Ok, I’ll admit I’m pushing this somewhat, but Intel is unique in its segment because the corporation has a massive R&D budget and formal lab.
Of course, one of the most important people in that lab is Intel Fellow and Director Genevieve Bell. Now Bell isn’t a silicon engineer, she is a people engineer: an anthropologist/ethnographer.
And in her lab is Intel’s Futurist; the guy with the Crystal-Balls; Brian David Johnson. He apparently spends all of his time focused on those balls because, unlike the rest of us, he lives 10 years in the future. (Ok I clearly need to stop watching the news on Congressman Weiner).
Kidding aside Johnson, uses a process called Science Fiction Prototyping and he suddenly has what may be my favorite job (apparently I’m not the only one who thinks this). He has actually written a book on it and it is a fascinating way to anticipate future events.
I was at the Intel Lab showcase this week and I think I’ve discovered why Intel will be around next century - it is because they are going to help create the future that will assure their survival. Let me explain.
Living in The Future
Most companies, technology or otherwise, focus solidly on the present. This is largely because of the nature of investors and financial analysts who want to see very powerful quarterly results and reward positive results with high valuations and negative results with low ones.
CEOs are typically heavily incented to keep costs low and revenues high quarter over quarter, which makes most of them quite tactical and likely is at the core of why so many companies seem to eventually fail. Eventually, this increasing focus on cost containment has them either selling their seed corn, cutting R&D, or missing a market or competitive move which leaves them without customers.
This also explains why so often we get a new technology, but aren’t ready as a society to safely implement it. Take smartphones, for example. Sure, they are wonderful devices, but distractions related to such devices cause an alarming and increasing number of deaths or injuries because society isn’t really ready for them.
Most importantly, however, with a job like Johnson's, you can think through all of the other things that need to be in place for the change to be successful.
While this is fun, it is far from simple to do and typically requires a lot of creativity. In addition, the majority of the approaches like Delphi and Business War Gaming I’m familiar with aren’t very good for predicting more than three years ahead, making a ten year projection rather problematic.
Why 10 years? Because that is approximately the ideal time during which you can implement a change to affect an outcome - but it isn't too long to preserve initial assumptions.
In other words, if you want to drive the future - rather than simply prepare optimized responses to future events which will occur regardless - then working in a 1 to 5 year envelope is best.
Clearly, Intel wants to drive the future with this effort.
Science Fiction Prototyping
This is just too cool for words but I’ll give it a shot. Science Fiction Prototyping appears best suited for long term planning, says for 10 or more years, and for someone as twisted as I am, well, it is just magical.
Basically, what you do is define a set of likely future conditions and then create a story where your characters live in that world.
The better you are at telling a complete and interesting story, the greater your chances of being successful with related predictions. This is because the story, particularly when backed by a company with Intel’s resources, can become part of a self-fulfilling prophecy and, done right, could be very predictive.
Of course, you also have to analyze the ecosystem to determine how people will interact with the technology, while taking note of "critical links" in the future you imagine may be become a reality.
Such "critical links" are potential new markets or could represent barriers impractical to cross.
For example, a story on teleportation (a common SF element) might conclude the religious implications of destroying a human body and then reconstructing it are simply too difficult to overcome culturally, at least in the near term.
This suggests that even if you were able to create teleportation technology, you probably not only wouldn’t be able to sell it, but may even be considered somewhat of a murderer for using it. In short, spending billions to create teleportation devices - even if it were possible - would be a waste.
But let us discuss a more likely vector: say a story about self-driving cars with a plot surrounding a murder cover-up. This could help define the safety features that would be required both in the car and on the roads, something which folks may not yet be thinking about.
The way you’d explore such features is by following the investigation of crack hot female cyber detective Crystal "Balls" Johnson and her ever ready sidekick Otto Paulini - the cyber enhanced ex-super-soldier with the heart of gold and a potty mouth. I’ve even thought of a title: "Wired Asphalt."
But you get the point, you tell stories that force folks to think about future problems and get them to work on solutions before the issues even occur. Kind of cool, huh?
Wrapping Up: Intel’s Edge
I personally think such strategic thinking could turn out to be the reason Intel survives not only the decade, but if they keep it up, the century. This is because they are the only company heavily resourcing a future where people and technology will eventually become inseparable.
Whether you follow or believe in the concept of a coming singularity or not, we are definitely becoming more closely tied to our products and our products to us.
The future is being defined and Brian "Crystal Balls" Johnson and his boss Genevieve "Kick Ass" Bell are making sure Intel will not only benefit from it, but help define that future. This is Intel’s edge: the uncanny ability to create a crystal ball that not only tells the future but helps define it.