Archived entries for predicting the future

The future of idea realisation

KickstarterI reckon Kickstarter points the way to the future of how we consume ideas, and quite possibly product manufacturing. In today’s world of products, services and ideas (books, movies, music), pretty much everything is created and marketed based on speculation. That is, if a person has an idea, they do some “market research” and if a certain threshold is crossed, and the probability of being able to recoup your costs and turn a profit exceeds that of failure you forge ahead. This is pretty much the standard business model the world over, particularly if you need to borrow money from banks or venture capitalists. For risk-averse personality types like me it’s too much of a gamble, and it’ll be a cold day in hell before I start a business – at least not under the existing regime.

Cue Kickstarter.

Some call it crowdsourced funding, but it goes deeper than that. Kickstarter helps those who have a feasible idea, where the only remaining obstacle is funds. It’s true that the site uses a financial model, but more importantly – and this is the key – the people who contribute funds are also the consumers of the idea. There’s zero speculation; the product is pre-sold and “fans” of the idea (and therefore your target audience, advocates and supporters) are identified before it even goes to press. Conversely, if your idea is unable to garner enough support, not a single cent is wasted, and you walk away with the knowledge that the market for your idea simple does not exist.

Take this project for instance: a short movie called Troll Bridge based on a short story by British author Terry Pratchett (which not only has the author’s blessing, but also dialogue contributed by the man himself!). Despite his massive popularity and huge following, you could still reasonably argue that Pratchett’s popularity is niche. Kickstarter has enabled one talented Melbournian movie maker and Pratchett fan to create something for a very narrowly defined audience.

Terry Pratchett's Troll Bridge

This removes the gross inefficiencies involved with trying to reach audiences through traditional means of advertising and marketing. In the future, instead of having to endure unsolicited crap coming at you from all angles, you could simply pick and choose to support offerings that are relevant or seem interesting to you. And don’t worry about the problem of delayed gratification – there’ll surely be a backlog of material created beforehand.

Is Kickstarter something you’d use?

The future of manufacturing

Death Star under construction

OK, probably not the best image to represent manufacturing in outer space, but I couldn't think of anything else

You may have seen my earlier post on the future of shopping. One interesting element about the retail debate is how retailers have forgotten about the globalisation of manufacturing and the loss of local jobs around a decade ago, which they were largely quite happy about because it meant cheaper products (and higher margins).

The bulk of what we buy today is now “Made in China” or some other low-labour cost country. Global logistics is at a level of maturity where this doesn’t have any negative impact on customers’ ability to get things fast. For example last year I ordered an iMac from the Apple Store, and it was assembled in China, despatched within 24 hours, and on my doorstep in a matter of days. It wasn’t so long ago that you had to rely on local retailers to bring over stock in bulk, or wait for a shipping container to be filled.

So what’s next for manufacturing? I reckon the answer lies in space.

It’s clean up there
Many kinds of product require an uber-clean environment to manufacture. Computer chips for instance, require a completely clean, dust-free atmosphere – any impurities in the silicon wafer and the resulting chip is useless. Terrestrial facilities have to deal with atmospheric impurities, but I reckon – although I could be wrong about this – dust would be less of a problem in outer space.

Heavy lifting? No problem!
Weightlessness is a boon if the manufacturing task involves large, heavy materials. You’d no longer have to deal with gravity, although this only improves manoeveurability – it’d still require a sufficiently strong force to move the object.

Space does weird (but cool) things
There’s probably a lot about the physics of space that we have yet to discover. One thing that we do know of however is cold welding, where metals in a vacuum fuse together simply by touching. The convenience of doing this in space is that you don’t have to create the vacuum. Who knows what other weird and useful effects might be possible!

How do we get it up there, and then back down?
So the question remains of how we get stuff up and down from space. At the beginning of this post I mentioned how global logistics allows items to be sent around the world at great speed, but we don’t yet have the same infrastructure for space, and rely on rockets and the like, which are expensive because they’re moving a large quantity of fuel required by the launching process as well as the payload.

