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A few weeks ago I attended a fireside chat with professional futurist Amy Webb. A futurist is someone who identifies and connects emerging tech trends in order to predict their impact on society.

Amy shared insights from her recent book "The Signals Are Talking: Why Today’s Fringe Is Tomorrow’s Mainstream". The book outlines her futurist methodology and how to systematically think through a trend and it's possible impact.

It's a methodology that has many practical applications such as:

  • An entrepreneur evaluating a business idea
  • An investor seeking new investment opportunities
  • A job seeker considering what industry to work in

For me the application is idea discovery. My goal is to start a startup around a "problem" that I'm interested in solving. My challenge is identifying a real problem I'm interested in pursuing, and how to recognize trends versus what is trendy within that problem.

For example if I want to analyze the future of education in K-12 schools, would computer assisted learning (CAL) and mobile apps fall into the trends or trendy buckets? Will the majority of kids in the US school system have Google accounts and use Google classroom? Is the number of people pursuing teaching degrees trending up or down?

Once you hone in on a trend, Amy presents questions to consider:

  • What technology is on the horizon?
  • How will it impact our customers or constituents?
  • How will our competitors harness the trend?
  • Where does the trend create potential new partnerships or collaborators for us?
  • How does this trend impact our industry and all of its parts?
  • Who are the drivers of change in this trend?
  • How will the wants, needs, and expectations of our customers change as a result of this trend?

Your goal is to project a set of possible, probable, and preferred scenarios around six time zones:

  1. Now (within next 12 months)
  2. Near-term (1 - 5 years)
  3. Mid-range  (5 - 10 years)
  4. Long-range (10 - 20 years)
  5. Far-range (20 - 30 years)
  6. Distant ( > 30 years)

To make projections, Amy presents a six step methodology. These are covered in much greater detail in her book.

First, find the Fringe.

Cast a wide enough net to harness information from the fringe. This involves creating a map showing nodes and the relationships between them, and rounding up what you will later refer to as “the unusual suspects.”

Guiding questions:

Who has been working directly and indirectly in this space?      

Who has been funding or otherwise encouraging experimentation in this space?

Who might be directly impacted by this development?

Who might be incentivized to work against this kind of change, either because they stand to gain something or because they might lose something?      

Who might see this idea as a starting point for something bigger and better?

Second, use CIPHER to find patterns.

Uncover hidden patterns by categorizing data from the fringe. Patterns indicate a trend, so you’ll do an exhaustive search for Contradictions, Inflections, Practices, Hacks, Extremes, and Rarities.

Third, identify the trends.

Ask the Right Questions: Determine whether a pattern really is a trend. You will be tempted to stop looking once you’ve spotted a pattern, but you will soon learn that creating counterarguments is an essential part of the forecasting process, even though most forecasters never force themselves to poke holes into every single assumption and assertion they make.

Fourth, calculate the ETA.

Interpret the trend and ensure that the timing is right. This isn’t just about finding a typical S-curve and the point of inflection. As technology trends move along their trajectory, there are two forces in play—internal developments within tech companies, and external developments within the government, adjacent businesses, and the like—and both must be calculated.

Fifth, create scenarios and strategies.

Build scenarios to create probable, plausible, and possible futures and accompanying strategies. This step requires thinking about both the timeline of a technology’s development and your emotional reactions to all of the outcomes. You’ll give each scenario a score, and based on your analysis, you will create a corresponding strategy for taking action.

Sixth, pressure-test your actions.

But what if the action you choose to take on a trend is the wrong one? In this final step, you must make sure the strategy you take on a trend will deliver the desired outcome, and that requires asking difficult questions about both the present and the future.

After completing the six steps you'll have a picture of what the future of "X" may bring. From an entrepreneurial perspective you can choose to focus in on a particular segment and pursue an idea you are confident will be a relevant trend in the future.