receiving a wireless video stream is neither expensive nor unusual; in fact, it’s so commonplace that most people don’t give it a second thought. Gates failed to anticipate that wireless would become cheaper and faster, but his chief mistake was a common but flawed assumption among techno-futurists: that new technology is adopted chiefly on the basis of technological superiority rather than social factors.

Social Networking
Prediction: “The (information) highway will not only make it easier to keep up with distant friends, it will also enable us to find new companions. Friendships formed across the network will lead naturally to getting together in person.”
Verdict: Hit and Miss. One of the killer apps of the information highway has turned out to be social networking… But friendships formed online don’t regularly lead to face-to-face meetings. Far more common is the user with 250 Facebook friends, most of whom he rarely, if ever, sees in person.

Online Shopping
Prediction: “Because the information highway will carry video, you’ll often be able to see exactly what you’ve ordered. … you won’t have to wonder whether the flowers you ordered for your mother by telephone were really as stunning as you’d hoped. You’ll be able to watch the florist arrange the bouquet, change your mind if you want, and replace wilting roses with fresh anemones.”
Verdict: Miss. Gates was right that the information highway would carry video, but he completely misread the social and economic factors that would shape its use in online commerce. How on earth would a harried florist find the time to hold a videoconference with every customer who orders flowers for Mother’s Day? What company would absorb the colossal expense of having orders changed at the last second according to customers’ shifting whims? Gates’s vision of online shopping has turned out to be a lot like past predictions about personal jet packs and moving sidewalks: a future that’s technologically possible but socially and economically impractical.

Prediction: “Small video devices using cameras attached to personal computers or television sets will allow us to meet readily across the information highway with much higher quality pictures and sound for lower prices.”
Verdict: Hit. What came to be called webcams are standard issue on PCs, or can be purchased from Bill Gates’s favorite company for under $30.

The Internet and the Web
Prediction: Gates’s 286-page book mentions the World Wide Web on only four of its pages, and portrays the Internet as a subset of a much a larger “Information Superhighway.” …
Verdict: Miss. Gates’s notion that the Internet would play a supporting role in the information highway of the future, rather than being the highway itself, was out-of-date the day The Road Ahead was published… and he made major revisions to a second edition of The Road Ahead, adding material that highlighted the significance of the Internet. In many ways, Gates’s cloudy crystal ball regarding the Internet amounted to wishful thinking. Gates built Microsoft into a global powerhouse by selling proprietary software that users loaded onto their PCs. He wasn’t likely to warm to the idea that the same functions could be delivered cheaper and faster through a decentralized network that he couldn’t control.

Predication: “A decade from now, you may shake your head that there was ever a time when any stranger or wrong number could interrupt you at home with a phone call. … by explicitly indicating allowable interruptions, you will be able to establish your home — or anywhere you choose — as your sanctuary.”
Verdict: Little Hit, Big Miss. It’s true that technology lets you explicitly indicate allowable interruptions — you can use caller ID to dodge unwanted calls or sign up at the National Do Not Call Registry to nix telemarketers. But the notion that technology would pave the way to greater privacy has turned out to be anything but true.

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Perhaps some lessons in prediction learned as US dollar-demise scenario emerges

One of the benefits of scenario-based future thinking is the ‘permission’ to think through alternative future outcomes without necessarily predicting them. ‘Predictors’ focus, by contrast, on isolating the highest probability future in order not to have to think through or plan for less likely outcomes.

Predictions of the dollar’s demise are as old as the greenback itself of course, but over recent weeks the specter of the dollar heading way way below its trading range — a dollar crunch — has entered the zone of the credible, or, in scenario terms, the ‘cone of plausible uncertainty.’ That means decision-makers with lots at stake are taking it seriously.

