Predicting the future by reversing the timeline.

One of the techniques I use when thinking about whether a new technology has potential is to use timeline reversal. Reversal is a powerful creative tool that allows our minds to think more laterally when it’s hard accept something immediately. So how does this reversal technique work? I’ll start by giving an example I once heard Tony Faure explain (note: Tony credited another source who I don’t recall). Tony was presenting to a group of senior leaders at Unilever around 2003 who really were unsure about the Internet and it’s relevance in the marketing world – and at the time they spent the majority of their budgets on TV (roughly 5 to 8% on digital marketing at the time). This is how he helped change their thinking:

What if the Internet Came first

“Imagine if the Internet had come first and that Commercial Television had never existed. Imagine that you had only ever  used the Internet for watching your favourite content/shows when and where you want on any device. Now picture this, someone comes to you and says – We’ve got this amazing new thing called a TV. It’s this huge expensive black box that takes up half of your living room. We’re going to put lots of shows on this device – but you can’t choose which shows and more than half of it will be rubbish. You’ll spend most of your time repeatedly pressing buttons on a device you will frequently lose, to find something. Now if you find a show you like you’ll have to make sure you’re in front of the TV at the right time to watch it. Oh –  and just as you are enjoying your show we are going to stop it every few minutes and start showing you ads 20 minutes out of every hour.”
– Tony Faure (paraphrased):

The idea of a television sounds quite ridiculous when dropped in a reversed context up against tablets, smartphones, PC’s and laptops but isn’t that obvious and a bit like saying of course we would never have ridden horses if the car had come first? Not really – and this is the important part because we need to understand why commercial TV is still around. The reason is that there is a very strong ecosystem that supports it. Deals for sport and big shows are sewn up by publishers making it harder to watch elsewhere. It is embedded in our culture even though functionally it comes up short when stacked against better digital services giving it a longer shelf life. The important note is ; old ways will still prevail under certain circumstances. My good friend Jeff Julian (who is one of the most creative people I know) often says, “Form follows function, but it is dictated by ceremony. For example, knives and forks are the most practical ways to eat food, but people still use chopsticks to eat sushi.

So unwrapping all this, new technology can succeed on the condition it provides significant new benefits and can trump individual, cultural and tribal rituals.

Think about these in a reverse context:
–  Digital Cameras >>> Return to using a Film Camera
–  Netflix >>> Return to renting DVDs from a physical store
–  GPS/Maps on Smartphone >>>Return to using a Street Directory

Now what about these:
– Device power harvesting from air >>> AAA Batteries?
– Electronic voting >>> Driving to the local poll station?

Technique Application:
So, lets look at this applied to Self Driving Cars:

Self driving cars are just around the corner. They promise to reduce road accidents, ease congestion and revolutionise transport. But how do they work?
Old way: Imagine a world where all cars have always been self driving. There are almost no accidents or deaths. There has never been a case of drink/drug/distracted driving. There are no traffic jams. People spend their time in cars relaxing and being productive.
New way: Abandon automated vehicles. All people to drive their own cars. Thousands of people killed each day through driver error. Most of user time is spent stuck in traffic. 
Existing Ritual:
People like driving cars even though it is the most common cause of unnatural death. Many jobs exist through people driving. People don’t naturally trust automation.
Historical learning: Public safety and economics will usually eventually trump emotionally driven needs within society (with some exceptions, e.g: alcohol).
Prediction: Self driving cars will become standard when the technology is ready and affordable. The ritual of driving will still exist within other controlled environments.

Wrap Up.
Next time you are wondering if a new technology will replace an existing one, try imagining it came first. Consider the social implications and the user experience as well as macro forces – just because something is better, it will not necessarily succeed. But equally, just because something is new and not understood it does not mean it will fail.

You may also like...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *