Top Trends That Made Us Sit Up And Take Notice In 2016

Geetika Tripathi

Socially, politically, and economically, 2016 brought significant changes across the world. From a location-based augmented reality game and self-navigating vehicles to a distributed database providing unprecedented digital security and factories powered by connected machines, people, processes, and products, a variety of technology megatrends has forever changed how we run businesses and engage with each other and with the brands we love.

Here are a few of the tech trends that took us by storm:

1. Augmented reality (AR)

What happens when the real world is boosted by significant, relevant information? There is greater meaning in everything we do and experience.

Different hardware, software, and algorithms came together to make AR a complete experience. There are countless ways in which it can be utilized – such as education, gaming, medicine, navigation, and aerospace and defense.

2. Artificial intelligence and machine learning

Without a doubt, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning are simmering entities in the modern context of Big Data, analytics, and the overall digital revolution. AI, in layman’s terms, infuses human intelligence as machines and computers run processes. As an offshoot of AI, machine learning allows devices and computers to gradually learn and make sense of data without being explicitly programmed to do something.

AI and machine learning are opening a host of opportunities to learn and experiment such as medicine, legal services, social advertising, news media, biotechnology, and unbiased recruitment.

3. Advanced collaborative analytics

For years, basic business intelligence and tools have enabled people of all roles to analyze data and derive trends, generate reports, or access useful information. However, with the advent of advanced and collaborative analytics, it is now possible to create predictive and prescriptive insights out of the zillions of buckets of data that is now generated every day from various sources.

The induction of collaboration into the field of analytics helps ensure that processes no longer contain data silos by incorporating information sharing, iteration, and cooperation to achieve common goals.

4. Blockchain

Bitcoin, as crypto-currency, has been quite popular over the past few years for several reasons – both right and wrong. However, the real value of this innovation lies in the public distribution ledger called blockchain.

The distributed network keeps the ledger secure as transactions are marked permanent and no central authority is required. This technology has the potential to change how we manage everything from stocks, digital assets, and financial services to cloud storage, voting, and legislation.

5. Autonomous driving

2016 is the year self-driving cars shifted gears and took to the wheel. Although many are still conceptual, autonomous vehicles have caught the attention of the commuting public in all the right ways and for all the right reasons.

From Tesla and Google to Audi and Volvo, technology giants and automakers are taking the plunge in this driverless realm. These autonomous vehicles do not require human input since they thrive on built-in intelligence to sense the surroundings and navigate through several technologies such as GPS, Sonar, Lidar, and powerful cameras.

The sooner the concept turns into reality, the entire business model and supply chain could be revolutionized. With the rising number of car accidents suggesting that humans are not necessarily the best drivers, the day might not be far when non-texting, non-drinking, robotic self-driving substitutes will take over the wheel.

6. Smart factories

The inception of Industry 4.0 pivoting around cyber-physical systems, the Internet of Things, and the cloud is transforming the manufacturing industry. No longer will plant floors operate in isolation. Instead, every part and process – from the turn of the tiniest cog to the analysis of profit in the boardroom – will be connected.

With ample research and setups in progress, the factory of the future is closer than what we think. By leveraging various systems and technologies, with state-of-the-art integration and hyperconnectivity, companies can find reliable solutions for delivering higher productivity, lower costs, increased profit, greater security, and improved product quality.

What effect will these trends have on our lives in future? What are the pros and cons? What novel fads will 2017 bring? We’ll need to keep our eyes, minds, and imaginations open to let the technology breeze waft in and reveal the possibilities.

For more insight on future tech, see Gartner’s Top 10 Tech Trends You Can’t Afford To Ignore In 2017.

Image credit: pixabay.com

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Geetika Tripathi

About Geetika Tripathi

My association with SAP is eight wonderful years. I have a disposition for the latest technological trends and a fascination for all the digital buzz apart from the world of process orchestration, cloud, and platforms.

Three Ways Advanced Technology Is Making Us More Creative In Business

Melissa Di Donato

Technology has changed the way we live and work in ways previously unimaginable. Innovation in areas such as artificial intelligence (AI), cloud technology, and Big Data enables us to run faster, jump higher, and dream bigger.

