An Unhappy Couple: Iterative Thinking and Disruptive Innovation
When most people are asked what an iPhone could look like 10 years from now, they’ll subconsciously look to the past (and present), to help define the future. The iPhone 8 might have a better battery life (but continue to fall miserably short of consumer’s expectations), the 9 a more focused camera and 10, 11 and 12 – some other small tweak in a seemingly endless, iterative improvement on the previous format.
Time and time again, we see brands going down a familiar path – before a disruptive (sometimes) start-up, offers an entirely new take on an age-old problem. To quote the Nokia CEO (upon being acquired by Microsoft in 2013), “we didn’t do anything wrong, but somehow, we lost”. His is the quintessentially tragic story of today’s Fortune 500 Company – a highly respected brand, with a sizeable R&D budget, that didn’t do anything wrong, but were left behind.
The problem – to quote the most famous of Arthur C Clarke’s three laws – is that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. Put another way, a breakthrough innovation, by its very definition, is a leap from the present day and therefore, very difficult for us to predict.
Today, as innovation and disruption proliferate almost every aspect of our lives, trying to guess what the next generation of anything looks like, often feels like we’re grasping at shadows. But what if there was a different way? If there was a way to see where, when and how these traditional industries (or products and services) are ripe for displacement. A framework with which to see the opportunities that exist both within and between verticals?
Toward New Horizons
‘Futurology’ is the recognizing and assessing of potential future events. It’s as old as time – but came to the forefront in the the late 1940s with a General from the American Air Force called Hap Arnold. Hap fought two world wars and realized the importance of longer term planning with regard to war machine invention. Upon returning to his homeland, Hap commissioned a group of researchers, physicists and engineers to understand what wars would look like at the end of the twentieth century.
The report – Toward New Horizons – to put it mildly, smashed it out of the park. The group were able to ‘predict’ all types of inventions far beyond their time – from military drones to target seeking missiles and supersonic aircraft. In fact, they so accurately foresaw the direction in which modern warfare was going, it was long argued a self-fulfilling prophecy. Did this group ‘predict the future’ or create a roadmap that entire armies and countries followed for half a century to come?
Adding More Science to the Art
Over the course of the second half of the twentieth century, others learned from this longer term approach. Several techniques – from the Delphi Model and Scenario Planning to Backcasting – tried to add more science to the art of predicting the future. The former allowed planners to imagine possible, plausible or probable future states as well as understanding the problems, challenges and opportunities that they might present.
The latter – ‘backcasting’ – is essentially about working backwards to identify the steps that will connect probable future states to the present day. This is absolutely key in tackling the iterative and rational thinking of today’s mindset. It allows us to think of the future, not as a continuation of the present, but rather to see how the world could look ‘post-disruption’.
Living in a Time of Creative Destruction
Joseph Schumpeter coined the phrase ‘creative destruction’ to refer to a period of incessant product and process innovation by which new production units replace outdated ones. He considered it “the essential fact about capitalism”.
Whether you find this idea intoxicating or intimidating, overwhelming or exciting, one thing is for sure – living with its consequences is going to become the norm. As consumer expectations and technology change at an unprecedented rate, marketers find themselves at the very forefront of this movement. The best agencies are working with brands in a consultative and collaborative manner, helping them to think big in order to win in this new world.
Emerge: Disruptive Innovation Series
The topic of Futurology will be explored in more depth in the upcoming Dentsu Aegis Network Emerge series, brought to you by the Innovation Council. In separate workshops for clients, this series will inspire ‘10x thinking’ through a mixture of inspirational content, exercises and group discussion. If you are an iProspect client and interested in being part of these sessions, please reach out to your respective agency lead.