In college, my best friend told me that his favorite books were “Future History”, by which he meant “hard science fiction”, a genre where the author tries to depict a future based on technologies that scientists believe are possible. Great innovators and hard science fiction writers are very similar in what they do – they learn about the state of the art, they learn how scientists think the world works, they learn where humans are concentrating their science and innovation efforts, and they synthesize all of that information into a cogent, plausible description of the future. Writers and innovators diverge in what they do with this information. Writers craft an interesting story; innovators design technology that combines and leverages tools that do not yet exist – but that are likely to exist in the future.
An excellent, if fictionalized, example can be drawn from the global positioning system (GPS). An innovator at the time of sputnik could have easily predicted a future where satellites could be placed in geosynchronous orbit; where highly accurate timing signals (corrected as required by Einstein’s theory of relatively) could be transmitted by the satellites; and where computing devices could compare, or triangulate, at least three such signals to generate a location for the receiver. Note that at the time, the technology needed to build each of those components was understood; it was highly likely that the components would at some point be built, but at the moment the components had not yet been built. If an inventor had synthesized those pieces into a description of what we know today as the GPS system and GPS-enabled devices, he would not only have a head start (in terms of patents and lead time) when the building blocks of GPS were built. Perhaps more importantly, the promise of GPS may have expedited the creation of those building blocks, or even altered how those building blocks were developed (for example, by incorporating GPS transmitters as standard equipment on early geosynchronous satellites).
A more recent example is the development of the iPhone. The building blocks that made the iPhone an innovative leap were predictably on their way to deployment, but for the most part were not yet ready for deployment (technologies such as accurate touch screen displays, high energy density batteries, low power processors, high density non-magnetic storage, high bandwidth wireless connections, and robust content compression and digital rights management, among other things). While the role of predicting the future in the development of the iPhone has not been documented, Steve Jobs’ combination of those future technologies could not have been accomplished without that kind of predictive imagination. The quick success of the iPhone, and the notably slower and shallower success of competing phones that did less to integrate future technologies (e.g. Windows Phone) speaks strongly to the importance of designing products that take advantage of the world as it will be when the product is set to be released. It is not a coincidence that Apple products are frequently in short supply because some cutting edge component is being mass produced for the first time, and cannot be made in large enough numbers to meet demand; rather, it is a predictable problem when releasing innovative products that combine technologies that were predicted but not yet developed at the time the innovative products were designed.
A final example is drawn from my own patented invention, “Method and Apparatus for Delivering Content Via Information Retrieval Devices”. In the period leading up to my May 8, 2000 filing date, I recognized the future importance of what was then known as a “Personal Digital Assistant”, or PDA. I also knew some things about the future: Moore’s Law has processor power doubling roughly every 18 to 24 months; battery technology was predictably improving; memory density and cost were moving rapidly in opposite directions; digitization of human knowledge was increasing at an exponential rate; a lot of attention was being paid to improving user interfaces for small devices, increasing the likely rate of adoption; GPS technology was becoming cheaper and smaller; and wireless data availability, reliability, and speed were all improving. I engaged in a thought experiment: What would happen if I could take the processing power, storage space, and/or the network connection speed of a rack full of servers, and fit all of that into a small, hand-held device that would run all day on a single charge? In other words, what if I could take my vision of what the future would bring and invent things that leveraged those future technologies? The result was a set of highly innovative, forward looking (and patented) breakthroughs. Inventing items that are a simple combination of existing, easily available technologies doesn’t hold a candle to inventing for the world as it will be.
Predicting the future is easy. There are countless web sites, books, and magazines that document where the future is heading (although I’ve never considered it before writing this post, I think I’m going to add “hard science fiction” to my list of sources for understanding the future). A core piece of any prolific innovator’s DNA is making sure that her understanding of the future is as accurate as possible. Her reward is that she gets to invent in a space that is nearly devoid of other inventors: The world as it will be. There is also an added bonus for innovators who have this technique down: If you ever get bored with inventing things, you’re already 90% of the way to becoming a successful science fiction writer. Just saying.