In my role at SAP, I see examples every day of how these technologies are making industries smarter, better, and faster. However, while efficiency gains are incredibly important, these technologies also open up opportunities for innovation as well as give room for creativity – both of which are key for companies that want to grow and succeed in today’s digital and technologized world. In my opinion, there are quite a few areas for which technological advancements are particularly important. It is these advancements that lay the runway to foster new ideas and propel businesses forward. The following are the areas I’m thinking of.

Automation of routine tasks gives room for exploration

Robotics and AI technology have been critical in helping businesses automate routine, monotonous tasks. While many have feared the implications of AI on the job market, we are seeing that AI and automation actually provide new opportunities for employees. Thanks to these new technologies, employees can spend a much larger amount of their working time focusing on advancing their own skills – which is not only great for the employees themselves but, in consequence, just as beneficial to their overall work quality. As I discussed in an interview with Cloud Computing News, technology gives us the power as a society to improve the value and skillset of each individual. By giving employees the time needed to focus on exploration and skills advancement, organizations can better than ever foster innovation and ultimately drive business success.

Democratizing access to data

Advances in data analytics and visualization have broken down the barriers that often existed between IT, on the one hand, and all other departments of an enterprise on the other. No longer than a decade ago, it could take IT departments weeks, if not months or years, to analyze data and deliver insights and reporting to the departments that had asked for it. Working on that data provided by IT would then consume yet another few weeks. This would be impossible today, given our quickly changing digitized world! We are lucky enough to have visualization dashboards and graphs today that make it easier for all of us to understand and work with data, but there is still room for more openness, and agile data flows throughout an enterprise.

We all know, and some of us use, natural language-processing applications like Siri and Alexa in our private lives: They are great in that they give us much easier access to information, for example by “reading” a recipe to us, or even by entertaining our guests with some soft jazz or jokes. In today’s fast-paced digitized business world, though, these voice-enabled devices have the potential to ease access to data. You can easily think of a CFO asking for real-time revenue figures during a board meeting, or an HR team looking at employee hiring trends ahead of an interview. No matter which business situation comes to your mind, data is becoming more accessible across the enterprise, at a faster pace than ever, no matter the data’s complexity. This newly won ease in using data opens up opportunities for innovation and creative thinking in every department and at every level. I’m absolutely convinced that innovation, paired with creativity, is key to succeed in the digitalized business.

Empowering flexibility, scalability, and innovation in the cloud

The digitalization of our economy has made digital transformation and cloud a must-have for businesses. Hosting technology in the cloud not only allows companies to scale their businesses easily and instantly, it also fosters an environment where organizations can explore new technologies and applications. It is the cloud that gives organizations the chance to think out of the box every day. Again, it is the cloud that makes it possible to try out newly developed innovations instantly, which – once the innovations have proved themselves successful – allows companies to push new solutions into the market and adapt rapidly. This is the flexibility companies need to beat their competitors and be (or become) market leaders.

Let me sum up my basic thoughts now: Advancements in AI, data analytics, and cloud are completely transforming how (and where) we work. With more data, time, accessibility, and convenience, we can much more easily connect, expand our knowledge, and keep drumming up new ideas that contribute to our business’ momentum. With cloud technology increasing teamwork, streamlining and uniting business goals, and crowdsourcing ideas that help make organizations smarter, you don’t have to wait long to see creativity skyrocket. As we all know, where there is productivity, efficiency, and creativity – success is only one step away!

For more information, visit SAP S/4HANA Cloud on SAP.com.

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Melissa Di Donato

About Melissa Di Donato

Melissa is the Chief Revenue Officer for SAP ERP Cloud. Prior to SAP, Melissa was the Area Vice President at salesforce.com for EMEA and APAC and has spent more than 20 years in technology as a leader in the digital space delivering innovative and transformative enterprise cloud solutions for customers around the globe. She is dedicated to building high performing sales teams, ensuring diversity across the business and developing multi-channel go to market strategies.

