What does the future hold for business? That's a tough question unless you have a time machine or a crystal ball handy. Even if you do, predicting the future is risky business because markets shift suddenly and new ideas take shape quickly. Yet, there is a strategy involved. You can look at the trends and ideas forming in business today, those sparks of innovation and creativity, and then formulate a path forward. That's exactly what I attempted to do in an interview with Hans Neubert, the Chief Creative officer at the famous design company Frog, based in 11 locations around the world including New York and San Francisco. In a free-wheeling discussion that took place in person at the South by Southwest conference in mid March, I asked about what the future will be like for business.

What will business be like in 5, 10, or even 20 years from now?

Believe it or not, [the future of business] has nothing to do with technology but actually has to do with generations and people. So today I think we have a really interesting sort of tipping point about to happen in the next 5-10 years where we have really young, entrepreneurial minded, well-educated graduates and non-graduates but are basically very unlike their parents starting to think right out of school about starting a company. Second, we have an aging population, where baby boomers are basically not ready to give it in yet and retire, so what they do is they follow their passion after they work for 30 years in one company. They are saying, "I'm going to start a different company"--what they do is they take an amazing amount of knowledge and they bring it into new companies, so I believe we're going to see new businesses started by boomers, with a huge amount of... I would say 'Intellectual Capital'--it's going to potentially do better than some of the start ups that we see around us. Of course, it makes it really interesting when you think about communication style and removing traditional hierarchies to something that can't be described as hierarchy anymore, but probably it's going to be defined by skill sets. So imagine your son being your boss. And that's fine, [you will say]--you did all this already, you just want to take a job that you always wanted to do and all of a sudden you find yourself working with a guy who might be 30 years old and I think that's a really interesting sort of development which is going to change the way we behave as humans because we're very hierarchical right now, culturally [speaking].

What about tech?

I like to talk about data customization. I hate using the phrase Big Data--I don't believe that's a very accurate description because its not really leading up to anything--it's like saying culture and not meaning anything, [or] innovation for that matter. But, data customization obviously will help us in so many ways. Right now we have a long tail where we see a lot of us getting use to having a level of customization around us that is convenient for us, so we have it with organizations like Netflix, Amazon, we have it obviously with Zipcar for example. So when you think about what might be next, I'm kind of coming back to this generational conflict. I believe everything is converging onto the same workplace, so you're going to see a people who are going to be able to customize their job, almost like how you can customize a credit card today--like you might take a little less money over here, a bit more vacation over there, because I'm older. I have a family but I'm younger, so I might take a little bit more here, no bonus but I work longer and so I get maybe a different health benefit. The second one is really interesting--obviously the emergence of Artificial Intelligence that is really going to add benefit. So examples of it are smart assistants and smart agents. Again, we're use to that already on small scales. I heard about a really interesting story last year with the IBM Watson [supercomputer] and basically what's happening is they're using Watson's computing power to analyze a surgeons data points before surgery. For example, with cancer, because cancer is distributed throughout your body and has so many different permutations, a computer is much quicker at determining all the different cross-referencing points that a doctor could find. So I think computing power can actually help assist us in mundane tasks and tasks that are extremely reliant on cross-referencing large data sets.

The way that factories are built today and the way large scale organizations are built, they're super, super slow, they're like the big Titanic but can't really turn. I believe in the future we're going to see factories and large scale production facilities built the way a local facility would be built where things can be reconfigured, probably in weeks and days rather than years and that is because there is sufficient enough data that will help support and quantify the change

With the factory being customized, how would that work? I'm envisioning something like how they have these data centers that use smaller pieces linked together.

In theory, yes. I'm not an operational specialist when it comes to factory design but if I think to myself that, with enough foresight and design, a factory could just be as connected, could be just as connected as a house. So, today we're talking about Smart Homes and what are they really? A bunch of thermostats measuring it--but if you want to go 20 years forward and we size Smart Factories in the way that there are Smart Buildings for large corporations today, I would imagine that there is more of a mix of laborers together with scientists working with protypers with designers and with OEMs, all on one floor, or all in one space.

