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Futurist Amy Webb on how to look for and think about trends set to impact media

Amy Webb ()

With so much happening in technology, it’s difficult to choose what to focus on or not. How should publishers distinguish between "must consider", "may consider" or "don’t consider”? In the process, author, futurist and founder of the Future Today Institute (FTI, says publishers risk missing a lot of what is happening at the fringe that could impact them in a major way in time to come.

Amy writes in her new book “The signals are talking: why today’s fringe is tomorrow’s mainstream” that "novelty has become the new normal making it difficult for us to understand the bigger picture.” 

Below she shares some lessons and ideas for publishers via email on how to look for and think about trends that could impact media, as well as top trends she thinks are set to impact on media.

Which industry leads in creating new trends? 

To understand the future of any industry, which includes media, you must first consider what I call the ten sources of modern change. This includes areas like the economy, demography, geopolitics and more. Technology is the connective tissue. 

If you want to understand how the future of media will evolve, it’s a matter of tracking trends across industry sectors, not just one company or vertical. 

This represents a different strategic thinking model for organisation leaders, who might be used to monitoring Google, Facebook, Snapchat and some newer media organisations (such as Vox or Vice) for ideas. 

Really, leaders ought to be tracking Amazon’s foray into voice interfaces, Uber’s research into automated vehicles – ultimately both will dramatically impact how everyday people consume content.

Related: Read "How to get going with Voice as the entry point for user interaction" (or watch the video below)

Which future trends are most likely to change the media?

I mentioned two above. 

Right now, media executives should be investigating the future of voice interfaces as well as the infrastructure that’s being created to support that ecosystem. What’s just over the horizon will completely change how we seek out and receive information.

Publishers should also pay attention to self-driving vehicles, since that will ultimately change our behavior while we’re moving. 

Payment systems – digital currencies, which will be processed differently online – are worth tracking. 

It should go without saying, but so is privacy and cyber security.

What are the questions media companies should be asking themselves when they see a new technology, and they think about trying it out? 

They should stop to investigate how far along that technology is on its trajectory – what are the 2nd, 3rd, 4th order innovations that will follow? Or have they already? How does that technology intersect with other areas of everyday life? Even if you don’t see it as indispensable, has that technology fundamentally altered how different segments of the population communicate?

We have two tools that we use with FTI’s clients that assess how to treat that new technology. It’s a process that requires data and analysis, as well as some good conversations around the goals of the organisation. 

I don’t think it’s ever a good idea to make a snap decision – everyone is subject to belief biases, which cloud their field of vision, and that’s especially true when thinking about the future.

On average how many trends per year do you see in the media industry, how many of those trends persist, and how many go unnoticed? 

We’re recommending that media executives track close to 50 trends. From our vantage point, “trends” are rarely “trendy.” Trends are the signposts that help us understand where we are headed. 

Real trends meet four characteristics: 

• First, a trend is driven by a basic human need, one that is catalysed by new technology. So for example, we think of self-driving cars, like the Tesla, as brand-new trends. In fact, humans have been trying to automate travel since the ancient Sumarians first attached wheels to their carts in battle. Think of how much easier construction is because of equipment like jackhammers, excavators, and dozers. 

• Second, trends are timely, but they persist. We’ve been developing new technologies to automate laborious or monotonous tasks, like driving. 

• Third, trends evolve as they emerge. Did you know that GE actually developed a self-driving car and track back in the 1950s? Engineers have been working on self-driving car prototypes for decades. Our current crop is road legal, and can now drive alongside other cars on the highway. 

• Finally, trends usually materialise as a series of un-connectable dots, which begin out on the fringe and move to the mainstream. For Tesla cars to work, an entire adjacent ecosystem needed to be built: LiDAR, more expansive Wifi, GPS, multidimensional maps and the like.

Should media jump into every next big thing?

In my observation, media organisations tend to miss new technologies at the fringe. While they might wait for a technology to mature before investing in it, leaders must be paying attention long before a technology has moved from the fringe into the mainstream. It isn’t a question of jumping in, but rather dedicating time to investigate and research what’s bubbling up.

Should innovation be open, or should it have one owner? 

I believe that collaboration will only help media in the longer term. I do see pockets of collaborative activity, from the Panama Papers to some of the terrific work that ProPublica does. The more that media organisations can collaborate on distribution in the digital age, the better. 

Especially given what’s coming next, which is voice

Related: Watch Amazon's Max Amordeluso's presentation at the Digital Innovators' Summit 2017:

How should you think about the revenue model when considering new trends? 

Trends are signposts. If an organisation can see what’s over the horizon, it will be positioned as a first mover – and it will have the time to build and test out new revenue models. 

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You say your latest book is about how anybody can learn and use the tools of futurists, and that we will be better off if we all start thinking like futurists. Why is that? 

Ideally, everyone within an organisation should learn and use the tools of a futurist. The worst thing an executive can do, would be to relegate this work to the youngest staff, or to those who seem particularly techie. 

It’s important that executives also learn these tools, just as they’d be expected to know how to read a P&L statement. Identifying and taking action on trends is an ongoing process. My hope with my book is that I’ve democratised the tools of futurists – the more people who understand how to use data and evidence to forecast what’s over the horizon, the better off we’ll all be. 

Leaders have to stop making decisions that are focused mainly on the next one to three years – they must simultaneously think about now, tomorrow and many years from today.

Recommended reading 

FIPP Innovation in Magazine Media 2016-2017 World Report 

Two big questions to get innovation right

The platform press: How Silicon Valley reengineered journalism

From Amy Webb: 

Future Today Institute annual report

Stanford’s one hundred year study on artificial intelligence (AI100)

MIT’s computer science and artificial intelligence laboratory

Book: The signals are talking: Why today’s fringe is tomorrow’s mainstream

Book: The second machine age: Work, progress, and prosperity in a time of brilliant technologies

Book: The fourth industrial revolution

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