How to spot the future

How can you tell which innovation will become a success?

The terrific May Wired story “How to Spot the Future” notes that anyone trying to figure out which kinds of innovations are most worth paying attention to has to come up with ways to “size up ideas and separate the truly world-changing from the merely interesting”. I thought this was worth sharing!

“At Wired, where we constantly endeavor to pinpoint the inventions and trends that will define the future, we have developed our own set of rules,” writes executive editor Thomas Goetz. “We have seen some common themes emerge, patterns that have fostered the most profound innovations of our age.”

Wired lists seven rules for what to look for:

1. Look for cross-pollinators (cross-disciplinarity in ideas, not just in their application but in their origin)

2. Surf the exponentials (exploiting something with exponential growth – as Dropbox did with the dropping costs of digital storage)

3. Favour the liberators (turning scarcity into plenty, for example what the internet did to news and media, or taking advantage of something plentiful, but idle or locked-up, for example the cars in people’s drive ways)

4. Give points for audacity (boldness, having the guts and imagination to push the limits of what’s possible)

5. Bank on openness (opening up to the collective power of connected individuals or networks, such as open source software)

6. Demand deep design (acknowledging that design is “not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.” Read more below.)

7. Spend time with time wasters (innovation often needs experimentation and “inefficient” use of time to do something one does not have to).

The sixth one is an especially understated and interesting point regarding spotting the next world changing innovation. Check out the details on rule #6, Demand Deep Design.

“Too often in technology, design is applied like a veneer after the hard work is done. That approach ignores how essential design is in our lives,” writes Goetz. Good design is “much, much harder than it looks,” he says, but:

Thankfully, we are on the verge of a golden age of design, where the necessary tools and skills — once such limited resources — are becoming automated and available to all of us. This timing is critical. “Too much information” has become the chorus of complaint from all quarters, and the cure is not more design but deeper design, design that filters complexity into accessible units of comprehension and utility.

Forget Apple’s overpraised hardware aesthetic; its greatest contribution to industrial design was to recognize that nobody reads user’s manuals. So it pretty much eliminated them. You can build as many stunning features into a product as you like; without a design that makes them easy to use, they may as well be Easter eggs.

Consider Facebook. The service squashed MySpace, Goetz says, because it “helped people bring design into their lives as never before.” Facebook lets us “curate our friends, categorize our family photos, and bring (at least the appearance of) continuity to our personal histories.” Pinterest, he adds, does this too, promising “to let us organize our interests and inspirations into a clear, elegant form.” Facebook and Pinterest “turn us into designers and our daily experience into a lifelong project of curation. This is deep design commoditized — the expertise of IDEO without the pricey consulting contract.”

As the late Steve Jobs said: “It’s not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.”

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