The most wicked problems are solved by a diverse group of talent, so today when we try to build or design anything or conceptualize anything, we don't put five designers in one room, we put one designer with an interaction designer and with--let's say a technology strategist together with an expert in nutrition, etc. So a problem for us isn't going to be defined anymore by a one-dimensional lens but instead we build kind of a multidiverse and sometimes multicultural, or more importantly a multidisciplinary approach into the process and that I believe leads to more efficiency. If you put people of diverse backgrounds that are potentially opposing even in position in a room and have them agree on something and think together that, this is a great idea--again, the perquisite is that they are creative people--'creative' meaning as individuals. If you can bring those people together and get them to agree on something, it's more likely to get it done right versus just engineers or just a bunch of scientists. So a factory of the future for me is doing that at scale, a factory of the future is going to be built to measure that and is also going to be built for a great level of variables that will probably conceptually be able to raise and draw curtains as needed.

What's going to happen with smartphones?

What I believe is, first of all--we always need a place [for our data]. We're physical people, so we need a physical thing that is just like your ledger or your watch or a pair of glasses. You could argue back and forth about why do still carry cash. American currency has 1.2 or 1.3 billion [dollars] in circulation, but the credit concept has been around for 60 years, so in theory it makes no sense that anybody would still run around with cash. But my point is, because most of us need something to hold onto, the physical presence gives us safety and security in a way that is suggests that--okay, I have the cloud or an abstract concept but I believe most people are not abstract in thinking at all. The average person has a really hard time in abstraction, so for me the phone, in all its permutations, will continue to be a placeholder for everything that we're carrying with us.

The question of course right now becomes, will that move over to a wearable, to your watch? I'll say it remains to be seen. Will the watch replace the smartphone? I don't think so personally, because the problem I see with that is I have a hard time thinking that we're going to go from a watch or a wearable that has one or two uses or three uses that we check once in a while--to constantly checking it. The phone is not quite as close to us, it allows us to have more positions for us--in a bag, in a pocket, on the table.

What else will we see in business in the next 10-20 years?

Another one is user experience. User experience is like the labral tissue--the thing that makes your bones and your shoulder work. Over time, as companies and people think more systematically and as we see the world in the way that we see ecosystems around us in biology, we are also going to be seeing more pervasive interaction patterns that take us from smartphone to maybe your wearables to my computer, which is where they're currently. It will also go to my thermostat (which we have now) to my car (which we also have now). But we're starting to see that it will then go to ambiance--to start very mildly supporting our decision making, so we're going from active, to persuasive, to ultimately invisible interactions that actually we're not even aware of anymore.

I'll give you an example. Every new car has basically an app... so between the app and the car right now, I believe there will be enough information available, in the next 5- 10 years, that cars will have so much computing and software power, that they can actually take over for you without you even knowing. So if you're a crappy driver, or a better example for me without being so critical... a better example is children. Imagine you're a 16-year-old. What I'm hoping is there's enough ambient software in cars that the car will watch out for my child and I can program the car so that, when I buy the car and tell the car--this is a car for a new driver who just got their driver's license.

This is getting a little bit into big brother and I realize it's a bit controversial but between her getting her drivers license, me buying her a car, her using a smartphone for three or four years at that point, all that information results in some sort of insight that let's me program the car into defensive driving mode, so when my daughter drives, the car will make sure she's not running into a wall, which is obviously already possible with a driver-less car or self-driving cars, they will stop you from doing anything stupid, but that's still very specific, parking and stopping in front of a wall.

What I'm talking about is the kind of ambient support that you don't even realize, the kind that ever so slightly turns the angle of your wheels sharper so you get a little bit smoother around the corner, that you push your gas pedal, it just ever so slightly takes the edge off and doesn't make the car jump forward.

Published on: Mar 26, 2015
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