Want Disruptive Change? There’s An Algorithm For That (Or Soon Will Be)

Jessica Schubert

Trust me – it’s not you. Our world really is more unpredictable than ever. Even the best-laid strategies are being disrupted, whether they are focused on the workplace’s culture, technical environment, market dynamics, customer behavior, or business processes. But central to these uncertainties is one constant: an algorithm guiding every step along the evolutionary trail to digital transformation.

“Each company has a predictable algorithm that’s driving its business model,” said Sathya Narasimhan, senior director for Partner Business Development at SAP, on a live episode of Coffee Break with Game Changers Radio, presented by SAP and produced and moderated by SAP’s Bonnie D. Graham. “When we understand how data affects outcomes and bring sensor data online, it’s easier for the infrastructure to process this information to create additional insights,” she explained. Sathya was joined on the program by a panel of thought leaders featuring Darwin Deano, principal at Deloitte Consulting LLP, and Patricia Florissi, global CTO for Dell EMC Sales.

This observation is very telling of the predictive power of algorithms. Think about it: Amazon proposes what should be in your shopping cart. Netflix recommends the next movie you should watch. Google is serving up ads that tug at your heart (and wallet). And all of this wouldn’t be possible without an algorithm running in the background that predicts what people want, how they behave, and what will influence their actions.

Click to listen to the full episode.

Digital technology nears a tipping point – toward enlightenment

Smart business leaders know that tomorrow’s competitive edge requires rapid innovation across their organization today. Machine learning, Internet of Things, artificial intelligence, blockchain, analytics, and Big Data – there are so many choices available. And businesses have a great opportunity now to begin figuring out how to harness and invest in them.

Patricia believes that this reality may soon reach a tipping point as data volumes continue to swell. “We are entering an enlightened age where there is so much data and computing and processing power that we can infer that our quality of life will fundamentally improve,” she observed.

Recent disruption in agriculture certainly proves Patricia’s point. Although the Internet of Things has been around for 20 years, farmers and their suppliers are just starting to capitalize on the generated data because the power needed to process and analyze it has finally arrived. Now, farmers are collecting and analyzing data generated from GPS and sensors buried in the field soil and embedded in farming equipment to improve crop yields and resource use. This is a significant advancement as farmers find new ways to increase food production – possibly by as much as 70% – to keep pace with a global population that is projected to grow from 7.6 billion today to 9 billion by 2050.

Darwin added that technology is now so affordable that the digital landscape is “starting to see patterns emerge, where some archetypes are beginning to develop as the technology matures.”

The predictive power of algorithms and humans drives business outcomes

One of the best examples of the maturing landscape of technology and algorithms is the current state of artificial intelligence and deep learning.

“Artificial intelligence has evolved, especially with deep learning, to teach computers or to help computers automatically learn how we do things and what we do without being told the rules,” Patricia commented. “The more data being observed, the more patterns can be detected and the more accurate the generalization.”

However, Darwin cautioned against heavy reliance on this technology. “We need to protect ourselves against the erosion of basic cognitive skills, which can be an unintended side effect,” he warned. With cognitive technology, people must have rapid interpretation and response, and algorithms may not always be able to satisfy that need. Humans must maintain the cognitive skills required to do this themselves.

Whether employees have the processing speed and full insight they need to make decisions boils down to a company’s willingness to invest in capabilities required to get work done effectively. “I have realized, after spending the last six years assessing developing strategies for various companies, that businesses gain market share and grow faster because of the investments they make to improve the predictive power of their algorithms,” mentioned Sathya.

The future of algorithms: blockchain, humanity, and ecosystems

As technology and processing power become more mature and powerful, new opportunities for digital innovation will inevitably emerge in the near future.

For Sathya, this future hinges on the arrival of blockchain as a mainstream technology. “We are likely entering an environment where we are relying on fewer regulations and less government interference in how businesses work. To ensure that this new paradigm does not undermine the standard of living of people and the society they live in, multiple parties – such as manufacturers, suppliers, financial services, customers, and government – will need to work together in a way that is less intrusive, more efficient and transparent, and trusted and secure.”

Darwin believes that this change will bring about a new renaissance. “We’re talking about humans being replaced by artificial intelligence, machine learning, and the Internet of Things. However, technology automated to the nth degree will actually free us from acting like technology zombies always engaged with smartphones.”

