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Government agencies are constantly pressed to be forward-looking and anticipate what changes in technology are around the corner. But how can your agency get started in thinking about what the future will bring? How can you prepare for it now? Tim Andrews, a civil government business and thought leader at Booz Allen, encourages you to think broadly about opportunities and consider capabilities that will be available 30 years from now. It’s how history’s great tech visionaries built today’s world, and how you can build the future.
Have you ever wondered how the world’s great tech visionaries know which of today’s emerging technologies will become critically important over the next few decades? It turns out that the key to thinking about and shaping the future is looking for technological capabilities that are evolving at exponential rates, and imagining what the world will look like when said technologies are a million times more powerful than they are today.
Failing to note and project such trends far enough out can have harsh consequences. For example, in the 1980s, the CEO of a foundationally important, globally renowned technology company believed that there would never be a market for at-home personal computers. He failed to grasp the importance of the fact that, at the time, computing power was doubling every 18 months—an exponential rate. The eventual result was the world we live in today, where portable and handheld devices are ubiquitous, and the now-defunct technology company in question is remembered mainly for its myopia.
The thing is, spotting exponential technologies can be challenging, and, once identified, determining their likely impacts can be even more difficult. To make it easier, we use an approach that we like to call “writing future histories.” Across years of experience, we’ve found that this technique helps individuals and teams come to recognize the technologies of today that will inevitably become the building blocks for future realities, and from there, to invent desired future states that are attainable using these building blocks.
The first step is to identify technologies developing at an exponential rate. To find them, look for technologies relevant to fields with broad impact, such as communications, information, biology, energy, and computing. More importantly, look for emerging technologies that can complement each other, creating opportunities to leap ahead in capability.
Autonomous cars are a great example. Prior to the last several decades worth of advances in processing power, computer vision, real-time location data, and artificial intelligence, they were hard to imagine as anything more than science fiction. Now they’re within reach and seem almost inevitable. By thinking about how high-impact, exponentially developing technologies will combine in ways that add up to more than the sum of their parts, we can illuminate early glimmers of exponential capabilities.
The current revolution in biological capabilities is illustrative as well, with genome sequencing, bioinformatics, and process management improvements converging to enable feats like the rapid development and FDA approval of the COVID-19 vaccines.
After you’ve identified relevant exponential capabilities, it’s time to consider how to translate their power into actions we can work with today. Imagine a world 30 years from now that leverages exponentially more powerful versions of the capabilities in question. What does it look like? Use your insights to flesh out the “future history” you seek. This vision can serve to clarify what direction you should work toward.
Start by posing a question in the following structure: “Wouldn’t it be crazy if we couldn’t do x or we didn’t have y 3 decades from today?” For example, wouldn’t it be crazy if we didn’t have autonomous vehicles that are safe, inexpensive, energy efficient, and available everywhere? Take these visions and write short blurbs to make them more concrete.
We often hear “think big, start small, and learn fast.”
Use this same approach to think about the future and establish its likely direction. Start with small experiences to create options and adjust to the pace of real-time advancements. It’s most important to get moving—head in the right direction with small steps, promote real-time learning, and adjust on the fly as needed.
For example, when initially processing claims for government programs, fraud detection and reduction is still primarily an afterthought. It’s only after claims and refunds are paid that the question of their overall veracity is examined. If we were to consider that certain types of computing will almost certainly be far more powerful in the future, how might we change our approach? There are many such opportunities to explore how we can use advanced artificial intelligence and other rapidly emerging capabilities to plot the future and determine scalability.
“There are three steps invent our future. Start by thinking big and look for exponential technologies. Next, write future histories to articulate how your vision can be brought to life. Lastly, define your direction and start small with projects today.”
- Tim Andrews, civil government leader
Looking for exponential strains in the advancement of technology helps us understand which building blocks will be become foundationally important moving forward. And writing future histories allows us to define our direction and start small to stay ahead of current trends.
Nobody has a crystal ball—we get that. That’s why we say, don’t predict but invent your desired future to improve your mission outcomes. What impact can you make with the future history you invent?
Explore how federal leaders can drive technological advancements and create a better future in a new book A Brief History of a Perfect Future.