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The futurist: 44 mind-blowing "situational futuring" scenarios

(Editor's note: This is the first of two parts.)

Last week, I got into a discussion with a friend about the concept of self-contained water. If you think in terms of picking up a bottle of water, only without the bottle, you get the picture.

Rocks are self-contained, baseballs are self-contained, so why can’t we devise some way to make water self-contained? Yes, we have ice, but I’m referring to a more usable form of water.

As an example, if water itself could be used to form a somewhat hardened skin around a small quantity of water, we could create 100 percent consumable water with zero waste.

An industrial design team in London has come the closest with something called “Ooho,” a blob-like water container made out of an edible algae membrane. While it still involves using something other than water, it does give us clues on how to make a container out of what we’re trying to contain, in this case water. 

As we imagine our way through this design problem, many more questions come to light. Should it be flexible like a plastic bag or a bit more ridged like a typical water bottle? What is the ideal shape? Should it be a cube for easy stacking, have a handle for easy holding, or spherical just because it looks cool?

Even a container made of water will get dirty, so how do we clean the dirt from the side of a solid water container? More water?

More importantly, what is the optimal size for a self-contained water container? Should it be cup-sized, quart-sized, gallon-sized, or larger? Or maybe marble-sized or pea-sized water pellets would work best. 

Should the water be “eaten” like tiny liquid snacks that could be popped into your mouth at any time? Perhaps we would want flavored water like cherry water, tea water, coffee water, or chocolate water. 

Maybe we don’t actually eat or drink the container. Once the inside water is gone, it may be possible to just discard the bottle onto a lawn or flowerbed, as a form of enviro-littering, and wait for it to re-liquefy, sending a few drops of moisture to the thirsty plants below. 

How would we fabricate the container part of water? Would it somehow be molded, pressed, 3D printed or simply sprayed onto a form? 

The process I’ve just described is what I call “situational futuring,” where we begin to explore the implications of some future technology. Here’s how this can be used as an effective futuring tool. 

Situational Futuring

Much like dropping a rock into still water and watching the ripples form in every direction, situational futuring begins with a central idea, which grows into a series of rippling thoughts, issues, and questions expanding in every direction.

Unlike the study of macro or megatrends, situational futuring is a micro-futuring process that begins with a single invention, tiny idea, or what-if condition and expands from there.

The process begins with an initial scenario and asking some of the standard who-what-when-where-how-and-why questions. Probing deeper, questions formulated around things like timing, monetary implications, disruptive effects, symbiotic partners, who-wins-who-loses, wild cards, policy changes, and strange bedfellows will help expand your thinking even further.

This works particularly well in a brainstorming environment where thoughts and ideas can be quickly sketched out, described, or clarified so more can be added.

Inside these moments of micro-futuring is where the real treasures live. Companies wishing to expand their product line, service agencies seeking to streamline their processes, or design engineers wishing to gain a new perspective will all find this to be a valuable tool.

44 Examples of Situational Futuring

It all starts with the initial idea, so here are some examples of starting points designed to begin the conversational thread of situational futuring.

1. 3D Ice Printers  A 3D printer designed to work exclusively with ice could be used to make ice sculptures, ice containers, ice cubes with your favorite liquor inside, ice logos for companies, and much more.

2. Water Harvesting Irrigation Spikes – Will it someday be possible to add atmospheric water harvesting ground-spikes next to every plant or tree in our garden? These devices will pull water from the air to irrigate nearby plants.

3. Quantified Self Skills Analysis – As employers lose confidence in traditional transcripts and college degrees as a predictor of success, they will turn towards more sophisticated attribute-matching systems for sorting through the ultra-granular quantifiable-self and finding the closest fit. People who don’t make the shortlist for a job opening will be given an auto-generated overview of their skill deficiencies and ways to improve upon them.


4. Real-Time Healthcare Monitors – Rather than doing the snapshot-in-time testing that doctors do today, analyses will increasing be made in real-time through sensor networks that pull data over an extended period of time from our skin, organs, and even our brain as these tools evolve into hyper-analytical portals into our own metabolism.

5. Wireless Power Will having users linked to wireless power networks in the future be similar to linking to Wi-Fi networks today?

6. Swarmbots – Groups of flying drones that move like flocks of birds, schools of fish, or swarms of bees have become known as swarmbots. How long will it be before we see the newspaper headline that reads: “10,000 tiny flying swarmbots perform flawlessly together?”

7. Cure for Aging Life expectancy is getting longer, but the usefulness of the human body has traditionally maxed out somewhere around 120. Will it someday be possible to find a cure for aging?

8. Driverless Cars How long will it be before we see the first highway in the U.S. to be designated as a “driverless-cars only” highway?

9. Space Colonies In what year will there be an election for the first President of the Moon?

10. Billion-Cam Video Project – What kind of business will be needed to connect 1 billion live video cameras to the Internet? What can a billion-cam network do that a million-cam network can’t?

11. Centralized Law Project – Very few countries have their laws posted in a central repository. In the U.S. the laws, rules, and regulations are so numerous and obscure that few people know what laws are governing them at any given moment. How would that change if all laws were required to be posted on one central online website?

12. Dream Recorder It’s easy to forget our dreams, even before we wake up. Is it possible to create a “hit-play-to-record” device that would allow us to visually or mentally archive our dreams?

13. Reviving the Extinct Species – Should extinct species be brought back to life? If so, where would they live, and who would manage their existence?

14. Self-Cleaning House – This long-time dream of housewives is finally within reach as smart home technology, combined with the Internet of Things, begins to invade our lives. What are the current missing pieces and what technology could be used to fill the gaps?

15. Animal Communicator – With early stage natural language translators already in existence for humans, the next step will be a technology that bridges the communication gap between humans and animals. Will this ever be possible and how would this affect our human-animal relationships?

16. Global Elections When will we see the first global election with over 500 million people voting from at least 50 different countries? Will they be voting for a person, or voting on an issue? If it’s a person, what position will that person be running for? And, if it’s an issue, what issue will be so compelling that everyone wants to vote on it?

17. Human Cloning Science fiction movies often show cloned bodies grown over a long period of time. But 3D printing of replacement bodies will likely be a quicker option. How long will it be before someone 3D prints their own replacement body, and what are the implications of this kind of technology?

18. Space Based Power Stations – The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) recently announced its 25-year plan to build the world’s first 1-gigawatt power plant in space. Is it possible that another country will build one before Japan, and what effect will this have on today’s power industry?

19. Your Future Self How much, and in what ways, should you invest in the person you will become 5-10 years from now? What are some different ways for you to quantify the return on your investment?

20. Future Countries  One hundred years from now, will we have more countries in the world or less? Will it someday be possible to create micro-nation states, and how could they be leveraged to influence global thinking?

21. The Age of the Dismantler – Every industry will eventually end, and this requires talented people who know how to scale things back and dismantle things in an orderly fashion. How long will it be before we begin a full-scale effort to dismantle the national power grid?

22. Controlling Weather – Weather control technology is still in its infancy. In what year will we see the first hurricane stopped by human intervention and what is the technology that will be used?

Tomorrow: The other 22

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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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