Engineers and scientists are often asked to predict the future by selecting a new technology or feature that will enable the success of a new product. Yet, when it comes to predicting the future of technology, the truth is that it may be easier to create a vision of the future and then work hard and follow some simple rules to make the vision successful rather than relying on luck or market acceptance. History is full of examples of inventors who were able to make their visions happen. Edison did not as much predict the future of an electric grid, but he brought it about with a wealth of new inventions. He also effectively helped his vision by evangelizing the benefits of electricity. His first large electric grid working prototype was created on Pearl Street, the street over from Wall Street in New York City. This initial crude DC power electric prototype was much brighter than the traditional gas lights of the time. His prototype caused quite a stir. It helped him land more investors and enabled his hopes to become a reality.
Predicting the future is often about being committed to making the future happen. Consider these rules to help make your new product or feature have a better chance of becoming a reality.
1. Bridge distant worlds by building a people network.
The only time an electrical engineer and a brain surgeon meet is when the engineer is about to be cut open. Surgeons have many problems for which they don’t realize have solutions, and engineers often have many solutions that they do not realize they can use to fix problems. Often, those innovators that predict the future are able to find and build relationships with people who know something they don't know or that see the problem in a new light. If you are an engineer, find a surgeon, and if you are a surgeon, find an engineer.
2. Find out what others don't know.
The Internet has made the world flat, so information is abundant. However, the information about the future from key technical partners is not on the Web. This vital information about the future must come from people. Intel, Analog Devices, Xilinx, and Microsoft don't publish their future plans. If you want get information that is not openly available, ask your supplier to be a partner and show you their future product or technology road map. The higher up you go in your supplier/partner organization, the further out on the road map you may get. To be technical, grow your network of relationships with people that you can tap into for information.
3. Create a credible future with a prototype.
Given the connected Internet world we live in, ideas have become cheap and they will probably even become cheaper with time. What is time-consuming and expensive is testing and verifying what has economic value. A great prototype is often the best way to start a dialogue with potential customers and to test the value of your prediction. Given how many people can have ideas, we should be less interested in what it takes to create new, innovative ideas than in how to prototype and verify if an idea has value.
4. Research areas where information is rapidly increasing.
In some areas, such as medicine and biology, the amount of information doubles every four years. Where there is new information and knowledge growing at high rates there are often opportunities to predict the future and create entrepreneurial opportunity with new products and services. Because of the high rate of churn of new information and technology, there is a shorter distance in capabilities from the existing market leaders and the start-ups. New market entrants can ramp-up dramatically in revenue and size. Take Google for example. It was founded in 1998 and now has more than 20,000 employees.
5. Incorporate options into your predictions.
Great predictions are often pliable. As a developer, consider building in "what if" scenarios and options into your predictions. For example, if you are designing a new product, build in option plays for expansion, performance, packaging, and lower cost. Design your prototype with modularity in mind. Customers will ultimately decide the future of your product, not you.
6. Make your predictions sticky.
Larry Shepp is a famous mathematician from Rutgers University. Dr. Shepp, when told that a piece of work he thought was his discovery actually duplicated another mathematician's breakthrough, replied, "Yes, but when I discovered it, it stayed discovered." A good emotional story about a customer who sees the value in your prediction goes a long way into winning over investment decision makers. To make your predictions come to life, you need support.
7. Make predications apolitical with data.
Predicting which features or products will be successful within an organization can be very political. Whoever buddies up to the boss may get the prediction right. Some companies think that predicting which designs will succeed is considered an art and should be led by those who have God-given talent, but, in reality, predicting the future of new designs should be thought of as a science. It shouldn’t matter who is behind the project. When possible it should all come down to data. Run a test on a small audience and use whichever design performs the best to predict success. Data is apolitical.
National Instruments creates approximately one new product per day and is often trying to predict the future of new technologies and designs. We are committed to making our vision of the future a reality. In addition, we have thousands of customers who are designing prototypes and trying to make the future happen. Here are some prime examples.
Siliken Renewable Energy
Siliken Renewable Energy is a producer of solar energy products. What separates Siliken from other photovoltaic cell manufacturers is its vision of handling all aspects of solar cell development, from silicon purification to panel manufacturing and verification to power plant installation. This vision requires an intense depth of knowledge in a wide breadth of fields and has involved often costly research in the high growth area of alternative fuels. Through strategic partnerships Siliken built with vertical experts, it was able to purchase a patent for a new production process that has greatly enhanced its efficiency. By developing other relationships with companies like National Instruments, Siliken has been able to prototype and test new technologies and get them to market quickly. These practices have helped Siliken make its vision for renewable energy a reality at a time when the market is receptive to its technology.
Department of Anesthesiology at McGill University
Another great example comes from the Department of Anesthesiology at McGill University. One of its recent projects was improving surgical patient experience through automating the delivery of general anesthesia. The department's plan was to develop a closed-loop control system that monitors the patient’s depth of consciousness and level of pain as well as intravenously administers appropriate doses of anesthetic. The team developed the idea for its device by networking with surgeons and anesthesiologists and learned the required functionality and market needs. Through corporate relationships with companies like National Instruments, McGill acquired the hardware and software necessary to demonstrate its idea’s viability both in the operating room and in the market. This is a key example of how working with vertical experts in high growth areas to predict needs and trends while partnering with technology firms can get your idea to market more quickly. Read the full case study.
John Hanks is the vice president of industrial and embedded product lines for National Instruments. Hanks holds a bachelor of science in engineering from Texas A&M University and a master of science in engineering from the University of Texas at Austin.