We (human beings) have already had an answer to this since the late 19th Century – in the form of a space elevator designed by Konstantin Tsiolkovsky in 1895! Basically, space elevators work by having an satellite in space held aloft in geo-stationery orbit, anchored to the ground via a large cable of sorts. The whole shebang is held up by centripetal force, like the hammer toss at the Olympics, where the circular motion of an object, combined with its weight, results in a net outwards force. The payload is then carried up and down this structure.

Imagine looking at the tag of a future product and seeing “Made in Space” :-) Wouldn’t that be cool?

The future of shopping

The current online shopping debate shows the tension that is going on in the retail industry. In the same way that the Internet is forcing the music and movie industries to look for new business models to combat piracy, globalisation is bringing about a drastic shift in the way that the commerce of physical objects is handled.

Here, I’d like to share a vision of what the future of retail might look like. You may have read similar stuff before – futurists probably predicted similar things years ago, but I feel we’re that much closer to seeing it become reality.

A shift in shopping
In the future, you won’t buy products from stores any more. Shopping will be done at entirely from home through the Internet and 3D holographic representations of the products. With clothes, you’ll be able to try things on using a digital scan of yourself, and mix and match unlimited combinations including hair and accessories all at the same time. If you’re worried that it won’t be very realistic then you obviously haven’t watched a 3D movie or played a video game lately. The cloth simulations are so close to the real thing that they can even move and sway to a virtual breeze. You won’t miss out on the touchy-feely experience either, as haptic technologies will enable you to touch the item, mimicking the sensations of weight and texture.

Everything will be delivered rapidly through a global logistics network, direct from the manufacturer to you, bypassing all of the middle men that exist in today’s supply chain: distributors, wholesalers, retailers – all cut out of the deal, meaning the lowest possible prices for you.

It’ll spell the end of trips to the concrete jungle, fighting for parking spaces, arguing with overworked, underpaid shopping assistants and dragging heavy bags from one shop to another.

What if I need it now?
As the pace of the world continues to increase, who’s going to have the time to wait for a product to be shipped around the world? One possibility that this trend will give rise to is more local manufacturing, including manufacturing at home. That will allow for items to be delivered in mere hours and minutes, instead of days or weeks – like Japan today where on some Websites you can specify the time of delivery once you make an online purchase!

What will we do with all the space?
If we don’t need shops any more, there’d be so much more space available! More green parks for people to get back in touch with nature; land reclaimed for hyperlocal farming so that the food that you eat is as fresh as it possibly can be. I still can’t get over the fact that when we visited Jenny’s parents in Belgium they made fresh chips for us using potatoes grown on a nearby farm (I mean like a few blocks away).

In the meantime…
Of course shops aren’t going to simply vanish overnight. There must be a transition phase, and one way it could work is for brands to do the direct distribution model as above, but set up “experience centres” in various population centres. That is, you go to one of these centres to try the product, and they might even have some limited amount of stock on hand that they would sell you at a slight premium to cover the upkeep of the store, but otherwise they exist only so you can try before you buy. Ultimately you’d still go online to make the final purchase, to take advantage of the lower prices.

I wonder if we aren’t already seeing this happen today. As one example, you may have noticed a lot of “Nespresso” stores opening in various shopping centres. Most people I’ve spoken to wonder out loud at why these places even exist – they don’t offer much over and above what you get at a department store. But you go there, and one of their friendly staff makes you a complimentary coffee of your choice, demonstrating the product. You may not buy from them, but if you were persuaded by the experiences chances are you’ll buy one somewhere – and ultimately the brand makes a sale, which works out the same for the parent company regardless of where you buy it from.

Today, retailers like Harvey Norman demand lower prices from manufacturers (without passing the savings on to customers), product training for sales staff, and even payment for advertising products in their catalogues, etc. It’s a relationship that largely favours the retailers, and sometimes they get a bit too cocky. For example a couple of years ago Harvey Norman managed to piss off Nintendo so badly with their demands that they were banned from selling the Wii. You can see why the brand might as well set up shop themselves, given that they’d have full control.

The main reason why I think this is going to happen? Almost all of this technology already exists today, and the only obstacle is greed. Just like the music and movie industry associations, they’re fighting tooth and claw to keep from becoming irrelevant in the minds of consumers, trying every trick in the book to pursuade you that they’re adding value to the supply chain. But they’re not. And the sooner we give them the flick, the sooner we’ll arrive at the future of shopping.

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