By Alecs Chong, Associate at Aurecon
Spoilers are everywhere. Remember that season’s finale episode that you’ve been planning to watch once you get home from work? Spoiled. Or that insanely good plot twist that was supposed to blow your mind? Yup, spoiled too. It doesn’t matter where you are or what time zone you are in. Chances are, someone from across the globe will not be able to contain their excitement and will drop the bomb on social media before that mind-blowing plot twist even had the chance to ‘surprise’ you first hand. It sucks, right?
That, however, is for fictional stories. In real life, not knowing what will happen in the future is excruciating, nerve-wracking and far scarier. When you’re on the other end of the line, waiting for the final verdict, you’d wish you could have seen what was coming, or that someone could’ve spoiled it and relieved you from anxiety, especially when there is just too much to lose. In real life, spoilers can be our life savers.
20 years ago, researchers attempted to simulate micro physical interaction between aggregates and mortar (concrete). People criticised this, saying it wasn’t practical – it took weeks to complete even the tiniest of numerical analysis. 20 years later, this criticism is no longer valid. It can be done with ease using current computing power, not to mention harnessing the advancement of quantum computing.
If we can now easily predict the trajectory of cracking in concrete in the micro-scale, we might well be heading to a place where something as random as predicting what number a dice might land on to a higher degree of accuracy using the laws of physics, if we are given the right data. It is not impossible to see that we are well on our way to predicting many things in the not too distant future.
20 billion prediction devices
With more than 20 billion devices expected to be connected to the Internet of Things (IoT) in the next five years, predicting the future does not seem so far-fetched anymore. As more people share their information online, computers will be able to analyse the changes in trends and behaviours over time and calculate the probabilities with higher accuracy. In fact, several data-rich practices such as modelling, algorithms, predictive and computational analytics have already caught the attention of businesses, offering them the “alluring promise of precision and predictability” ‒ and they are taking the bait!
“Everywhere we look, companies are putting data to use ‒ driving market share, reducing costs, raising productivity, and improving products and services,” says consultancy company McKinsey. And this is not even a surprise. Digital disruption has shaken up businesses and organisations like a hurricane, and has them always on their toes, worriedly thinking “when will the next one hit?” or worse, “are we next?” To save themselves from potential doom, they are all trying to get ahead of the game and are on a mission to predict the future before the next disruption comes and gets them.
But what will happen then when the element of surprise becomes a forgotten concept or when spoilers will stop being a thing? If we’re already certain and sure of everything that’s about to come, we’d be missing the chance of experiencing something extraordinary.
Ironically, in our desire to get ahead and achieve a ‘perfect’ world where we can have the ability to know everything, we will be risking having a world that is only average. And is that what we want? To be only average?
The pursuit of self-actualisation
Humans, by nature, want to be fulfilled ‒ to have a life filled with meaning. Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs suggests that our need for self-esteem and self-actualisation are strong drivers and motivators of behaviour; therefore, being average just won’t be as satisfying for many people. Those who are born achievers will most likely seek to be better than the rest, and be, as Charles Darwin’s self-selection theory suggests, the alpha male or female, or the leader of the pack.
“The most talented, thought-provoking, game-changing people are never ‘normal’. They usually overcome great obstacles, take surprising routes to their goals, are often dysfunctional and under no circumstances do what people expect them to do,” says Virgin Group founder Richard Branson. So, even if we strive for predictability, our desire to be fulfilled and self-actualised will go against ‘norms’ and expectations, and seek out the unpredictable and unconventional. Because for us, a predictable and average world is an unfulfilling world, and nobody wants to succumb to that.
Is predictability the enemy of innovation?
In 1958, the United States established the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) after the unexpected success of Russia’s launch of Sputnik. It had one ostensible mission: “to prevent technological surprises to the US military and to create surprises of its own.”
Of course, everyone in the defence industry and even non-defence organisations will agree. Getting ahead of disruption and fostering creativity and innovation are keys to win a war, whether in business or in the battlefield; but this task is not as easy as it looks. As we look ahead into the future by relying on real-time data and analytics alone, we might be blinding ourselves from other possibilities and be limited by the things that data tells us, stopping us to explore further and imagine the unknown.
According to a Harvard Business Review article, exploring the power and potential of big data is inherent in innovating for the future, but we should not ignore the element of surprise. “With all of this information at our disposal, we risk robbing brands of opportunities for serendipity — the delightful surprises that happen when we least expect them, attracting the attention of consumers,” it says.
Perhaps, the key in navigating towards the future is finding a balance between certainty and uncertainty, looking ahead to prevent us from harm while still allowing ourselves to grow and be surprised.
Predictions with a purpose
The age of big data is here and there’s nothing to stop businesses from unlocking its potential, and using it to try to predict the future. It’s inevitable. But predictability, like innovation, should not be done just for the sake of, or just because we have the technology to do it. It should have a higher purpose, something that will breed new sustainable opportunities for future generations and not bring humanity to extinction.
As Nicholas Carr asks: Where does the algorithm end and the self begin? If and when predictive technology will be able to tell the future accurately, real creative innovators would know that recognising the next disruption would not be enough. We have to act upon it, and fast before someone else gets the idea and beats us to it. Just ask Kodak and Nokia.
In the end, it’s not whether we saw it coming or not, or whether we were the one who called it before anybody else. When the time comes that the prediction comes true, it’s the way we will react to change that will matter.
After all, predictability is not the innovation destination. It’s not the ultimate goal. It’s a continuous unending journey of looking forward and finding the unknown ‒ close enough to warn us of danger but far enough to keep us excited, motivated and on our toes.
Do you want to know everything that lies ahead? No spoilers please!