SXSW: Futurist Lee Shupp Explains How Uncertainty Pays Off
Plenty of people make their living by predicting the next big thing, but few have as much rigor and experience as Lee Shupp. With a graduate degree in future research from the University of Houston, Shupp actually trained for his field and currently applies it as a consultant for Cheskin Added Value.
Sitting down for an exclusive Q&A at the South by Southwest music, film and interactive technology conference , Shupp talked to InnovationNewsDaily about new trends in consumerism, the next big technological breakthrough and what a futurist actually does.
InnovationNewsDaily: Lee, we've spoken to a lot of people who think about the future, but you might be the only one specifically trained in futurism. What exactly does that entail?
Shupp: Futurists try to understand change that hasn't happened yet. Historians look at change in the past, journalists look at change in the present, futurists look at change in the future. It's not predictive. Most people are trained to ignore uncertainty. Futurists flip that on its head: We look at what we don't know and formulate possibilities off those pivot points.
INO: When you give these predictions, how many jumps into the future can you make? Do you try to analyze third- and fourth-order effects?
Shupp: There's always a trade-off between complexity and clarity. A couple of different futurist tools are matrices of four or six or eight options. Anything more than that and it gets too complex.
INO: When your clients come to you, business or individuals, what are they looking for? A crystal ball?
Shupp: Most clients are looking to make money. [Laughs.] They want to make product development more efficient and also predict where the culture is going . There is a whole wasteland of technologies released before their time, and we try to figure out the right time. Good futurists shy away from predictions; we talk about alternatives.
INO: Well, in that case, let's look at some alternatives. From a consumer perspective, what's the biggest change going on right now, and what are some of its possible effects?
Shupp: There's some deep cultural shifts going on right now. One of the things I've been thinking about lately is collaborative consumptions. Car shares such as Zipcar, etc. If we stay in a slow-growth economy, we could see a better management of resources. It changes how we have to think about space use, about distribution; it's a whole new business model.
[With collaborative consumption], a drill can just float around the neighborhood instead of sitting in a garage all year except for the couple times of year you use it. Of course, Black & Decker might not be happy about that, because then they sell fewer drills.
INO: And from a tech perspective, what's the next big thing?
Shupp: The mobile phone is really the central computing device in people's lives. Big companies like Microsoft missed this because they had so much invested in desktops. Your phone will become the hub for any computing activities. It's going to be the remote control for the world. How it behaves will depend on the context of use.
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