Patricia anticipates that Sathya’s and Darwin’s predictions will eventually bring about an era of optimized ecosystems and innovative models. “Companies that learn how to nurture, cultivate, and enable vibrant ecosystems, platforms, and new business models will be the digital beginners,” she said. “They are redefining how transactions are conducted and the currency used. Ultimately, the ecosystem, cross-education, and cross-pollination will be key to their transformation.”

Listen to the SAP Radio show “Future-Proof Your Business: Digital Solutions Now!” on demand.

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Jessica Schubert

About Jessica Schubert

Jessica Schubert is the director of Global Partner Marketing, Deloitte Alliance Lead, at SAP. Her specialties include strategic partnerships, business alliances, go-to-market strategy, product marketing, and demand generation.

Why Strategic Plans Need Multiple Futures

By Dan Wellers, Kai Goerlich, and Stephanie Overby , Kai Goerlich and Stephanie Overby

When members of Lowe’s Innovation Labs first began talking with the home improvement retailer’s senior executives about how disruptive technologies would affect the future, the presentations were well received but nothing stuck.

“We’d give a really great presentation and everyone would say, ‘Great job,’ but nothing would really happen,” says Amanda Manna, head of narratives and partnerships for the lab.

The team realized that it needed to ditch the PowerPoints and try something radical. The team’s leader, Kyle Nel, is a behavioral scientist by training. He knows people are wired to receive new information best through stories. Sharing far-future concepts through narrative, he surmised, could unlock hidden potential to drive meaningful change.

So Nel hired science fiction writers to pen the future in comic book format, with characters and a narrative arc revealed pane by pane.

The first storyline, written several years before Oculus Rift became a household name, told the tale of a couple envisioning their kitchen renovation using virtual reality headsets. The comic might have been fun and fanciful, but its intent was deadly serious. It was a vision of a future in which Lowe’s might solve one of its long-standing struggles: the approximately US$70 billion left on the table when people are unable to start a home improvement project because they can’t envision what it will look like.

When the lab presented leaders with the first comic, “it was like a light bulb went on,” says Manna. “Not only did they immediately understand the value of the concept, they were convinced that if we didn’t build it, someone else would.”

Today, Lowe’s customers in select stores can use the HoloRoom How To virtual reality tool to learn basic DIY skills in an interactive and immersive environment.

Other comics followed and were greeted with similar enthusiasm—and investment, where possible. One tells the story of robots that help customers navigate stores. That comic spawned the LoweBot, which roamed the aisles of several Lowe’s stores during a pilot program in California and is being evaluated to determine next steps.

And the comic about tools that can be 3D-printed in space? Last year, Lowe’s partnered with Made in Space, which specializes in making 3D printers that can operate in zero gravity, to install the first commercial 3D printer in the International Space Station, where it was used to make tools and parts for astronauts.

The comics are the result of sending writers out on an open-ended assignment, armed with trends, market research, and other input, to envision what home improvement planning might look like in the future or what the experience of shopping will be in 10 years. The writers come back with several potential story ideas in a given area and work collaboratively with lab team members to refine it over time.

The process of working with writers and business partners to develop the comics helps the future strategy team at Lowe’s, working under chief development officer Richard D. Maltsbarger, to inhabit that future. They can imagine how it might play out, what obstacles might surface, and what steps the company would need to take to bring that future to life.

Once the final vision hits the page, the lab team can clearly envision how to work backward to enable the innovation. Importantly, the narrative is shared not only within the company but also out in the world. It serves as a kind of “bat signal” to potential technology partners with capabilities that might be required to make it happen, says Manna. “It’s all part of our strategy for staking a claim in the future.”

Planning must become completely oriented toward—and sourced from—the future.

Companies like Lowe’s are realizing that standard ways of planning for the future won’t get them where they need to go. The problem with traditional strategic planning is that the approach, which dates back to the 1950s and has remained largely unchanged since then, is based on the company’s existing mission, resources, core competencies, and competitors.

Yet the future rarely looks like the past. What’s more, digital technology is now driving change at exponential rates. Companies must be able to analyze and assess the potential impacts of the many variables at play, determine the possible futures they want to pursue, and develop the agility to pivot as conditions change along the way.

