The Future Has a PR Problem
Or Why I’m Still Waiting For My Jetpack
One of the first websites I remember from the days when the internet was still nascent was a site called cromulent.com.
Some may recognize the rather dubious origins of the word - it's one of a few linguistic gems that has spawned from a Simpsons episode - and so it was fitting that the website felt equally satirical. It was a blank white page with just a short phrase:
I'm still waiting for my jetpack.
And that was it. But I think about that almost every day, now 20 odd years later, because that statement is still spot on. Where are the jetpacks? The moon colonies? The smart cities of verdant green? What the hell is taking so long?
I'll tell you what's taking so long - humanity is an oxymoron bouncing between the exponential pace of technological progress and the inherent fear of change.
I mostly blame science fiction. Sci-fi has spent decades showing us a future that is, eventually, inevitable: fleets of driverless electric cars, artificial intelligence that reaches the singularity, globally disbursed decentralized digital currency, routine space travel, ubiquitous 3D printing of just about any material - all of which are already being designed and developed today in some form. Sci-fi has also played an immense role in shaping innovations throughout recent history: Tim Berners Lee took inspiration from Arthur C. Clarke when developing the web. Goddard name-checked HG Wells as inspiration for rockets. Elon Musk has made it clear that SpaceX would not exist without Asimov's Foundation Series.
The link from science fiction to science fact is so apparent that there's even a term for it - "science fiction prototyping" - as popularized by Futurist and Fellow at Frost & Sullivan (and former Chief Futurist at Intel), Brian David Johnson. Anyone who tells you that sci-fi is just for nerds who love spaceships need only look as far as the phone in their hand, a clear line from the tricorders of Star Trek, and realize that the influence of sci-fi on the human condition cannot be overstated.
Sci-fi continues to inspire and illustrate for us a future that will happen in some form (as we have seen come true historically), but which we are ever so slowly inching towards and I find that immensely frustrating. It's not a question of imagination or innovation on the part of the creators of the technology, it's a question of adoption on the part of the rest of us. So how do we get the science fiction to become fact faster?
To me, this breaks down into two parts. First, the resistance to the adoption of new technology. Second, the need for long-term thinking in business.
THE RESISTANCE TO THE ADOPTION OF NEW TECHNOLOGY
In 1986 the Challenger explosion happened on the same day that President Reagan was scheduled to give the State of the Union. I was 4 at the time, so I didn't see it myself, but in lieu of giving his State of the Union speech he pivoted to address the disaster by saying:
I love that quote because it's basically saying, "what happened is absolutely terrible, but it's also an integral part of progressing science and civilization forward." Advancement in the realm of technology - the type of technology that will fundamentally drive society forward and change the landscape of the way we live every day - comes with very real dangers. A quick search on Google will yield plenty of journalistically verified results to that effect.
Even our phones, those ubiquitous computers in our pockets that are so essential to daily life, had a run of bad news when they started just blowing up (sometimes in peoples' faces). And every time something bad happens, the public appetite for innovation goes down.
To quote an well-researched paper on the subject (which you can read here if you are so inclined): "behavioral intention is negatively influenced by perceived risk." It's an obvious statement, but when you look at it in the context of technology it carries a lot of weight. Had smart phones not already been an ingrained part of our lives by the time they started exploding, this could have changed the trajectory of adoption of what is now an essential device.
Consider this: we didn't send another person into space for nearly 3 years after the tragedy of the Challenger. That's a lifetime by technological development standards, and it's because there was no public appetite for space travel after that.
Even before that, we never would have made it to the moon, and therefore created one of the foremost space programs in the world, if the public had not bought into the need for it. So it's clear that what we need to do is influence the public's notion of perceived risk and get us used to the concept of what's coming in the future and what it will take to actually get there.
Adoption models are easy to find. And though the numbers might change slightly from model to model, they all come together around the same basic principles: innovators and early adopters are a small subset of the population willing to get in early on new technology. The early majority, late majority, and laggards drag their feet and represent the "resistance to change." Influencing the public's notion of perceived risk really comes down to moving more and more people from the majorities to early adoption, which would create a larger pool to continue to influence the adoption of technology, which would ultimately result in technology being developed at a faster pace because there's appetite for it, and so on.
We could go from this:
It's what finance columnist Daniel Gross is referring to when he emphasizes "preparing the 'mental infrastructure' needed to make sense of emerging technologies." Which brings me to my first principle: We need to grease the wheels of progress and we need to do it well before anyone ever buys something.