Like the British pound, the dollar has been under a cloud due to perceptions of economic fallout from the credit crunch and global recession, but particular questions about the US currency have recently surfaced, driven by reports [Robert Fisk's 'The Demise of the Dollar' story in The Independent (Oct 6)]  that “Gulf Arabs are planning – along with China, Russia, Japan and France – to end dollar dealings for oil, moving instead to a basket of currencies including the Japanese yen and Chinese yuan, the euro, gold and a new, unified currency planned for nations in the Gulf Co-operation Council” (Saudi Arabia, Abu Dhabi, Kuwait and Qatar).

The subtext is far from merely financial. Practically, it would mean that on any day, the real cost of oil to US consumers and businesses would go up or down depending on the strength of the currency. This is something America is not used to. But, more deeeply, dropping dollar-denomination of oil is a direct shot across the bows of Washington’s say over oil affairs, and the hegemony of the dollar as the dominant global reserve currency.

De-dollarizing oil would not in itself push the US currency below its 25-year range. But it is portentous of the clear trend to a genuinely multi-power world, for better or worse, in which the dollar will get no favors. That will push the dollar down, at least while the news and fallout make their way through the financial and real economic systems.

Rumors of de-dollarization have been hotly denied, as further reported here, but as the Independent points out, denials are to be expected, and are always issued in these situations. They mean nothing. Even cub reporters know that.

Scenario thinking

What’s particularly interesting to me is that a ‘scenario’ of dollar demise has become not only plausible in the mainstream view of the future, but scenario thinking is being used as a way to consider the nature of this outcome, and how best to respond without predicting the outcome either way. As recently as directly pre-credit crunch, the media question would have been: ‘what is the best prediction for the dollar (or the housing market, or credit default swaps?) and that, rather then scoping out the implications of the lesser-likelihood, would have dominated the discussion.

So, what struck me forcefully in the Business Week video interview above, where BW Chief Economist Mike Mandel interviews the news magazine’s Economics Editor Peter Coy (see Coy’s underlying story here), is how the less-likely, non-predicted, but very significant outcome is actively addressed:

Says Coy: “It’s so hard to know what the dollar is going to do. We don’t argue that we know… what we do is we say, ‘it could happen’ and let’s take that possibility seriously, in the same way we should have taken the possibility of falling housing prices seriously…”

This is not formal scenario-building of course. But it is, fundamentally an adoption of the framework, saying in the classic ‘scenarios’ way: “we can’t predict if it will happen or it won’t, but if it does it will have significant impact. So let’s just ask: ‘what if ‘ it does and explore the outcomes and our responses. What will the word look like? What would be the implications, the knock-ons and spinoffs? If it comes to pass, what would be wish we had done today?”

Perhaps failing to predict the credit crunch has dented predictors’ halos enough to cause a mini-zeitgeist-shift towards the only real way to cope with important uncertainty: exploring all outcomes that pass the plausibility and significance test, whether or not we actually believe they will happen.

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Arsenal Football’s Arsène Wenger gets into the prediction game with a 10-year forecast for European soccer

Arsenal FC manager Arsène Wenger this week made a big prediction about the future of football in Europe. Now it’s hardly news when a sports coach predicts the future, but that’s because their forecasts are of the day-to-day variety and restricted to their own micro-climate: “Ronaldo has been going well in practice, I predict he’ll get on the scoresheet come Saturday.’ Or, ‘We’ll beat Chelsea in next months return leg,“ and so on.

wenger Arsenal Football’s Arsène Wenger gets into the prediction game with a 10 year forecast for European soccer

Arsène Wenger

But this was different. Wenger (on the eve of the Arsenal vs Celtic Rangers Champions League match) predicted a “European League” in 10 years featuring the continent’s top clubs – that is, he offered foresight into potential structural, industry-wide change in multi-billion-dollar UK and European soccer industry.

Currently clubs play in their national domestic leagues. And all Europe-wide competitions are cup (pool stage + knockout) competitions.

Although not fleshed out, the form is not hard to see: the top four-or-so clubs from each major country (fewer from smaller countries) in one annual league competition. This means that Manchester United, Liverpool, AC Milan, Porto, Juventus, Real Madrid, Barcelona, Roma and so on would all be playing each other on a weekly basis throughout the year (and, presumably, playing in no other league competitions).