This is why planning must become completely oriented toward—and sourced from—the future, rather than from the past or the present. “Every winning strategy is based on a compelling insight, but most strategic planning originates in today’s marketplace, which means the resulting plans are constrained to incremental innovation,” says Bob Johansen, distinguished fellow at the Institute for the Future. “Most corporate strategists and CEOs are just inching their way to the future.” (Read more from Bob Johansen in the Thinkers story, “Fear Factor.”)

Inching forward won’t cut it anymore. Half of the S&P 500 organizations will be replaced over the next decade, according to research company Innosight. The reason? They can’t see the portfolio of possible futures, they can’t act on them, or both. Indeed, when SAP conducts future planning workshops with clients, we find that they usually struggle to look beyond current models and assumptions and lack clear ideas about how to work toward radically different futures.

Companies that want to increase their chances of long-term survival are incorporating three steps: envisioning, planning for, and executing on possible futures. And doing so all while the actual future is unfolding in expected and unexpected ways.

Those that pull it off are rewarded. A 2017 benchmarking report from the Strategic Foresight Research Network (SFRN) revealed that vigilant companies (those with the most mature processes for identifying, interpreting, and responding to factors that induce change) achieved 200% greater market capitalization growth and 33% higher profitability than the average, while the least mature companies experienced negative market-cap growth and had 44% lower profitability.

Looking Outside the Margins

“Most organizations lack sufficient capacity to detect, interpret, and act on the critically important but weak and ambiguous signals of fresh threats or new opportunities that emerge on the periphery of their usual business environment,” write George S. Day and Paul J. H. Schoemaker in their book Peripheral Vision.

But that’s exactly where effective future planning begins: examining what is happening outside the margins of day-to-day business as usual in order to peer into the future.

Business leaders who take this approach understand that despite the uncertainties of the future there are drivers of change that can be identified and studied and actions that can be taken to better prepare for—and influence—how events unfold.

That starts with developing foresight, typically a decade out. Ten years, most future planners agree, is the sweet spot. “It is far enough out that it gives you a bit more latitude to come up with a broader way to the future, allowing for disruption and innovation,” says Brian David Johnson, former chief futurist for Intel and current futurist in residence at Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination. “But you can still see the light from it.”

The process involves gathering information about the factors and forces—technological, business, sociological, and industry or ecosystem trends—that are effecting change to envision a range of potential impacts.

Seeing New Worlds

Intel, for example, looks beyond its own industry boundaries to envision possible future developments in adjacent businesses in the larger ecosystem it operates in. In 2008, the Intel Labs team, led by anthropologist Genevieve Bell, determined that the introduction of flexible glass displays would open up a whole new category of foldable consumer electronic devices.

To take advantage of that advance, Intel would need to be able to make silicon small enough to fit into some imagined device of the future. By the time glass manufacturer Corning unveiled its ultra-slim, flexible glass surface for mobile devices, laptops, televisions, and other displays of the future in 2012, Intel had already created design prototypes and kicked its development into higher gear. “Because we had done the future casting, we were already imagining how people might use flexible glass to create consumer devices,” says Johnson.

Because future planning relies so heavily on the quality of the input it receives, bringing in experts can elevate the practice. They can come from inside an organization, but the most influential insight may come from the outside and span a wide range of disciplines, says Steve Brown, a futurist, consultant, and CEO of BaldFuturist.com who worked for Intel Labs from 2007 to 2016.

Companies may look to sociologists or behaviorists who have insight into the needs and wants of people and how that influences their actions. Some organizations bring in an applied futurist, skilled at scanning many different forces and factors likely to coalesce in important ways (see Do You Need a Futurist?).

Do You Need a Futurist?

Most organizations need an outsider to help envision their future. Futurists are good at looking beyond the big picture to the biggest picture.

Business leaders who want to be better prepared for an uncertain and disruptive future will build future planning as a strategic capability into their organizations and create an organizational culture that embraces the approach. But working with credible futurists, at least in the beginning, can jump-start the process.

“The present can be so noisy and business leaders are so close to it that it’s helpful to provide a fresh outside-in point of view,” says veteran futurist Bob Johansen.