THE NEED FOR LONG TERM THINKING IN BUSINESS
The most damning aspect of capitalism today is "short-termism," because it negates the necessity of long-term innovation. Long-term innovation generally requires short-term sacrifice to do it right. Today, one can very easily see the enormous gains in the long-term technology that was created by NASA in their mission to the moon and then adapted by the private market, but the amount of resources poured into the project was massive and, at the time, always under scrutiny as to its worth.
The difference between what happened with the "moon shot" and what happens now is that the moon shot had the public backing to expend those vast resources (mostly) because it was a competition against a foreign state - we needed to win for the betterment of our country. But without a patriotic moon shot project to come together around for over half a century, people have now become conditioned to be passive about technological growth. Companies need to iterate a new product every year just to keep the market's attention.
But it doesn't have to be this way. When the East India Trading Company was in its prime (between the 16th and 19th centuries) it operated for about 300 years by introducing a brand new way of thinking about its business: the concept of an infinite company. Their thought process was not "let's finish this project and then figure out the next one" but rather "what are we putting into place today that will keep us as the most powerful trading company in a century?"
To bring that back to today, I don't need a better camera on my phone year after year. I need a car that can drive itself. For innovation to truly shape society, companies need to think on an "infinity scale" - they need to consider how they are viable today and just as importantly how they are viable in 10 years, and then in 100 years. And even more importantly, investors and consumers need to support that by buying into an infinity scale, not just a quick return. Which brings me to my second principle: true innovation is a long game which government and business must lead and which investors and consumers must support, even if a dime isn't made for a decade.
What we currently have, however, is a healthy dose of resistance to the technology that could change our lives coupled with a passivity for technological advancement that values immediacy over innovation, and so it's no wonder that real innovation grinds to a crawl. In this environment, I can clearly see why I don't live in a moon colony yet.
How, then, do we change those perceptions?
The same way we change any perceptions for a large group of people: with advertising. We take principle one - reducing the resistance to tech adoption - and mash it up with principle two - having the long-term vision needed for true innovation - then stir in a healthy dose of the science fiction stories that have informed our notion of the future for decades and we get what I'm calling Innovation Marketing.
Innovation Marketing basically means that if you're an R&D department and you're not writing your own sci-fi novel then you're doing it wrong.
It's a bit counterintuitive to the standard tenets of marketing. There is nothing to sell here, no product or solution for a consumer to walk away with. Innovation Marketing is about planting the seeds of the technology that will drive full on civilization change into the public zeitgeist so that when a product is available - in a decade - the early rates of adoption will be higher.
Again, from the previously quoted paper: "The focus of advertisements has shifted from concentrating on the innovation's utilitarian advantages and functionalities to rather appeal to the emotions, social needs, and desires."
That's Marketing 101, but for Innovation Marketing is means invoking the feeling of just how amazing the future will be when all this technology is deeply integrated into our lives by taking the principles of marketing and advertising and utilizing them over the very long term.
This is not the first time it's been done. In 1939, companies built massive experiences for their customers at the World's Fair in Flushing, NY (which was dubbed "The World of Tomorrow"). The Fair used around 1200 acres to show roughly 44 million visitors over the course of a year a vision of the future that has, in large part, come to pass (interestingly it was also the site of the very first World Science Fiction Convention). The concept for Innovation Marketing is the same, but rather than bringing people to the science fiction it uses marketing and advertising to bring the science fiction to the people.
Innovation Marketing is, essentially, writing that sci-fi novel of your company: long-term, friction-reducing advertising meant to lay the groundwork fo technology adoption 10 years from now. It takes all the amazing stuff that scientists, engineers, inventors, and other people far smarter than me are creating and gets the world to accept them faster, and so the mission of Innovation Marketing is simple:
Notice that the word is "will" and not "could." Science fiction is the backbone of the advertising method, but everything that Innovation Marketing brings to the public consciousness is very much rooted in science fact. There are technologies that are inevitable which will shape the very way we all live our lives, and that is where Innovation Marketing hones in. It uses the worlds that sci-fi paints to show what humanity will become in the best possible ways, because any fan of sci-fi will tell you that it tends to skew in one of two directions: remarkably dystopian or idealistically utopian. We do not approach Innovation Marketing with only these lenses, but we do recognize that the stories which will move humanity forward - because what is marketing and advertising if not persuasive storytelling - simply cannot illustrate the world in a doomed state. We cannot trade in fear, scarcity, or other black hat motivators. Innovation Marketing is realistic, but hopeful. The benchmark is Star Trek, not The Terminator.
And if we can make the future as appealing as any other product that's advertised, if we can reduce the friction of adoption and get companies to think on an "infinity scale," then maybe - just maybe - we'll all get the jetpacks that we've been waiting for.