How to look backwards in order to see the future

 

It was Sir Winston Churchill who once said the: “The farther back you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see.”

Whilst history does not neatly repeat itself and nor will looking  backwards give you 20/20 vision looking into the future, the astute leader is resolute in refining their ability to look at the past and identify the  echoes and rhymes that suggest how the future may be shaped. Churchill was a passionate scholar of history, seeking to understand both historical and current events as they unfolded so that he might better understand the future as it rushed forward.

At TomorrowToday we are strong believers in the benefit of looking backwards in order to see forward. This powerful leadership and strategic skill requires continuous focus and attention but anyone can do it. One of the most practical ways to develop this skill is to use a publication like the The Economist ““ which we believe is one of the best resources for identifying current and future trends.

For example, if you had been paying attention to trends highlighted by The Economist, then Theresa May’s U-turn in April, calling a snap election and the ensuing chaos that erupted for the Tory party, would not have come as a surprise. Because in January, The Economist nailed her disruptive nature in their cover “Theresa Maybe ““ Britain’s Indecisive Premier.” Equally, if you are in retailing, then Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods last week would not have come as a complete surprise, because The Economist highlighted this trend in “Amazon’s Empire.” Here’s the thing, time and time again, The Economist, whether by chance or design, has a knack for identifying the key forces driving the future.  Collating the key themes and paying attention to what they mean for your business is therefore effort and time well spent.

 

Here are our top tips for how you can use The Economist to look backwards and see into the future:

Start by collating key themes: Every month set aside an hour or two and study the covers of The Economist for that period. What you are looking for are only the key headline trends. List them down and see what stands out. Now a useful tool or lens to categorise this data and make sense of it all is to use TomorrowToday’s TIDES of Change model. Looking at the covers and the headline articles, ask yourself which T-I-D-E-S would you allocate them to.

Using the covers from the last six months, here are some of the rhythms and echoes we have identified:

Technology:  Headline Themes over the past six months

  1. Automation and its impact on lifelong learning
  2. Data’s impact on the new rules for competitive advantage
  3. Cybersecurity and cyberterrorism
    • Side Note: In April, ahead of the game, The Economist wrote about the growing threat of ransomware. The astute forward-focused and backward looking leader would have therefore been ready for last months Wannacry attacks  and the more recent Notpetya cyber-attacks. Time-and-time again The Economist threads prove great predictors of future disruptors.
  4. Quantum computing goes mainstream
  5. Embedding microchips in humans
  6. Bitcoin and crypto-currencies
  7. New communication platforms – smartphones to smartglasses
  8. Drone delivery
  9. The continued rise of 3D-printing and complex structures

 

Institutional Change

Institutions are the governing bodies and the structures used for orchestrating society. They formulate the rules for success and failure. The important thing to recognise about institutions is that they are in constant flux as they adapt and respond to a changing world. Here are the key institutional change headline trends we’ve pulled from The Economist’s covers over the last six months:

Headline Themes over the past six months:

  1. Changes in Christianity
  2. Politics ““ this has been a particularly busy period, which is a developing trend in itself:
    • Shift from the centre to the Left and Right
    • Impact of Trumponomics
    • Resurrection of Europe
    • Brexit
    • Power shifts and conflict between previously stable Arab states ““ Saudi and Qatar
    • Impact of an activist White House
    • Russia and USA strained relationship
  3. Role of business in lifelong learning and preparing workforce for a future of automation and artificial intelligence
  4. Impact of living longer ““ workforce and customers, consider opportunities and threats.
  5. Globalisation vs localisation
  6. Monopoly and platform/empire of Amazon

Demography

Generally, a slow moving force of change, but several key indicators are now crashing on our shores. Prepare yourself for a tsunami of aftershocks. This is one disruptive force that most politicians and business people seem ill-prepared and unwilling to deal with. The implications for the future will be massive. The Economist was a little thin in this area, perhaps outshone by the tumultuous political uncertainty over the past six months that have been hitting the media spotlight. But those demographic trends the publication did highlight are the most important for the future.

Headline Themes over the past six months:

  1. An ageing population and workforce
  2. Impact on population growth and availability of talented workforce as immigration policies change
  3. The rise of a demographic elite

 

Environment and Ethics

Headline Themes over the past six months:

  1. Pollution in China
  2. Shift to sustainable clean energy and implications
  3. Ethics of making tailored babies and super-humans
  4. Ocean clean-up
  5. Who gets to live longer
  6. Health food goes mainstream

 

Shifting Social Values

Headline Themes over the past six months:

  1. Rise of populism
  2. Lowering the voting age
  3. Shifting attitudes towards life and death
  4. Sexism in the workplace
  5. Rise of a super-intelligence race
  6. Shifting attitudes and society’s growing acceptance of gene editing
  7. Role of robots in the workplace

 

What can we say about the future from looking back over the past six months of The Economist publication?

From the lists above we’ve highlighted in bold what we see as being the most important drivers of disruptive change shaping the future and captured below are some thoughts:

Near future (12-24 months)

  1. Sexism will increasingly become an important HR issue over the next 12-24 months. We are seeing this with the disruption several Silicon Valley companies have faced over the past two weeks ““ Uber and Travis Kalanick being centre stage ““ but The Economist again ahead of the game, raised this trend in an April issue.
    • ACTION: Ensure sexism in the workplace is discussed at all levels and eradicating and measuring it is on the Board’s agenda
  2. Our oceans are being polluted and overfished.
    • ACTION: Pollution comes from consumer packaging. There is a real opportunity for companies to champion this cause and do good for themselves and the environment. If you are in retailing this should be a top three strategic item.
  3. Brexit and more political disruption
  4. Cyber-terrorism increasingly becomes a massive disruptive force

Mid-future (24-36 months)

  1. Asking Siri and Alexa (and other iPA’s) about; well everything from who should I work for, to who should I buy from
  2. Sustainable energy ““ The Tesla factor near you soon
  3. Gene editing
  4. Quantum computing goes mainstream
  5. Impact of more conservative immigration
  6. Roll of Robots, AI and smart machines
  7. A revived Europe and Britain post Brexit
  8. Drone delivery, from packages to people, a new mode of transport
  9. Crypto-currencies enter mainstream ““ along with Blockchain technology

Not-too-distant future (36 months+)  

  1. Super-intelligent humans
  2. Tailored humans
  3. Impact of an ageing workforce is no longer something business or politicians can pretend to ignore
  4. Amazon takes over the world and becomes the world’s first trillion dollar company.

All in all seventeen predictions about the future which should to a lesser or greater degree have an impact on your business. And, all it’s taken was a quick peruse of the covers of The Economist over the past six months. Of course you can make this exercise more thorough and rich by including other notable publications like Fast Company, Fortune Magazine, MIT Technology Review, Forbes Magazine etc. And if you do this as a weekly or monthly exercise, capture key trends, note them down including how often they are mention. Use this information to create a heat or spider map of what is trending. Visualisation is often the key to identifying the patterns that are hidden amongst a sea of data.

Don’t forget to have fun by doing this, you are not predicting the future just preparing for it and identifying trends that can help you create your future. Involve your team, spend time imagining various scenarios for your business.

Understanding tomorrow is all about exploring today the patterns, echoes and rhymes that will create the future, and then asking the question what can you do today to build competitive advantage in a changing world. Analysing the headline themes of The Economist, and other reputable publications, will not give you all the answers but my experience shows it will point you in the right direction and identify a few new options and opportunities too.

 

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