To put it simply, futurists like Johansen are good at connecting dots—lots of them. They look beyond the boundaries of a single company or even an industry, incorporating into their work social science, technical research, cultural movements, economic data, trends, and the input of other experts.

They can also factor in the cultural history of the specific company with whom they’re working, says Brian David Johnson, futurist in residence at Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination. “These large corporations have processes and procedures in place—typically for good reasons,” Johnson explains. “But all of those reasons have everything to do with the past and nothing to do with the future. Looking at that is important so you can understand the inertia that you need to overcome.”

One thing the best futurists will say they can’t do: predict the future. That’s not the point. “The future punishes certainty,” Johansen says, “but it rewards clarity.” The methods futurists employ are designed to trigger discussions and considerations of possibilities corporate leaders might not otherwise consider.

You don’t even necessarily have to buy into all the foresight that results, says Johansen. Many leaders don’t. “Every forecast is debatable,” Johansen says. “Foresight is a way to provoke insight, even if you don’t believe it. The value is in letting yourself be provoked.”

External expert input serves several purposes. It brings everyone up to a common level of knowledge. It can stimulate and shift the thinking of participants by introducing them to new information or ideas. And it can challenge the status quo by illustrating how people and organizations in different sectors are harnessing emerging trends.

The goal is not to come up with one definitive future but multiple possibilities—positive and negative—along with a list of the likely obstacles or accelerants that could surface on the road ahead. The result: increased clarity—rather than certainty—in the face of the unknown that enables business decision makers to execute and refine business plans and strategy over time.

Plotting the Steps Along the Way

Coming up with potential trends is an important first step in futuring, but even more critical is figuring out what steps need to be taken along the way: eight years from now, four years from now, two years from now, and now. Considerations include technologies to develop, infrastructure to deploy, talent to hire, partnerships to forge, and acquisitions to make. Without this vital step, says Brown, everybody goes back to their day jobs and the new thinking generated by future planning is wasted. To work, the future steps must be tangible, concrete, and actionable.

Organizations must build a roadmap for the desired future state that anticipates both developments and detours, complete with signals that will let them know if they’re headed in the right direction. Brown works with corporate leaders to set indicator flags to look out for on the way to the anticipated future. “If we see these flagged events occurring in the ecosystem, they help to confirm the strength of our hypothesis that a particular imagined future is likely to occur,” he explains.

For example, one of Brown’s clients envisioned two potential futures: one in which gestural interfaces took hold and another in which voice control dominated. The team set a flag to look out for early examples of the interfaces that emerged in areas such as home appliances and automobiles. “Once you saw not just Amazon Echo but also Google Home and other copycat speakers, it would increase your confidence that you were moving more towards a voice-first era rather than a gesture-first era,” Brown says. “It doesn’t mean that gesture won’t happen, but it’s less likely to be the predominant modality for communication.”

How to Keep Experiments from Being Stifled

Once organizations have a vision for the future, making it a reality requires testing ideas in the marketplace and then scaling them across the enterprise. “There’s a huge change piece involved,”
says Frank Diana, futurist and global consultant with Tata Consultancy Services, “and that’s the place where most
businesses will fall down.”

Many large firms have forgotten what it’s like to experiment in several new markets on a small scale to determine what will stick and what won’t, says René Rohrbeck, professor of strategy at the Aarhus School of Business and Social Sciences. Companies must be able to fail quickly, bring the lessons learned back in, adapt, and try again.

Lowe’s increases its chances of success by creating master narratives across a number of different areas at once, such as robotics, mixed-reality tools, on-demand manufacturing, sustainability, and startup acceleration. The lab maps components of each by expected timelines: short, medium, and long term. “From there, we’ll try to build as many of them as quickly as we can,” says Manna. “And we’re always looking for that next suite of things that we should be working on.” Along the way certain innovations, like the HoloRoom How-To, become developed enough to integrate into the larger business as part of the core strategy.

One way Lowe’s accelerates the process of deciding what is ready to scale is by being open about its nascent plans with the world. “In the past, Lowe’s would never talk about projects that weren’t at scale,” says Manna. Now the company is sharing its future plans with the media and, as a result, attracting partners that can jump-start their realization.

