Can we predict the future? This particular question has two answers, which can be combined into a single answer.
The first answer is: Yes, we can definitely predict the future.
The second answer is: No, we can absolutely not predict the future.
Combination answer is:
We can predict the future sometimes, imperfectly, with a varying degree of error.
This is however not the most important question that we should be asking with regard to any type of activity which has as its basis, the goal of predicting the future. The most important question we should be asking, is whether we should be trying?
The obvious answer is; Yes, we should definitely be trying. You could counter that based on the success rate, what would the point be? Let me share a few thoughts on the subject to help you make up your mind…
Now it is true that predictions in different fields would use different data sets and techniques, but lets just take a big picture view for a while.
If we are trying to predict the growth in water demand for the city of New York, we need data. Given the quality and scope of our data, we could most likely get to a pretty feasible number, even if we got it slightly wrong, we could still schedule infrastructure expansion and volume increases to deal with increased demand. This would be a worthwhile exercise; in fact, nobody would suggest that it’s not worth the effort.
If we are trying to predict how management styles for large corporations will change over the next 20 years, things become a little less clear than when predicting the increased demand of commodities or resources. Even though historical data may enlighten our way, we cannot account for new innovations, particularly those that have not yet been imagined. Now I will confess that the idea of unimaginable management styles may seem far-fetched. Humans suffer from an incredibly strong bias thinking their generation’s knowledge represents the epitome of though…literally an end of knowledge. This absolute idiocy of such arrogance aside, the point is that simply following trend lines on graphs into the future is not always going to get you to a future point accurately.
I will give an example: It is said that there was a time in the history of New York city, that if you were to trend the increase in population and trend alongside it, the increase in the number of horses required to move people around, New York would not have been able to deal with the huge amount of horse manure that such a herd would produce. These trends obviously didn’t account for advances in transportation technology. To make that same mistake today would be foolish, and yet I would bet some good money that a lot of people have lost a lot of money doing exactly that.
If you were investing in New York at that time, and you were unaware of future trends, you would have invested heavily in horse manure processing and removal businesses, and you would obviously have lost a lot of money. You need to keep an eye out for the things that you can only really guess are on their way…
Sir Richard Branson understood this when he liberated himself from Virgin Records. He unloaded his music label when electronic music started its migration to the World Wide Web. Sir Richard’s bank account would have looked significantly different had he clung to Virgin Records. I am guessing that someone in his company gave him a report on the future of music, and he took it to heart. Smart man…(Hence the title)
BBC reports suggest that advances in alternatives to 3D printing may mean that 3D printing is three generations of alternative technology releases away from becoming irrelevant. This may be an overstatement, but 3D printing is simply too slow to deliver on its promises, so alternatives will wipe it out, or the person developing the tech to increase the speed of these devices will conquer the market. I assume that people in that space know this very well, but for how long have they know this, and at which stage of their product R&D did they realise this. When was the CEO of the company handed a report that suggested that human nature requires that things happen almost immediately, and that if you want to be the Steve Jobs of 3D printers, speed was going to get you there. It is after all, not by solving the easy problems that you become Bill Gates!
The question is just basically this, in a world where Research In Motion lost the plot with subsequent releases of Blackberry devices (which once seemed set to take over), and a company who was once seen a producer of cheap electronic rip-offs, Huawei (who can even pronounce it…) is now producing which is seen as the most likely contender for iPhone supremacy, in a world where something like that can happen, should you even hang out with people who suggest that trying to predict the future is futile and should be left to chance?
Can you really afford not to, or at the bare minimum, at least attempt to predict the future? If you are not, you are probably three generations of alternative technology releases away from becoming irrelevant. Maybe even less!