How to Think Through Future Consumer Needs with Futurecasting

Richard Sear, Partner & SVP: Visionary Innovation & Smart Cities, Frost & Sullivan
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Richard Sear, Partner & SVP: Visionary Innovation & Smart Cities, Frost & Sullivan

Richard Sear, Partner & SVP: Visionary Innovation & Smart Cities, Frost & Sullivan

The nature of the future consumer is constantly and rapidly evolving, something partially driven by the parallel force of increased computing capabilities. This evolution fundamentally changes the why and how we, as consumers, approach a multitude of life events on a daily basis.

For example, according to nudge theory, technology often challenges us to take a different route home or it affects us with behavioral analytics every time we log in to Facebook. In a recent survey by my team, more than 75 percent of respondents reported some to significant acceleration in the pace of innovation. This illustrates that companies mostly acknowledge a rapid pace of change. The question remains do they act on this? Evidence may be in the presence of a Chief Innovation Officer. Only 19 percent report having a Chief Innovation Officer suggesting that whilst we may see change being rapid, companies still struggle to formalize or institutionalize a process for tackling this.

Because of this constant consumer evolution, simple classifications such as those according to economic status are no longer specific enough. Combining this social reality with increasing technology complexity and econometric principles makes it challenging for companies to clearly articulate a strategic plan. It requires a more robust methodology to adequately understand the issues that matter to future consumers, those that do not, and what to then do about them.

The future must first be addressed in a holistic way. We understand the tendency to explore specifics early—a natural human reaction is to be specific, be early, and acquire knowledge that aligns with the preconceived ideals or assessments. This is especially the case in the IT environment where our initial reaction is most often a “tech first” solution. Our assertion is to instead use a process that removes as much of our innate bias as possible and relies on a five-pronged process to achieve success in innovation. We call this futurecasting.

Futurecasting models what it will feel like to live in the future.  It is an effects-based model that picks a specific timeframe—it could be 1, 3, 5, 10, or over 15 years into the future—and synthesizes a wide array of qualitative and quantitative research inputs to explore an actionable vision for the future.

The process seeks out experts who provide research data and opinions, but the framework also depends upon you and the people inside your team or organization. These participants synthesize the research and develop models for their future. It is critical that you own the processes that will help you conceive of your organization's future. Below, we have outlined the steps we follow for futurecasting and encourage you to ask yourself how you approach making a decision and whether you incorporate and consider these steps.

The first step in the futurecasting process is to gather a deep scientific understanding of people. We begin with an understanding of people and how they live their lives. This is not about understanding the number of millennials or the Hispanic composition of America, for example, it is about understanding the motivating factors behind their actions. Why do people live, love, and learn?

The one thing we know for sure about the future is that we will have more technology, and so the second step in the futurecasting process is to explore the technical capabilities of technology in the future as far out as we reasonably can. We do this through exhaustive research, including interviews with companies, universities, governments, and militaries. With this information, we ask ourselves:  how can we use these technological capabilities to make the lives of people better? This could equate to material technology research, food science, and digital technology.

Once we have an understanding of how people will live in the future and how we can use technology to make their lives better, we need to begin to model what the world will look like.  This is the “math of the future” and is the third step. Understanding regulations, economic environments, and issues such as trade policies provide the rules by which humans and technology may thrive. It is an essential piece of the futurecasting process.

It is helpful to get an external understanding of what the world will look like in the future so that we can place our people and technologies in that world.  This fourth step brings in external experts who can stretch our thinking, because challenging our model and outcomes is critical to self-awareness of internal limitations. This typically gives us “gates” and “flags” to add into our process. These act as checkpoints along the way that indicate if our futurecasting is progressing or if we need to adjust the model. 

Finally in step five, you should visualize your end output, whether that is a video, a day in the life story, or a full physical prototype. Visualizing creates an emotional reaction, which is the ultimate check on your progress. Bringing innovation to life early is a heavily underestimated element of the methodology.

The end result of the futurecasting process should be a well-documented vision for the future of X. Our suggestion is to tightly define X. It can be a market (such as passenger cars in Brazil), it can be an industry (such as the food manufacturing space in China), or it can be a specific product (such as the future of tires).  Following the specific steps of the above process should create a more complete and detailed view of what you face, a clear desired outcome, and the necessary steps to bring about that future. Assessing these issues on a quarterly basis and giving yourself permission to think this way will result in successful solutions that will add tremendous value to your internal and external customers. We wish you every success.

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