Since the beginning of time, our natural instinct has always been to create new things in the image of old things. This is one of the main barriers preventing us from making the next leap to how technology can transform our lives and our businesses. When all we see in front of us is a straight line projected from our past, we’re actually missing a huge part of the picture.

Here’s an example to illustrate the point. Driverless cars are an extraordinary technological development. There have been some amazing test cases that help cement their place in our minds as the ‘future of transportation’. But in reality, I would argue that driverless cars are a pretty obvious progression that are steeped in our past rather than our future and as a result I am yet to be convinced that they are in fact, the future of driving. 

The latest estimates show that the development of fully autonomous driving – where all of the driving not just the motorway miles and the parking – is done by the car and not the driver is still a long way off. Recent data indicates that it won’t be until 2040 when 50 per cent of all miles driven are driven autonomously, and it won’t be until 2070 where that number reaches 100 per cent.

Just think about that for a moment. Think about what else might have happened by that moment in time.I wonder if in 2070 we will still be thinking that the best way to move people around in our society is inside a robotic metal box with wheels.

Essentially, all that’s happened is that people have predicted the future of automotive transportation by simply looking at the past, linking it to what we do today in the present and connecting the two points together such that the line can be extrapolated to give them the answer for the future.

The age of the drone

But that approach is really narrow-minded. It implies that nothing else will happen that may affect or supersede this development.History has shown us that this is almost never the case especially over the long term. Do we really think that by 2070 we won’t have found a better mode of transportation than the car (automated or not)?

People are already working on drones to deliver packages, how long is it before someone realises that a human being is just a bigger (and in my case, much heavier) package and we can then embark on a new route of personal autonomous drones? And what of the hover board, or the flying car or let’s be honest, why on earth are we still looking at this in terms of vehicles when surely the answer is the StarTrek teleporter?

The trick for making your own predictions is to remember that the future of anything is rarely ever a straight line, instead it’s a lot more like a pinball, bouncing from bumper to bumper where each interaction imparts a slightly different direction and opportunity. The art lies in being able to take a really broad view of the environment that you are focused on and to look for additional factors and influences that may impart a new direction, opportunity or risk.

This process has a lot in common with the alchemists of old. They were misunderstood and judged by their societal peers as dreamers or occultists who thought that it was magic not science that held the answers to life, the universe and everything. This could not have been further from the truth. The key attribute possessed by most alchemists was merely their ability to see the future differently.Quite simply, these were people who were able to separate what ‘is’ from what ‘could be’ such that they could look beyond the current form or function to be able to see new applications or potential.

From alchemy to science

It is always worth remembering that many of history’s greatest scientists started out as alchemists, and it was only through their hard work and tenacity that history showed their theories to be right such that they would finally be welcomed into the clinical, binary world of science’s hall of fame.

Robert Boyle, the father of chemistry, was an alchemist first and a chemist second. Isaac Newton the genius who quantified gravitational attraction, discovered the component colours of white light and the calculus, also spent more than 30 years recording over a million words on the subject of alchemy allegedly in pursuit of the philosopher’s stone.What both Boyle and Newton intrinsically knew and ultimately discovered is that sometimes the logical answers are best found out by illogical means.

I think we are entering a new period in the history of alchemy only this time it is in the transformational nature of technology rather than metals where we need to divine some magic.

Now more than ever our organisations (and our society) need a new generation of alchemists; people who can see new potential in old things. But, unlike their historical predecessors, we should not make fun or ostracise them when they make bold attempts to achieve great things that are ultimately doomed to fail but we should instead congratulate them for their audacity.

Dave Coplin

Dave Coplin is Chief Envisioning Officer for Microsoft UK

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