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Notes from a futurist: Trends for business in 2009 and beyond


Editor’s note: This is the first of two articles presenting business predictions from the DaVinci Institute’s senior futurist. Look for the second installment next month. In a world in which systems and technologies propel changes at lightning speed, disaster came upon us like a storm, causing our financial systems to collapse. Now we face a future much like that of a damaged ship. We have been torn from our moorings and flung into a rip tide that is whisking us away to unknown seas. The disarray that we find ourselves in cries out for answers — a view to the unchartered waters that lie beyond the horizon. Here are some of mine.

Businesses that are flying executives around the world, marshalling resources to capitalize on new opportunities and working teams 24-7 to meet deadlines, face a rude awakening when they have to work with a government agency operating at a pace that makes a turtle yawn. In his recent book “Revolutionary Wealth,” futurist Alvin Toffler describes how the desynchronization of society has created more and more speed bumps along the fast lane. With a nearly unlimited set of options for circumventing anything that slows them down, systems are becoming marginalized at a record pace.

While the radical pace differential is not just between government and business, it is precisely this desynchronized relationship that is driving the disruptive changes we’re seeing around us, the most radical of which are happening on a governing level. We are first seeing a “peeling apart” of business, industry and social structures that is creating a number of vacuum spaces between the rising gaps in the social structure. While disruptive on one level, these vacuum spaces also create an array of new opportunities for business and industry.

System crisis
President Barack Obama’s team will bring fresh energy to Washington, but we will find them spending the majority of their time in a reactive mode. Many of the global systems we currently have in place are on the verge of breaking. Most global systems have evolved out of a patchwork of national systems and have not been designed to properly manage the speed, volume and excessive nature of today’s society. We need a complete systems overhaul, transitioning us from national to global systems.

National systems will fight to survive, but will flounder because of complexity overload. But if we don’t change our systems, our systems will change us. In the coming years, look for major failures to occur in our tax systems, justice systems, Social Security, monetary systems and much more. But pay close attention to the opportunities these failures will create.

The coming “Empire of One”
As a general rule, 7 percent of the recently jobless will attempt to start their own businesses. While those who enjoy breakaway success will be but a tiny fraction, we will see a strong push from entrepreneurs and a realignment of the systems that support them. With financial markets being pinched, the most popular form of startup will be the Empire of One, one-person businesses with far reaching influence. Technology is driving a trend of placing unprecedented power and capability into the hands of individuals. Coupled with skyrocketing costs of employment, this makes this a perfect environment for them to thrive. Look for rapid growth of support structures, management systems, and outsourcing options. Colleges and business schools will respond with courses on one-person entrepreneurship.

Business colonies
The movie industry has long used a project-based business model where talent swarms and forms around specific projects. Directors, cameramen, lighting specialists, scriptwriters and makeup artists convene to produce a movie or TV show. Once the project is complete, they swarm around another one. Business colonies will emerge as industry-specific incubators.

Colonies focusing on nanotech, gaming and alternative health will form in cities to serve as an industry focal point and breeding ground for startups. The colonies will be both virtual and physical, but people living close to them will derive the most benefit. Equipment that is too expensive for one person to own will be owned by the colony for all to share. Colonies will vary in size and structure as communities begin to experiment.

Smart electrical grid
In September, Google and General Electric CEOs Eric Schmidt and Jeffrey Immelt proposed a “smart” electric power grid to promote clean energy. Their plan is to create a grid that uses electricity more efficiently and generates it from cleaner sources.

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Thomas Frey

Thomas Frey is the executive director and senior futurist at the DaVinci Institute and currently Google’s top-rated futurist speaker.  At the Institute, he has developed original research studies, enabling him to speak on unusual topics, translating trends into unique opportunities. Tom continually pushes the envelope of understanding, creating fascinating images of the world to come.  His talks on futurist topics have captivated people ranging from high level of government officials to executives in Fortune 500 companies including NASA, IBM, AT&T, Hewlett-Packard, Unilever, GE, Blackmont Capital, Lucent Technologies, First Data, Boeing, Ford Motor Company, Qwest, Allied Signal, Hunter Douglas, Direct TV, Capital One, National Association of Federal Credit Unions, STAMATS, Bell Canada, American Chemical Society, Times of India, Leaders in Dubai, and many more. Before launching the DaVinci Institute, Tom spent 15 years at IBM as an engineer and designer where he received over 270 awards, more than any other IBM engineer.

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