From driverless cars to virtual reality, distributed teams to omnichannels, there’s no doubt that technology is upending everything we know about how business is conducted. Including the impact it will have on the way people interact with each other in offices and retail spaces. If such places will exist at all in the future.
In April 2017, Leading Thought’s consulting futurist, Dr. Liz Alexander, spoke at the Spring Real Estate Finance and Investment Center’s conference at The University of Texas at Austin. During this light-hearted, informative and thought-provoking presentation on developing greater foresight, she shared her thought process for evaluating “what’s to come.”
The following is an edited version of Dr. Liz’s presentation.
Let me see if I can accurately guess how your day has panned out so far.
I imagine you woke up at a pre-selected time when the sensors in your bedroom aligned with your body’s circadian rhythms to select the appropriate sounds, colors and moods that would produce an optimal psychological start to your day.
You opened your eyes to windowless walls on which was projected your favorite view, whether the African savannah, the lush Amazonian jungle, or the marina at Horseshoe Bay.
You stepped into shower where the water automatically adjusted itself to your preferred temperature. There was no need for towels as you were gently blown dry in seconds. And you emerged to find your humanoid robo-housekeeper had laid out your clothing embedded with sensors that constantly monitor your health & wellbeing, sending regular data to your care providers.
After breakfast, you summoned an air taxi that deposited you on the helipad of the AT&T conference center. And here you are.
How am I doing so far?
Everything I’ve just described still sounds like the opening of a Philip K Dick science fiction story, doesn’t it?
Yet this is 2017, and our predecessors expected us to be much further along than we are. Even to the point of having colonized the Moon, maybe even Mars.
Which might lead us to wonder why we never get the future completely right. Predictions, even by the professional imagineers at Disney or science fictions writers like Isaac Asimov or “celebrity futurists,” are typically off in some way.
Why is that?
In a recent Slate article Jane McGonigal cited an Institute for the Future study claiming that 53% of Americans rarely or never think about the far future. Meaning not just the next quarter or next year, but decades away.
Yet that still leaves 47% of us who do. Which is just as well, given our need to make strategic decisions and sound investments that anticipate and hopefully prepare us for what’s to come.
And that’s my passion and purpose: helping people think differently about the future, in ways that–while not rocket science–are often underplayed or overlooked.
I’d like to share part of that thought process and relate it to three themes on the radar of real estate investors and business leaders: automated or “driverless” cars; the future of physical retail space, and offices of the future.
Foresight or Foolishness?
When visited recently by my two nephews from the UK – Woody aged 13 and Blake aged 8 — I asked them how they felt about driverless cars. Vehicles that meant a future in which they would no longer enjoy that rite of passage we’ve all experienced: getting your driver’s license and being allowed to drive. Because all future cars will be fully automated with no steering wheel, no pedals, not even the need for mirrors; everything is operated by computer.
After some long pauses and much mumbling (such is the lot of conversing with 13-year olds), Woody pointed out that he was looking forward to driving. Largely, as his younger brother had already pointed out, because of the chance to “go fast.” But also because he didn’t trust a machine with his life.
I’ve found that to be a common response across many surveys conducted by the likes of EY (Ernst & Young), Texas A&M Transportation Institute, Kelly Blue Book, the Canadian Automobile Association, AAA, and MIT.
These organizations have found that between one half (50%) and three quarters (80%) of respondents don’t want anything to do with driverless cars. And this was true across all generations – from Gen Z like my nephews, to Boomers like me.
80% of survey respondents said they would not buy an autonomous car if one were available today. ~ J.D. Power
The reasons are many and varied: some of us happen to like driving; some people’s hobby is tinkering with cars; they enjoy watching motor sports where the skill of human beings is pitted against each other; or there’s the rite of passage I just mentioned that they’re looking forward to. Oftentimes they simply don’t trust a machine, as Woody said, with their lives. Or they don’t want to pay more for such advanced technology.
Yet automakers and tech companies in Silicon Valley and beyond are pouring billions of dollars into this sector, despite limited or non-existent discussions of the consequences, including whether the public actually wants to go “driverless.”
(And, it appears, the auto-showroom experience is not going away any time soon–just morphing.
I guess it’s the classic Field of Dreams scenario…the belief that if you build these kinds of autonomous vehicles, people will come around.
But it could also be what the author of The Ideas Industry, Daniel W. Drezner, claims is the problem with today’s marketplace of ideas: thought leaders who “gain fame by being single-idea merchants.” And it’s the superstars among them that benefit most of all from the current tendency to “speak truth (only) to money.”
Beware Vested Interests
Indeed, I believe this highlights one of the most pernicious challenges when it comes to thinking about the future:
The greater prominence given to voices of a small elite with vested interests or ideologies, that don’t fully represent all the voices that should and need to be heard.
Voices that get drowned out and often receive minimal media attention compared with what Tesla’s Elon Musk or Google’s Larry Page are thinking and doing. Nice guys, I’m sure. But, let’s face it, they’re just not representative of most of us.
Even consulting firms like McKinsey that put out enthusiastic reports about autonomous vehicles are doing so to appease the perspectives of their industry clients. And, as Drezner points out in his book, such firms are hugely influential:
Many of the big corporate trends of the past fifty years–the ratonalizations of the 1950s, the widespread adoption of information technology in the 1980s, the global business strategies of the 1990s and the rise of offshore outsourcing in the 2000s–can be traced to management consultants.
Not only do we have to question whether we really want our lives to be governed by what suits management consultants and their clients’ vested interests. We should be wary of giving “experts” credence that is sometimes misplaced. For example, do you remember all the hoo-ha about the paperless office? (Mine isn’t — I don’t know about yours!)
Or, what about the Segway? Did it become “bigger than the internet”? Or attract a market valued at over $1 billion? No, it didn’t. Yet that was the prediction of one of Silicon Valley’s most respected VCs, John Doerr.
When I hear Peter Diamandis, co-founder of Singularity University say, as he did recently, that “fully autonomous vehicles will be on the road well within 5 years,” I’m going to be extremely skeptical. Not because I have anything against Mr. Diamandis or believe he is intentionally trying to mislead anyone, but because the name of his university suggests he holds to a particular ideology or vision of the future that is extremely narrow and not especially human friendly.
As the recent fatal crash of a Tesla in semi-autonomous mode sadly made clear, it will probably take decades, not years, for this vision to become a common reality. ~ The Auto Industry’s Real Challenge, Strategy + Business
For those of you not familiar with what I’m talking about, “the singularity” is an idea made famous in books by futurist Ray Kurzweil. He predicted that non-biological intelligence will become the dominant species and humans will become immortal in a “Borg-like” way, with brain-computer interfaces, as illustrated in this Star Trek movie.
Now, I don’t know how you feel about that. But I would suggest that if most people don’t trust machines to drive them around, and the reason why we’re still not seeing the paperless office is because we don’t fully trust computers to keep our information safe, how do you think we’re going to feel about connecting our precious brains to so much hardware and software?
Open But Not Empty
But the real point I wish to make here is elegantly summed up by the Netherlands Scientific Council for Policy Development that, after researching the use and importance of foresight for policymaking, concluded that the future should be considered as “open but not empty.”
Meaning: the future is plural; pregnant with multiple possibilities. Some of which we can anticipate. Some that are “wild cards” or “black swans” that are difficult to see without foresight training. And while it might seem chaotic to seek out all those diverse perspectives–because how can you possibly decide which ones will most accurately represent the future–what you end up with is something like a bell curve of ideas from which you can draw some degree of certainty.
But that only comes from questioning our assumptions and asking, “How might this expert view be wrong?” rather than assume that they are right and then only look for evidence that supports that narrow view.
Because when you look deeper into the issue of driverless cars from a technological standpoint, you’ll come across the view of Dr. Gil Pratt of the Toyota Research Institute who says,
The future in which a car is fully automated in any or all traffic or weather conditions (the “difficult miles”) is something none of the auto or it companies working in the field is close to achieving. ~ IEEE Spectrum
And that, I imagine should be a perspective seriously considered by anyone looking to determine how much space to allocate to parking lots and garages to accommodate future demand for commercial real estate.
A perspective–or thought process–that involves curiosity, skepticism, together with a desire to hear and evaluate multiple viewpoints.
That same balanced approach of avoiding extreme ideological viewpoints and misleading evidence, also holds true when we consider the future of physical retail spaces.
Which is a topic that always reminds me of this Mark Twain quote:
The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.
Because how many times have we read headlines declaring the end of retail stores? Yet, consider that physical retail outlets still account for something like 92% of sales today, and are projected to still account for 80% by 2025.
Generation Z hasn’t given up on shopping malls…yet ~ Business Insider
The problems come when pundits selectively draw on reports of The Gap, Old Navy, JC Penney and Sears closing stores to support their predictions.
Which overlooks two things.
First: (and forgive the pun)…it could be that The Gap and others have come to the natural end of their shelf-life. Creative destruction affects companies that can’t or won’t change in the face of disruptions to their business. Usually technological disruptions.
And second, the upside of that, involves looking at what more visionary, future-focused brands are doing in the same space. Such as all the amazing innovations introduced by other fashion retailers. The likes of:
Farfetch that I read about recently in UK Vogue magazine. How their founder is augmenting the customer experience with complete omni-channel offerings. Doing what Arup recommends in their report on The Future of Retail, which is to use technology as a catalyst to help reinvent and reinvigorate physical stores so customers see them as experience-based destinations rather than simply places of transactions. When can do more conveniently online.
Then there’s Vanquish, a clothing retailer in Japan using Radio Frequency Identification or RFID tags on clothes hangers. So they can not only track and monitor customer behavior and gain more specific data about in-store decision making and patterns of attraction. But use that personalized data to trigger plasma screens displaying a sequence of information, imagery and video content specific to that person’s interests and needs.
Again, my point here is not to get caught up in the technology, as fascinating as that is, but to draw lessons as to how we might think about the future in a way that takes into account what matters most to human beings.
Pre-Adaptating For Humanity
Here’s an example. I recently stumbled upon something that seems obvious in hindsight but wasn’t at the time, when I was preparing a talk for the World Affairs Council on pre-adaptation: the importance of changing ahead of change in order to shape and influence the future rather than be blindsided by it.
One of the interactive exercises I shared with the audience was to ask them to guess the years and industries of the world’s longest running businesses. Because while we think we’ve faced unprecedented change in the past 50 years, that’s nothing compared to sustaining over centuries or even millennia.
- The world’s oldest hotel (and maybe even biz) was established in Japan in 705 AD
- The oldest continuously run restaurant in Austria dates back to 803 AD
- Ireland boasts the world’s oldest bar (900 AD)
- Germany the oldest brewery (1040)
And so on.
Do you see a pattern emerging? Not just how our enduring human needs revolve around food and drink – which we could do at home, by ourselves – but involve going to places to meet other people.
Now, you could say–and many do already–that virtual reality will impact that. But I don’t believe it will. Not as much as you might think.
We were having a conversation on the Association of Professional Futurists listserve recently about whether VR and AR – augmented reality technologies – will bring about the demise of the tourist industry. We concluded that it’s highly unlikely. Certainly, when you factor in the human element.
Because we don’t just go on vacation to look at pretty sights and collect souvenirs.
Think about the people you have serendipitously met on vacation who then went on to become lifelong friends. Think about how olfactory and spiritually rich experiences other places can be.
Consider, too, how we’re shifting away from pre-programmed, managed and curated travel experiences. Ones where a guide takes you to where they want to take you and every day is planned out. The trend is now for more authentic, personalized experiences where you’re never sure what exactly might happen. Or you involve yourself in some kind of volunteering or ecological contribution to improve the planet. All things you can’t do sitting at home with a VR mask stuck to the front of your face.
The Future’s Already Here…
Which brings me to my third and final theme. One that builds on the idea that digital and physical experiences can augment each other, rather than be seen as either/or, or binary choices.
And that has to do with realizing the implications of one of the biggest drivers of trends that we’ve seen in the past few years: democratization.
When it comes to the world of work and the office of the future, we’re now seeing how spaces are being designed, built and transformed so they adapt to what human beings need and want, compared to the old paradigm where we were expected to adapt to the space.
And I have a couple of examples to share with you that illustrate the importance of not only looking for what’s happening on the fringes or the edges of innovation. What futurists call “weak signals,” that are likely to become much more mainstream and noisier over time.
Or, as this William Gibson quote points out:
The future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed.
Consider The Edge, an aptly named office complex in Amsterdam in the Netherlands, that looks like traditional office space but is anything but. Whose main occupant is the consulting firm, Deloitte.
It’s known as the world’s greenest, most intelligent building, showcasing a range of remarkably innovative and environmentally sustainable features.
And this is one prediction I do see coming true: that all cities will one day be filled with similarly smart buildings. There will just be the need for less of them because they are designed intelligently.
For example, when working at The Edge, an app directs you to an available parking space rather than have you drive around trying to find one.
Once inside the building, the space you’re allocated meets your particular needs in that moment. It’s called “hotdesking” and allows Deloitte to service 2,500 workers with less than half that number of desks. The same app issues your preferences to each work space, so that lights dim or increase and even the temperature is controlled, according to your personal choice.
Do people want to work in that building? Let’s just say it’s a major recruiting feature for Deloitte in Amsterdam because all the human-centered technologies augment the way people prefer to work.
New Ways of Thinking
But what about that other trend: gig working? Not all of us want to, or have to, go to a traditional office. Here again were seeing some interesting fringe developments – a new twist on the co-working concept.
For example, a New York start-up called Spacious is facilitating linking freelancers and other professionals with owners of restaurants and bars that don’t normally open until after 5pm.
This represents the kind of mental flexibility inherent in future thinkers:
- We see the future as plural, not singular and certainly not based on elite ideologies masked by the façade of inevitability. (Remember the Segway!)
- The future is “open but not empty” – it’s filled with multiple possibilities fueled by increasingly powerful consumer and worker voices.
- The future isn’t just about the latest amazing technology. It must focus primarily on human needs so that technology augments our capabilities, without doing away with what makes life meaningful and purposeful.
Interestingly, the one person I see exemplifying this mindset is Jeff Bezos of Amazon. Not least in his expectation around making decisions based on considerably less than 100% of the information we think we need.
That, above all, is the most important thing for business leaders to recognize about the future. No one – not even Nostradamus – gets the future right all of the time. Even my colleagues who’ve been in this field for 50 years or more admit that they tend to have a 50% success rate at figuring out what’s going to happen next.
Mostly, it’s a case of them overestimating the speed at which a new ideas will be adopted by the masses. Like the concept of the paperless office, which has been predicted to occur for over 60 years at this point. Yet every time I go to my dentist, I’m asked to fill out the same paper forms.
For the rest, we just have to wing it.
But if we get to a place where we can pivot more quickly because we’ve already thought through different future scenarios, based on more realistic, unbiased considerations, then we’ll be in a much better position that the 53% of Americans who rarely, if ever, think beyond next year.
Dr. Alexander is currently on sabbatical in Malaysia.