Seeing a Lowe’s comic about employee exoskeletons, for example, led Virginia Tech engineering professor Alan Asbeck to the retailer. He helped develop a prototype for a three-month pilot with stock employees at a Christiansburg, Virginia, store.

The high-tech suit makes it easier to move heavy objects. Employees trying out the suits are also fitted with an EEG headset that the lab incorporates into all its pilots to gauge unstated, subconscious reactions. That direct feedback on the user experience helps the company refine its innovations over time.

Make the Future Part of the Culture

Regardless of whether all the elements of its master narratives come to pass, Lowe’s has already accomplished something important: It has embedded future thinking into the culture of the company.

Companies like Lowe’s constantly scan the environment for meaningful economic, technology, and cultural changes that could impact its future assessments and plans. “They can regularly draw on future planning to answer challenges,” says Rohrbeck. “This intensive, ongoing, agile strategizing is only possible because they’ve done their homework up front and they keep it updated.”

It’s impossible to predict what’s going to happen in the future, but companies can help to shape it, says Manna of Lowe’s. “It’s really about painting a picture of a preferred future state that we can try to achieve while being flexible and capable of change as we learn things along the way.” D!


About the Authors

Dan Wellers is Global Lead, Digital Futures, at SAP.

Kai Goerlich is Chief Futurist at SAP’s Innovation Center Network.

Stephanie Overby is a Boston-based business and technology journalist.


Read more thought provoking articles in the latest issue of the Digitalist Magazine, Executive Quarterly.

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Dan Wellers

About Dan Wellers

Dan Wellers is founder and leader of Digital Futures at SAP, a strategic insights and thought leadership discipline that explores how digital technologies drive exponential change in business and society.

Kai Goerlich

About Kai Goerlich

Kai Goerlich is the Chief Futurist at SAP Innovation Center network His specialties include Competitive Intelligence, Market Intelligence, Corporate Foresight, Trends, Futuring and ideation.

Share your thoughts with Kai on Twitter @KaiGoe.heif Futu

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The Human Factor In An AI Future

Dan Wellers and Kai Goerlich

As artificial intelligence becomes more sophisticated and its ability to perform human tasks accelerates exponentially, we’re finally seeing some attempts to wrestle with what that means, not just for business, but for humanity as a whole.

From the first stone ax to the printing press to the latest ERP solution, technology that reduces or even eliminates physical and mental effort is as old as the human race itself. However, that doesn’t make each step forward any less uncomfortable for the people whose work is directly affected – and the rise of AI is qualitatively different from past developments.

Until now, we developed technology to handle specific routine tasks. A human needed to break down complex processes into their component tasks, determine how to automate each of those tasks, and finally create and refine the automation process. AI is different. Because AI can evaluate, select, act, and learn from its actions, it can be independent and self-sustaining.

Some people, like investor/inventor Elon Musk and Alibaba founder and chairman Jack Ma, are focusing intently on how AI will impact the labor market. It’s going to do far more than eliminate repetitive manual jobs like warehouse picking. Any job that involves routine problem-solving within existing structures, processes, and knowledge is ripe for handing over to a machine. Indeed, jobs like customer service, travel planning, medical diagnostics, stock trading, real estate, and even clothing design are already increasingly automated.

As for more complex problem-solving, we used to think it would take computers decades or even centuries to catch up to the nimble human mind, but we underestimated the exponential explosion of deep learning. IBM’s Watson trounced past Jeopardy champions in 2011 – and just last year, Google’s DeepMind AI beat the reigning European champion at Go, a game once thought too complex for even the most sophisticated computer.

Where does AI leave human?

This raises an urgent question for the future: How do human beings maintain our economic value in a world in which AI will keep getting better than us at more and more things?

The concept of the technological singularity – the point at which machines attain superhuman intelligence and permanently outpace the human mind – is based on the idea that human thinking can’t evolve fast enough to keep up with technology. However, the limits of human performance have yet to be found. It’s possible that people are only at risk of lagging behind machines because nothing has forced us to test ourselves at scale.