Drivers of Change

The point of Future Savvy is that one can judge the validity of predictions like this before time. In this case, part of the way to assess Mr Wenger’s future view would be to gauge the strength of driving vs blocking forces behind his outcome.

There is evidence of strong drivers in favor of a European Super League. These are:

1. The rise of “super-teams.” In the UK and across Europe the same few teams dominate their domestic league year after year. The reason is a simple reinforcing feedback loop where winning teams get more money (from TV rights, from gates, from merchandising, etc.) which means they can buy better players, which means they win more. Over the last decade the English Football Premier League has become, effectively, a competition between Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool, and Arsenal. (In the US the “draft–pick” system mitigates against any franchise getting too strong in this way, but no such system-balancer exists in European football.)

2. The growing ease and ubiquity of continental travel. Whether fans will follow their teams across Europe is a key issue, but indicators from cup competitions is that fans can and will travel.

3. The growing role of, and technological sophistication of television, particularly Sky Sports. Despite the many who travel, most people these days follow games at home or in sports bars. Television’s coverage and choices (the remote control options “red button”) have exploded, and screens themselves have got bigger and better. And genuine personalization of camera feed and other forms of interactively is emerging. In this, football, and professional sports as a whole, is becoming more about the screen as the stadium, accelerating a long-term trend. The reality is it makes little difference to most fans if the game is being played 50 miles away or 500.

4. The move to high-level, star-packed, events. There’s a clear trend across sports in general for events featuring the best players playing each other in all-star environments, not as a special “all-star” game but as an everyday occurrence. In cricket, for example, the Indian IPL has ridden this trend, offering franchised matches of, effectively, one mixed team of global superstars versus another. The fans love it.

There is also the financial do-or-die logic that soccer clubs face. The money feedback loop means they must continually drive up their revenues. It’s not possible to stand still. A European Football Super League would compel participation from the top teams for this reason alone.

vs Blockers

Adequately assessing the likelihood of the Wenger view of the future further requires investigation of blockers – factors which will prevent the outcome. In this case these may be overwhelming logistics of moving teams around to this extent week in and week out; limits on fans’ travel energy and budget; extent of fans’ loyalty to the relatively minor (non-super) domestic teams; and domestic league administrators’ determination and ability to keep domestic leagues from loosing their cash cows and following their own downward spiral into television obscurity.

These blockers on the European football league forecast are real. The question is whether they stop the future or how long they delay it. I’d judge the blockers as considerably weaker than the drivers and so I’d go with Wenger in predicting a European Super League (even richer and more “glamorous” than anything soccer has seen before) in about 10 years from now.

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Wired Magazine Launched in the UK, but is this Really “Your Life In The Future”?

A basic tool of foresight work is horizon scanning, that is, scanning for signals of change, early portent of trends, straws in the wind of change. Futurists do it habitually, and if not habitually then – the wisdom is – do it routinely by consciously scanning sources of information you don’t normally. Buying an agricultural weekly or teen idol rag at the airport, rather than your standard dose of the Economist.

wired uk launch Wired Magazine Launched in the UK, but is this Really Your Life In The Future?It was in this spirit that I picked up the UK launch issue (aka May 2009) of Wired. Actually it’s not the first launch. Wired was in the UK ten years ago, but Condé Nast withdrew it in the crash. In the US at the time, I remember when Wired, the poster child of the Silicon Valley / Nasdaq bonanza, was almost as thick as a phone book each month. But those days were soon over.

Anyway, who could resist an offering that was about to tell me about my “Life in the future. “Fake Meat, Robots and Electro-Sex: the World is About to Change.” On the cover are, I kid you not, flying cars!

Now, I wouldn’t take this stuff seriously for a moment, if everyone else promised not to. But they don’t. So here we go. In the “What’s Next?” cover story 46 experts make 99 predictions about the next 40 years, and none of them will happen, or not in the time frame expressed.

Oh, moon settlement?

