However, there are people out there who aren’t just speculating about the future - they are actively creating it. Some of these people met up in Paris for the 7th International Conference on Complex Systems Design & Management (CSD&M) in December. The difference is that they not only have ideas, they have the financial resources to set them on the road to reality. Those resources can be substantial. The automotive industry, which was well-represented at the conference, spent $109bn on R&D in 2015 .
Complex systems are about to become much more visible. The arrival on the mass market of autonomous devices and devices connected to the Internet of Things (IoT) will have transformative effects on society. The form that transformation takes will depend on cultural, economic and regulatory pressures as well as technology. Companies developing connected and autonomous products have to consider not only how humans will interact with them, but how they will interact with us. The result is that product development has become a more interdisciplinary activity than ever before.
Take, for example, autonomous vehicles. The basic technology to make a driverless car possible requires a lot of hard science and engineering, but that’s just the starting point. Cars in their current form are deeply embedded in modern society. Successful introduction of driverless cars will require consideration of a host of factors. Public attitudes, policy, regulation, infrastructure, politics and culture will influence, and be influenced by, the way in which the technology is adopted. The car makers themselves will also have to respond to those influences. For example, how can brands that focus on the “driving experience” survive the introduction of technology designed to make human drivers obsolete? What new business models will be needed?
Designers address this complexity by building models. They construct “what if” scenarios to test their assumptions and explore the consequences. With the scale of investment involved and safety at stake, no one wants to roll out a product (or a business model) containing flaws that could reasonably have been anticipated. For a set of problems that haven’t been encountered before, those scenarios have to be detailed and comprehensive. Put all the scenarios together and they should be capable of being refined into a coherent narrative.
The futures described in science fiction are usually the work of a single author. The model-based narrative, in contrast, is the work of a team. It reflects the considered opinion of many different stakeholders who can speak with authority in their own domains. It may not win any literary prizes but it should give a pretty good integrated picture of the future; not a future the team has chosen to describe, but one they intend to create.
To do that, however, requires experts in a whole raft of different disciplines. In addition to product designers and engineers, manufacturers need input from a range of specialists that can include disciplines as disparate as computer science, psychology and the social sciences. In some cases, companies even hire science fiction writers as well .
In the second part of my blog I’ll look at the problems of team communication and effective sharing of information.
1. Jaruzelski, B.H. and Hirsch, E.R. : “The 2015 Global Innovation 1000 - Automotive industry findings” PwC, 2015
2. Gunn, E. : “How America’s Leading Science Fiction Authors Are Shaping Your Future”, Smithsonian Magazine, May 2014