De-risking innovation by developing memories of the future

Innovation and disruption are essential for sustained success in today’s world. Yet, few are capable of achieving it. In a recent report, McKinsey stated: “84 percent of global executives believe innovation is remarkably important, yet only 6 percent are satisfied with their organization’s innovation performance.” What are they missing?

Like many designers, my journey started with imagination. I used to love road trips with my father. We’d drive twelve or more hours down to our beach house nestled away in the Western Cape of South Africa. The journey was grueling. The sun was unforgiving. And the only entertainment was dad’s tape deck blasting a mixture of 80’s soft rock and 90’s alternate. To this day I still loathe listening to Tori Amos. But it wasn’t all bad; In that car, I developed an irrepressible and vivacious imagination. Unaffected by Tori and her cornflakes. I would run imaginary scenarios outside the window. And because I loved dinosaurs; they often made an appearance. Scowling at us as they ravaged the earth, kicking up red dirt as they kept pace and snapped at our (w)heels.

My dad, giving a T-Rex the runaround. Circa 1992

My imagination could have pushed me into many different career paths. A screenwriter, novelist, or an artist but it serendipitously became a fundamental tool for my innovation process.

Imagination has always played a part in innovation. Science fiction has done it for decades. The movie Woman in the Moon (1929) imagined space travel. Blade Runner (1982) video calling. Back to the Future Part II (1989) wearable tech. Total Recall (1990) driverless cars. What we imagine today can become our future reality tomorrow. There’s a reason why forward-thinking agencies and offices hire sci-fi writers. Unfortunately, not everything becomes fact. Countless more visions have never reached fruition. And hopefully, some never do.

Casually trying to create the future is a gamble. Especially if it’s a significant monetary investment. The majority of innovators have the wrong approach to either (or both) the mindset or appetite for risk. Firstly, humans can only imagine futures that relate to our perceptions of past experiences. We find it tricky to conceive ideas that don’t fit our preconceived notions of the world. The mindset required for innovation requires us to break out of this pattern. To consider options with unbiased analysis of fact we must think critically.

Still, learning critical thought is easy in comparison to navigating the risk inherited by innovation. Often referred to as the innovator’s dilemma. At the outset, innovation results are perceived to be inferior to existing products. No surprise. It takes a long time, has an untested market, and low margins. This creates risk. Typically companies will wait until the disruptive initiative enters the mainstream to invest. Yet, at this point, it’s too late because the innovation is at the exponential part of the s-curve. Making catching up improbable and a lost opportunity inevitable. To explain how we de-risk this ambiguity — we must go back to my childhood Imaginarium (my dad’s car).

I want to point out that imagining dinosaurs chasing down our car wasn’t all that far fetched. Scientists say they can recreate living dinosaurs within the next few years. Yikes! I like dinosaurs, but they made a movie about why this is a bad idea. I hope someone listens to the words of Ian Malcolm. “Our scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.” We’ll survive, I reckon. But how is something I imagined almost twenty years ago now plausible?

Easy, Jurrasic Park is an extrapolation of gene editing science. Herb Boyer and Stanley Cohen created the first genetically engineered organism back in 1973. And we’ve come a long way since then. And a long way to go to get to dinosaurs, but it’s possible. For us to imagine novel, strange, or even unwanted futures, we must steep ourselves in a variety of fact-driven speculative future scenarios. Like the movie Jurassic Park. And that’s where strategic foresight helps.

Foresight allows you to construct targeted, bespoke, and plausible visions of the future. They’re informed by expert and novel insight. Derived from monitoring emerging signals of change in the social, technological, economic, environmental, and political realms. These visions are then often articulated in a storytelling narrative. Commonly referred to as scenarios.

Scenarios work because when we read design science fiction, our brains activate our Cerebral Cortex area’s as if we were experiencing the events ourselves. Kieth Oatley has said that reading produces a vivid simulation of reality. For example; when we read a story about delicious foods, our sensory cortex lights up. Yum. Besides being engaged with the content, storytelling also helps with memory retention. Not only can scenarios help you experience speculative future stories before they happen. But the more futures you visit, the more memories you’ll store. Preparing you to recognize signals that show changes in our world as they happen.

A strategy that’s informed by a future outlook and monitored for indicators of change. Will help you steer toward a preferred future. Prepare for undesired futures (and pivot if needed.) Or even plan to create the future you want.

When you’re thinking of investing in innovation, the risk is significantly reduced when you monitor, anticipate, and adapt to the future as it happens. And strategic foresight enables you to do this.

With a proper future radar and a few well-crafted strategies, you can zig when everyone else zags.

So what kind of future do you want?

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