Other than a handful of notable individual thinkers, scientists, and artists, most of humanity has met survival-level needs through mostly repetitive tasks. Most people don’t have the time or energy for higher-level activities. But as the human race faces the unique challenge of imminent obsolescence, we need to think of those activities not as luxuries, but as necessities. As technology replaces our traditional economic value, the economic system may stop attaching value to us entirely unless we determine the unique value humanity offers – and what we can and must do to cultivate the uniquely human skills that deliver that value.

Honing the human advantage

As a species, humans are driven to push past boundaries, to try new things, to build something worthwhile, and to make a difference. We have strong instincts to explore and enjoy novelty and risk – but according to psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, these instincts crumble if we don’t cultivate them.

AI is brilliant at automating routine knowledge work and generating new insights from existing data. What it can’t do is deduce the existence, or even the possibility, of information it isn’t already aware of. It can’t imagine radical new products and business models. Or ask previously unconceptualized questions. Or envision unimagined opportunities and achievements. AI doesn’t even have common sense! As theoretical physicist Michio Kaku says, a robot doesn’t know that water is wet or that strings can pull but not push. Nor can robots engage in what Kaku calls “intellectual capitalism” – activities that involve creativity, imagination, leadership, analysis, humor, and original thought.

At the moment, though, we don’t generally value these so-called “soft skills” enough to prioritize them. We expect people to develop their competency in emotional intelligence, cross-cultural awareness, curiosity, critical thinking, and persistence organically, as if these skills simply emerge on their own given enough time. But there’s nothing soft about these skills, and we can’t afford to leave them to chance.

Lessons in being human

To stay ahead of AI in an increasingly automated world, we need to start cultivating our most human abilities on a societal level – and to do so not just as soon as possible, but as early as possible.

Singularity University chairman Peter Diamandis, for example, advocates revamping the elementary school curriculum to nurture the critical skills of passion, curiosity, imagination, critical thinking, and persistence. He envisions a curriculum that, among other things, teaches kids to communicate, ask questions, solve problems with creativity, empathy, and ethics, and accept failure as an opportunity to try again. These concepts aren’t necessarily new – Waldorf and Montessori schools have been encouraging similar approaches for decades – but increasing automation and digitization make them newly relevant and urgent.

The Mastery Transcript Consortium is approaching the same problem from the opposite side, by starting with outcomes. This organization is pushing to redesign the secondary school transcript to better reflect whether and how high school students are acquiring the necessary combination of creative, critical, and analytical abilities. By measuring student achievement in a more nuanced way than through letter grades and test scores, the consortium’s approach would inherently require schools to reverse-engineer their curricula to emphasize those abilities.

Most critically, this isn’t simply a concern of high-tuition private schools and “good school districts” intended to create tomorrow’s executives and high-level knowledge workers. One critical aspect of the challenge we face is the assumption that the vast majority of people are inevitably destined for lives that don’t require creativity or critical thinking – that either they will somehow be able to thrive anyway or their inability to thrive isn’t a cause for concern. In the era of AI, no one will be able to thrive without these abilities, which means that everyone will need help acquiring them. For humanitarian, political, and economic reasons, we cannot just write off a large percentage of the population as disposable.

In the end, anything an AI does has to fit into a human-centered value system that takes our unique human abilities into account. Why would we want to give up our humanity in favor of letting machines determine whether or not an action or idea is valuable? Instead, while we let artificial intelligence get better at being what it is, we need to get better at being human. That’s how we’ll keep coming up with groundbreaking new ideas like jazz music, graphic novels, self-driving cars, blockchain, machine learning – and AI itself.

Read the executive brief Human Skills for the Digital Future.

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Dan Wellers

About Dan Wellers

Dan Wellers is founder and leader of Digital Futures at SAP, a strategic insights and thought leadership discipline that explores how digital technologies drive exponential change in business and society.

Kai Goerlich

About Kai Goerlich

Kai Goerlich is the Chief Futurist at SAP Innovation Center network His specialties include Competitive Intelligence, Market Intelligence, Corporate Foresight, Trends, Futuring and ideation.

Share your thoughts with Kai on Twitter @KaiGoe.heif Futu