Planning for the future is a necessary but difficult endeavor. Since none of us have a crystal ball, how can we be sure we're getting our strategic planning right? Looking ahead, we might make plans for next year, or try to predict where we need to be in 5 to 10 years. Perhaps the best we can hope for, the further into the future we plan, is to not get it very wrong.
My library is undergoing a top-to-bottom, 5-year renovation, so we've been thinking a lot about the future lately, and not just 5 years into the future, but closer to 10 or 20 years. How do we design spaces and services for this near future? How does technology fit in? I don't have any hard answers (well, maybe one or two), but I I've developed a sort of toolkit to help as we've been making space, technology, and personnel decisions now that will influence who we are and what we do for years to come.
The first surprising thing I've learned through all of this is that while the space isn't exactly easy, neither is it the hardest part. Mind you, we have very skilled architects and facilities people who are doing a lot of the heavy lifting, but knowing we'll have new spaces has inspired the really hard part: figuring out who we are and who we want to be. I realize it's a good problem to have, but I've also realized that we could have done a lot of this future think without an impending renovation—that just served as a very strong catalyst for this work. Because it's not necessary, I'd encourage you to put in the work to create a futures road map for your organization. Why? Because then the future won't just happen to you; you will have had a hand in creating it, and that's powerful.
As a first step, you need to know your “now.” Who are you, as an organization, and what is it you're doing? You likely have a mission statement, but do you know what it says? And does it accurately reflect who you are? Is it recent or out of date? Can you “elevator pitch” it? That is, describe it in three words? If you can that's great, but it's likely you can't.
A great tool for getting at who you are and who you want to be is to do a two- round values exercise. In both rounds, you and all your colleagues go through a list of say 100 values—everything from equality to innovative to friendly—and in small groups whittle the list to 50, then 25, then 12, then six. Each group of five to seven does the same and reports on their list of values. All of these are put together on a master list and then, collectively, three to five are agreed upon. A very comprehensive list of values to get you started is Cirion's Core Values List (corevalueslist.com). The first round of the exercise comes up with a list of three to five values that represent who you are right now. In a subsequent round, you go through the same process, but instead, everyone is to choose aspirational values: who you want to be in the future. There's a good chance the results will be different, but you've now created a road map, having identified where you are and where you want to be.
Of course, knowing your community is as important, or more important, than knowing yourself, and there are lots of ways to get a road map for that, from demographics to community strategy documents and other sources. These two pieces, knowing your community and knowing yourself, are foundational for any futures thinking.
If I were able to predict the future of technology, I would be writing this from my yacht in the Caribbean, but, alas, I'm not. What we don't know far outweighs what we do know. There are some tools to help assess what technologies have legs and which may not. In thinking about technology, we're constrained by what we don't know or haven't imagined. That's why it's important to look to the work of futurists to see what's on the horizon, what's become viable, and what's failed to catch on. It's important to note that this work is not about chasing trends, nor is this work prescriptive; rather, it's about identifying possibilities and probabilities.
The work of Gartner (gartner.com), the world's leading re search and advisory company and a member of the S&P 500, is useful here. What does the company do? It “equip[s] business leaders with indispensable insights, advice and tools to achieve their mission-critical priorities and build the successful organizations of tomorrow.” One of Gartner's more useful additions to the technology futures space is its published “hype cycle” reports. Generally, these reports are tools that identify emerging technologies and plot them, over time, on a scale of maturity and adoption. The reports place technologies at one of five phases at a given point in time (gartner.com/technology/research/methodologies/hype-cycle.jsp):
Technology Trigger: A potential technology break through kicks things off. Early proof-of-concept stories and media interest trigger significant publicity. Often no usable products exist and commercial viability is unproven.
Peak of Inflated Expectations: Early publicity produces a number of success stories—often ac companied by scores of failures. Some companies take action; most don't.
Trough of Disillusionment: Interest wanes as experiments and implementations fail to deliver. Producers of the technology shake out or fail. Investment continues only if the surviving providers improve their products to the satisfaction of early adopters.
Slope of Enlightenment: More instances of how the technology can benefit the enterprise start to crystallize and become more widely understood. Second- and third-generation products appear from technology providers. More enterprises fund pilots; conservative companies remain cautious.
Plateau of Productivity: Mainstream adoption starts to take off. Criteria for assessing provider viability are more clearly defined. The technology's broad market applicability and relevance are clearly paying off. If the technology has more than a niche market then it will continue to grow.
One particular hype cycle chart of interest in this discussion is the Gartner Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies (gartner.com/smarterwithgartner/top-trends-in-the-gartner-hype-cycle-for-emerging-technologies-2017).
One really useful feature is that technologies are keyed as reaching the Plateau at less than 2 years, 2 to 3 years, 5 to 10 years, or more than 10 years. Like us, Gartner doesn't have a crystal ball—something new could emerge tomorrow that changes everything—but it does have impressive amounts of data. Thus, it is a great resource for getting a bird's-eye view of the tech landscape.
Another guidepost on where technologies are and where they might be going is to look at Apple's position on them. I don't want to trigger a Mac versus Windows or iOS versus Android debate—full disclosure I'm a Mac guy—but in general terms, I think technologies supported by Apple have an advantage in the marketplace and are a good indication that a particular technology has some staying power. Though Apple likely prototyped it, it has brought no Google Glass technologies to market. However, it does support augmented reality and provides a developer toolkit for it. Any technology future thinking, of course, is predicated on knowing the needs of your community members and the strategic goals of your community as supporting those using appropriate technologies.