As we said farewell (or in many ways, good riddance) to 2017 and ushered in 2018, the technology world took stock of the trends that shaped the year and cast an eye towards the future in search of the next big thing.
In the IT industry, predictions pieces appear as frequently as a blinking light in a data centre. But how do future gazing companies arrive at these predictions, which can range from the conservative to the utterly farfetched? More to the point, is the whole concept of annual predictions outdated given the breakneck speed at which technology is evolving?
A three step crystal ball formula (The science bit)
A formula in science is concise, it’s about expressing information clearly. The art of prediction in itself is a vital ingredient for business continuity and excellence. It’s an element of what every business is or should be striving for – to be able to predict and anticipate what current and future customers will need, before they even know it themselves. But how much of this process is actually led by the customer is subject to debate.
E + R / I = Quantified Predictions:
E(vidence) – “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Learning the lessons and patterns of history and applying them to the future is a key ingredient in identifying trends and making predictions. So too is the evidence from within your business.
R(eal Life) – 99 per cent of the time, the needs and problems of your customers are integral in shaping your vision for the future. It is so important to listen to and understand their real-world views and demands ‘at the coal face’. Equally it’s worth asking how analysts and experts see your industry shaping up.
I(nstinct) – The most unquantifiable element. Before Henry Ford designed and created the first truly affordable motor car, he said, “if I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” In cases like this, a single-minded visionary shapes the face of industry for years to come and their competitors are forced to play catch-up. So many great innovations have been driven by emotion, gut feel and instinct, but this is also accompanied by considerable risk.
Time: The technology ticking clock
There is no sure way of making the right prediction, which is part of the reason that three out of four start-ups fail. It’s also about being in the right place at the right time – your technology might be ground breaking but there needs to be a customer need and appetite for widespread adoption. Bill Gates once said that “we always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten.”
As such, I feel it is equally important to react when one of your predictions hasn’t borne out the way you thought it would – particularly if you’ve invested time and money into that technology.
Much is made of the successful modern business being “agile”, and it’s absolutely crucial in this context. Predicting the future 100 per cent correctly is an impossible task, particularly in the technology world, so successful businesses will react to market trends and customer insights and know when to pull the plug on a project that just isn’t working.
As an extreme example of this, Astro Teller, who oversees X – Google’s “moonshot” development labs - rewards colleagues when their ambitious projects fail. Teller says this helps people take risks so they can achieve their "moonshot" goals, like a balloon-powered internet.
An agile business can be enabled by having a decentralised structure with a wide variety of specialist expertise across different business units.
Prediction is data technology (AI squared)
Increasingly, predictions themselves are informed by technology. Data and AI-driven insights allow us to monitor all manner of things in real-time and help us to predict the trends that will shape our tomorrow.
The concept of smart cities has been the subject of a tech prediction piece or two in its time, but real-world examples such as Singapore demonstrate that the idea is closer to reality than some might think. What’s more, by 2050 it is predicted that up to 70 per cent of the world’s population will be city dwellers, so the strain on smart city networks will only increase.
Companies like HAL24K aim to provide the real-time predictive insight that will make a complex smart city function. Its data analytics and machine learning technology mean that city planners can predict the future more intelligently than ever and tackle the challenges that will shape our world in years to come, like pollution and resource management.
Despite this, I still find myself coming back to the “instinct” element of our business predictions formula. Artificial intelligence and machine learning provide us with quite frankly frightening insight into empirical data, but there is always a place for human creativity and decision-making.
Machine learning requires data sets to learn from, but in their insatiable desire to be fed, can we really be sure the data sets are varied enough for the algorithm to produce an unbiased “decision”? Cathy O’Neil (author of Weapons of Math Destruction) pondered this when considering if an algorithm was up to the task of reviewing 21 years of job applications to a major corporation, and tracking those applicants against those that succeeded in their career there.
The issue she found was that so-called “objective” algorithms” may in fact reinforce human bias in favour of certain genders or ethnicities. So, before we’re ready to ask a machine to predict our next application, should a human with instinct and knowledge of the data be consulted?
The guiding principle – Your network infrastructure
At Axians and the wider VINCI group, we have noted one universal truth; no matter what new directions technology takes us in, the network is at the heart of everything. The network and the expertise driving the technology is becoming more commercially valuable, and in turn can provide data evidence, real life insight and instinct into what is needed to keep up with the pace of demands for the latest in technology innovation.
In the book The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy the ultimate answer to life, the universe and everything was generated by a super computer, Deep Thought. That computer would have had a network sustaining the calculation of its answer over seven and half million years. I’m guessing most businesses aren’t looking that far ahead, but whether it’s SD-WAN, IoT, Cobotics or simply getting data from A to B instantaneously, it’s the network that is the guiding principle to the next discovery in technology, helping to develop not only plans for year one and two, but to guide you to the next ten years of business success.
Russell Crampin, UK managing director, Axians
Image source: Shutterstock/violetkaipa