October 21

Looking Back to the Future

The 21st October 2015 is being acclaimed across the world as Back to the Future Day; the date to which the intrepid time travellers from the second film in the franchise travelled in their converted DeLorean car. Given that the film was released in the same year in which the web was invented, its makers didn’t do a bad job of predicting the future.

Voice activated TVs, drones and smart glasses all made it out of the laboratory in time for reality to match prediction; and if today’s hover-boards are still reliant on electromagnetic rails, at least video calls and 3-D cinema have made it into the mainstream. In fact, comparing the predictions with reality, most have either come true or are at patent stage with the one standout omission being the failure to predict the smart phone.

We can’t really blame the filmmakers for missing the smartphone revolution, after all the last five years has seen the disappearance of some household names which failed to predict how innovation would disrupt their business model. And of course, this film is not alone in seeing its predictions come to fruition. Science fiction books and films are breeding grounds for new ideas; whether they just take account of the logical extension of current trends or act as a catalyst for innovative engineers. So much so, that some businesses are now starting to hire science-fiction writers to envisage the future of their industry. For example, Lowe’s hardware store in America has introduced science-fiction prototyping into its innovation lab, leading to the introduction of holorooms and self-roaming robots in some of its stores.

Whilst this approach may not suit every business, it does send out a strong message about the importance of looking beyond the boundaries to collaborate and drive future development. Businesses which are looking to build a culture of innovation can’t simply look back at the business models of the past in order to shape the future. Nor can they base their strategic plan on development being the preserve of the few, whilst the many carry on with business as usual. Collaboration is the name of the game and that means not only fostering the conditions for internal collaboration but also looking outwards to suppliers, customers and other third parties in a bid to find real solutions which will shape the future strategic development not just of the organisation but of the business sector.

It’s a concept which Jacob Morgan highlighted in a series of posts in Forbes earlier this year. He identified five innovation models which together made up a broad innovation ecosystem; namely employee innovation, customer innovation, partner/supplier innovation, competitor innovation and public innovation. Jacob’s view was that most companies still see innovation as being the preserve of the few but that…

“This type of innovation is no longer practical, scalable or effective when thinking about the future of work.”

If we sat down now to write a film about time travel and tried to look 26 years ahead, I wonder what we would come up with! Given the current pace of change and the way in which innovative disruptors are transforming entire sectors, I wonder if we would be as accurate in our predictions as those filmmakers were in 1989. But as businesses we cannot afford to live in the past. We have to be innovative and agile and collaborative in order to build cultures of innovation and shape the future to our own design.


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