Visions of the Future

I’ve just read an interesting report of future 2020 scenarios on cyber security put together by an esoteric institute called the International Cyber Security Protection Alliance (ICSPA). I don’t know who they are but they have some excellent chaps such as John Lyons and the Right Honourable David Blunkett MP on board. It’s a fascinating read and a valiant attempt to visualise life in the next decade and beyond. As a keen futurist I applaud such exercises but cannot help but see them with critical eyes.

Many attempts to predict the future fall into the trap of imagining the future as an exaggerated version of present trends, rather than taking a step back and trying to identify the real blockers, enablers and catalysts of the current and emerging drivers and trends. This one falls into a similar trap of extrapolating the present rather than imagining a different future.

Personally I find that 2020 is a hard call. I can generally see the next 18 months and imagine life a decade Or two away. But very little changes in five or six years. As even Bill Gates has noted we tend to overestimate the changes that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the changes that will occur in the next ten.

In the ICSPA report we see mention of attacks on critical infrastructure, augmented reality and the Internet of things. Yet these possibilities have been around and viable for the last two decades. SCADA systems have been vulnerable (and hacked) since the time they were first introduced. Augmented reality is based on a technology worn continuously by Thad Starner for two decades. And the Internet of things is little more than a rather lacklustre adaption of Neil Gershenfeld‘s pioneering visions at MIT Media Lab in the 1990s. 

Why did these technologies not materialise in the past? It’s a good question, and it represents one of the keys to understanding the future. Augmented reality has been a reality since the turn of century but has not caught on. There’s clearly a major blocker. It may be cost, health and safety or a combination of both. Attacks on critical infrastructure have been possible for decades but the threat has not materialised (and I’m sure it will be well and truly mitigated as soon as a 9/11 type incident occurs). The Internet of things is a wonderful field for imaginative speculation but the business case and reality lags very far behind.

It’s good however to stretch the minds of executives with far-fetched scenarios of the future. People tend to suspend their disbelief when contemplating fictional visions and accounts. The Royal Dutch/Shell Group has been exploiting this phenomenon for around forty years. It works. But it’s a lot more effective when it’s accurate. 

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