I shrink from sharing the list. Meal replacement patches, check. Moon settlement, check. The male pill, check. Every techno-fantasy of the jockish sci-fi world, check. Well, let’s stop on the male pill for a moment. Can we not do it? Sure we can do it – today. What’s stopping it is not technology. It is attitudes (machismo, essentially). So Wired experts are telling us that this will go away in a decade. Puh-leez.

I hardly need mention there’s no method given behind any of these expert forecasts.

Don’t you think Wired should be asking themselves why, in 2009, they are producing 186 pages of dead tree and carting it around the country in carbon-emitting trucks? Technology-vision may lead you to a view of the future. But it’s unreliable. The future is determined by what consumers are ready for. Well, that’s one of the 20-or-so key forecast filtering principles of Future Savvy.

Perhaps we should look at the cover story for what it is really about – which is selling magazines. Because, there’s no doubt that tech is changing, and many new capabilities are coming on stream, and this is very, very fascinating to imagine uses for. And this fascination is what Wired packages and sells. Don’t bet any money on the predictions though, certainly not their timeline.

But sturdy in some areas

Aside from the predicting lark, it’s a good magazine of its kind. The features are well-conceived, well-written, for example, one about how the BBC iPlayer business was built; a feature on sea salvage; a profile of PayPal founder Elon Musk; the David X Li formula and how it mis-calculated risk, and so on. Great stuff. Actually quite a sturdy business-oriented-view of techno-change, if you can get past the boys-with-toys riff of the magazine as a whole.

So, actually, much to like. Just, please, don’t think a lad’s mag is going to tell you anything coherent about the future.

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The luxury good sector gets humble about forecasting – but knows what follows “bling”

The International Herald Tribune (New York Times Global Edition / Reuters Business) last week ran an interesting foresight story headlined ‘Crisis complicates forecasting by luxury brands,’ reporting from the International Herald Tribune’s eighth conference on luxury in New Delhi. The gist was that although most of the famous brands continue to do well despite the recession, luxury sector executives are very uncertain about the future.

hermes The luxury good sector gets humble about forecasting – but knows what follows “bling” Christian Blanckaert, Executive Vice President at Hermès International was quoted as saying: “We have absolutely no visibility into 2009!”

On the one hand, fair enough. This economic downturn is steeper than previous down cycles, and the basic viability of the financial sector has been tested. Access to credit is normally easier in a recession, but in this one it is not. All of which makes luxury spending harder to predict.

No doubt the most unlikely prediction of all would have been that Hermès, Burberry, LVMH, Moët Hennessy, Louis Vuitton, and PPR (Gucci , Yves Saint Laurent) have all recently reported better-than-expected results.

Nevertheless luxury industry leaders have declined to provide investors and analysts with any official outlook. What’s curious, from an industry foresight point of view, is how executives such as Blanckaert thought they really had more “visibility” into any previous year, or that they will somehow gain it again when the financial crisis is over. They will not. The world will continue to surprise them and us. What they will gain, certainly, is a greater likelihood that the standard business-as-usual future assumptions they make will not be upset by reality.

Meanwhile, judging by the conference, the luxury goods industry has a very decent grip on current social and moral trends, and clear insight into the bigger picture of change in its industry over the next five to ten years. As they know from before, what happens in a recession is that luxury goes out of fashion. Conspicuous consumption wanes, or retreats further behind secluded walls. This is a basic pendulum swing that tracks the economy (witness how the early 1990s recession stimulated a return to “values” era after the “me, me, me” 1980s.)

Sustainable luxury

So we are again in a swing to modesty. But we also know that each swing of the pendulum also carries with it the specific issues of its time. Current key issues for consumers in this segment are sustainability, global warming, business ethics, and globalization (or fear thereof).

Therefore the luxury brands will be looking for ways of making, transporting, and displaying goods in an energy-efficient and socially conscious way, including a renewed emphasis on local artisans and traditional craftsmanship that speaks sustainability in both natural and human resources. This will be the basis of the “sustainable luxury,” positioning that the famous houses will define and compete in. Fabulous and renewable  – now there’s something you can charge top dollar for.

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