Share By Sachin Shenolikar
Back in the early 1980s, Daniel Burrus was living a fairly ho-hum life. He was teaching biology and physics while dabbling as a small-business owner on the side.
In 1982, Burrus took a leap of faith: He sold four of his businesses and spent a year researching a method that could accurately predict exactly which technologies would shape the world. “I could see the underpinnings of the future,” he says. “The technological foundation was really being formed at that time.”
The work paid off. The following year, Burrus identified 20 core technologies that would drive economic change in the future. He was correct on all 20.
Now a best-selling author and keynote speaker, Burrus is still looking ahead, specifically on how businesses are preparing — or not preparing — for the massive technological changes coming later this decade. “Most people just react, respond, put out fires, crisis manage,” he says. “They don’t know how to separate what I call the hard trends from the soft trends. At the manager level, there will be more and more problems unless we start solving them before they happen.”
Burrus spoke with Real Business about new technologies that are coming our way — and how businesses can prepare and take advantage of them.
Take us back to 1983 when you started predicting technologies that would drive economic change. That was a much simpler time. How did you figure out what would blossom over the next two decades?
Most of the people who were dealing with technology back then were only looking at one area. For example, IT people were just looking at IT — they weren’t looking at genetics. And people that were developing new materials weren’t looking at supercomputers. It was not connected. Everyone had a little niche.
I looked at all areas of technology — lasers, robots, genetics, fiber optics — and I looked globally at what was going on. I developed what I call the Taxonomy of High Technology. I came up with a way of organizing all the new innovations that were both in place as well as creating an organizational tree for the new ones. That was a very powerful thing that had never been done before. And then with Moore’s Law I could tell exactly how much, say, a computer would cost in the year 2000, and what kind of power it would have. That gave me the ability to make accurate predictions.
You mentioned hard trends and soft trends. What’s the difference between the two?
When we’re doing our work or reading articles about the future, we all know some of those trends will happen and some won’t happen. Hard trends will happen, and if you don’t like them too bad, because they’re going to happen anyway. Soft trends may change — they are the ifs and maybes for the future. So, separating those two is extremely powerful.
Back in the 1980s, did someone say, hey, let’s keep digital technology a secret from Kodak, Polaroid, Blockbuster, and Motorola? The answer is no. Digital technology was there to see, but those companies treated them as soft trends. Oops. Those were hard trends.
How do you see the next few years developing in business?
Based on the hard trends that I’ve been studying and tracking for 31 years, here is a short-term prediction: Over the next five years, we will transform the following processes: How we sell, how we market, how we communicate, how we collaborate, how we innovate, how we train, how we educate. All of those things are transforming because the tools to do it are there.
The soft trend is, will your company transform how it sells? The answer is, I don’t know. It’s a soft trend. That’s something you can change. Disrupter or disrupted — you actually have a choice. If you look at the technology-driven hard trends, you can see what’s going to happen before it happens. Do you want to be the one who is transforming how we sell or do you want your competitor to do it?
What’s one technology that you see impacting the world in a huge way in the next few years?
The one that I think is going to have the biggest impact — and executives don’t really understand the impact — is machine-to-machine communications. That is far bigger and far more transformative than most people understand. By the year 2020, the United States will have 15 to 20 billion M2M devices. The Internet of Things is a little different — that’s machines connecting to sensors which can sense [things like] light, heat, touch, humidity, barometric pressure. What you get out of all of that is putting an amazing amount of intelligence into everything.
Is there technology in the works that people will think is unbelievable?
Today, when we talk about turning healthcare into a predict-and-prevent model versus reacting to disease and injury, it sounds almost impossible. And soon there will be a 3D web browser that will be game-changing. They’re already 3D printing human blood vessels. You can say that we have unbelievable changes coming, but the reality is, they’re all quite predictable.
What advice would you give to business managers about preparing for the changes ahead?
You’re going to spend the rest of your life in the future — maybe you should think about it a little bit. Hope is not a strategy. You just can’t hope that things will be good. So what I would suggest is spending at least one hour a week unplugging from the current crisis and situation and plugging into the future. Ask yourself, what hard trends are impacting my world? The more you look, the more you see, and the more you see, the more you can act on. And the more you act on, the more you can shape your future.