How do we anticipate the future?
Anticipating the future occupies a lot of our time in the present. But after the biggest pandemic in a century has disrupted everyday life and work, businesses and governments are redoubling their efforts to try to anticipate what lies ahead and to either avoid negative influences or make the best of opportunities.
That’s where futurists can help. They identify trends that affect all of us and provide the tools to show how to use that information anticipate what could happen in the future and to build a better world.
Elina Hiltunen was identified by Forbes magazine as one of the world’s top 50 female Futurists. She’s been examining technology and consumer trends for several decades and has created tools for individuals and organizations to look towards the future and to adapt as the world changes.
Hiltunen has a simple approach. “I have an engineering background, so for me there is a logical way to look at how to anticipate the future. I have created an equation for this:
“Anticipating the future = Facts + Imagination.
She continues, “By combining facts and imagination you can start thinking of different options; futurists call these options, scenarios. This forms the basis of future foresight work and helps people to think about the future differently, not just based on what has gone before, and to work towards a better world.”
Hiltunen has identified ten megatrends that will shape the political, economic, social and technology worlds. These are:
1. Climate change
2. Population growth
3. Demographic change
6. Growth in wealth and consumption
7. Increase in equality
8. Environmental pollution, loss of biodiversity and depletion of resources
10. Technological developments.
For Hiltunen, and many others, climate change is the single biggest issue we face, but she’s optimistic that technology developments, such as 5G and AI, can reduce climate impacts. To ensure success, Hiltunen recommends a holistic approach.
“Any person or business that wants to anticipate the future, must look beyond their own neighborhood or industry. Many are so caught up in their daily life or industries that they don’t see how it might impact others and the world around them. Look at automated electric cars – these have a great application. They can reduce accidents and emissions because driving and searching for parking will be more efficient. But what about the electric car batteries – the metals contained in them and their disposal? The automotive and communications industry need to work together with the mining and transport industries and ensure that human rights and environmental measures are not compromised.”
This is what Hiltunen means by having the ‘Facts’ and using them to create a better world.
How can technology ensure a better future?
The other side of Hiltunen’s future equation talks of the need for “Imagination’ and thinking more inventively about how technology might improve our lives. As an optimistic engineer, she firmly believes that technology can build a more sustainable world.
In her book on megatrends, Hiltunen notes that “5G networks enable faster and better connections in the Internet of Everything (IoE). It enables millions of things in the area of one square kilometer to be connected to the internet. In practice the 5G revolution is taking our society to the world of networked devices, where different kinds of devices communicate with each other by using faster connections.” Along with AI, IoT and 3D printing, 5G is a key future technology.
In terms of better world applications, 5G can play a role monitoring and managing everything from personal health to crop yields. It can also be a driver for sustainable, smart cities and 5G sensors can help monitor air quality in real time. With 70% of the world population set to be urban dwellers by 2050, air quality will frequently be dangerous for the very young, the elderly and those breathing related illnesses. Sensors and mobile devices will use 5G’s ultra-low latency communications to monitor and improve traffic controls and avoid congestion in real time. And once automated electric cars are pervasive, they’ll be connected via 5G and monitored to improve traffic flow and reduce accidents. Another upside for the environment is that 5G networks are more energy efficient as they consume 90% less energy compared to 4G networks.
Automation, AI robots and predictive algorithms will work in concert with 5G to enable error free processing of masses of data, across all industries – for example to predict consumer demands and manage autonomous vehicles, IoT connected farms and Industry 4.0. Hiltunen does however sound a note of caution as machine learning uses pre-existing masses of data that tend to accentuate gender, racial, age or competence biases. Predictive algorithms run the risk of returning incorrect results and potentially under- or over-estimating supply or demand. Again, having the whole picture, plus some foresight, will ensure that the technology benefits are not cancelled out by delivering unintended outcomes.
Looking further ahead, Hiltunen notes that the physical and digital world will blend with the help of new technology: “6G networks will make communication between humans and devices even faster,” she says. In these scenarios, we need to be aware of the facts – such as the impact on personal privacy and vulnerability to cyberattacks - but with imagination, we can augment human abilities and overcome disabilities.
Don’t be afraid to break the traditional models
Hiltunen is quick to note that we can’t expect technology to solve all problems. It needs to be adopted and used in the right way. Another equation used as part of her Foresights tools is as follows:
Building the Future = Facts today + Vision of the future + Willingness to change + Action.
In her and her husband’s book Technolife 2035: How Will Technology Change Our Future? Hiltunen says “No matter how excellent technological invention might be, market forces (for example, the price of the new technology and its attractiveness to people) and societal forces (legislation and people’s attitudes toward technology) affect how it is adopted in society.” She continues, “For these reasons, the precise development of emerging technologies cannot be forecasted. But, futurists can raise questions to the public about its possibilities and challenges.”
Hiltunen recommends that we change some of the traditional templates to be more inclusive if we want a different outcome. One example is gender bias. In her book Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, Caroline Criado Perez notes that: “The average smartphone – 5.5 inches long – is too big for most women’s hands, and it doesn’t often fit in our pockets. Speech-recognition software is trained on recordings of male voices: Google’s version is 70% more likely to understand men.”
Everything from crash test dummies to heart failure trials are built around a ‘Reference Man’. This means that although statistically, women are less likely to be involved in a car accident, they are 50% more likely to die in a crash because the car is literally not designed to provide them with maximum protection. Women are also 50% more likely to suffer misdiagnosed heart attacks as they present atypical symptoms to ‘accepted’ norms.
Even from these few examples, we can see that looking beyond traditional and accepted definitions will make everything from smartphones to healthcare more inclusive and create a more equitable world. Hiltunen passionately believes that companies and governments should do more to attract women into education in the disciplines of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines. She sees diversity and equality bringing new approaches to the future that will allow us to move away from the entrenched definitions that don’t benefit everyone.
Shaping a better future needs everyone to play their part. Speaking with Hiltunen, it is clear this is a collective responsibility – from individuals to businesses and governments. “It is your task to create a better future. We need to think about how we can change things now to create a good future,” she says. If businesses are struggling to get started, Hiltunen suggests looking at the UN’s 17 sustainability goals. “Also, mix it up. Ensure you have heterogeneous groups in your company. That increases your chance of finding new ideas.”
She also recommends trying a few things at once and seeing what sticks. Design thinking and ‘fail fast-succeed earlier thinking’ keep the ideas and inputs flowing. Above all, stay positive. “There are plenty of things to be optimistic about,” she concludes. “Use imagination to think about the best possible future and then use digital technologies like 5G to gather the facts, then we can apply our imagination as we strive towards a better world to strive towards that.”
About Elina Hiltunen
Elina Hiltunen is a futurist, D.Sc. (Business administration) and M.Sc. (chemical engineering). Forbes has listed her as one of the 50 leading female futurists in the world. She is an experienced key-note speaker that has delivered hundreds of lectures about various topics of the future in Finland and abroad.