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Lessons from the Future – 20/20 vision, 20/20 hindsight

March 13, 2007

Generation Y, 3D printers, sonic cleaners, Sony iPods and dead cats bouncing – will cultural and technological changes mean the end of your product’s life-cycle?

At the Online Publishers Association London 2007 Forum last week (8th March) they left the best for last, with Wolfgang Grulke – futurist, author and adviser to the world’s top firms through his firm FutureWorld International – ending the day with an inspiring but frightening look into the future, asking one important question for your business – is your product at the end of its life-cycle?

20/20 vision, 20/20 hindsight

Grulke basically uses shock and awe tactics on companies who have failed to grasp the concept that their product has reached the end of its life-cycle. His predictions on how the world will change between now and the year 2020 takes its base from history and the changes occurring between 1970 and the present day. It’s not just about technological change, but changing consumer behaviour and culture.

Your product may be popular with its current purchasers, but will the next generation feel the same? Scary but thought provoking stuff, which really hits home on the importance of keeping your company on its toes.

Changing culture

Grulke talked about how attitudes and values have changed between generations and how this has spawned companies that match the generation’s ethos and culture. The Silent Generation(born 1925-1942) would have paid a parking fine, no questions asked. They were the children of a recession, so think government is a Good Thing – the only generation from which a US president has never been elected.

Next came the Baby Boomers, (born 1946-1964), who question authority, did the whole Woodstock thing, and if given a parking fine would Stick it to the Man – and were at the forefront of civil rights. Their children were Generation X (born 1961-1981), born into a turbulent economy – cynical, with no trust in traditional values and a lack of beliefs.

And the companies these different generations spawned?

  • Silent Generation: IBM
  • Baby Boomers: Microsoft
  • Generation X: Google

Sell the product or the attitude?

Marketing has changed to match the cultural differences between generations. Grulke showed the famous x box advert, Cradle to the Grave. Anybody viewers who are not Generation X (or Y) may ask “where’s the product?”. We used to market products, now we market attitudes.

The rise of User Generated Content, Grulke postulates, is very much tied to the growth of the prosumer.

Changing technology

Grulke compares the situation “Big Media” finds itself in similar to a bar-room brawl – you don’t know where the next punch is coming from, everybody’s a competitor, and the guy you’re fighting with next minute smashes a bottle over your noggin the next. Carolyn McCall reached a similar conclusion at last year’s AOP conference. Your competitors aren’t who you thought they were. If you are the CEO of an answering machine manufacturer, should you be looking at other answering machine manufacturers, or at the free voice mail that comes with every mobile phone these days?

Death to the washing machine

Grulke often tells anecdotes during his presentation as if from the mouth of the future consumer.

Granddad, Mummy says that you used to have these big boxes in your kitchen called “Washing Machines”. Did you really used to pour boiling water on your clothes and then cover them in nasty chemicals? Didn’t it ruin your clothes? And Daddy said the box used to walk around the kitchen on its own!

What was he on about? Sonic cleaning. In the future you will just hang your clothes back in the wardrobe and sonic cleaning technology will shake the dirt from your clothes as soon as you close the door, with technofibres un-creasing them, ready for you to wear the next time you open the door. This technology is a reality, now. But rumour has it a company is buying up all the patents in this area. And it’s not a washing machine company – it’s Unilever. Of course, since when have the Chinese cared about patents…

Another great anecdote is the legend that Sony invented the iPod four of five years before Apple. Sony they held on the the technology in fear that it would completely destroy the market for the Walkman. “They were right, it did.” Of course, it was Apple, not Sony who did the killing…

Print yourself something nice, dear

If you’re thinking the makers of washing powder are in for a hard time, then what about retailers? 3D printing technology is also a reality. You can buy one that ‘prints’ plastic models for $40,000. Sure, they take a whole day to do it right now, but look at how fast ink-jet printers are compared to five years ago? Apparently a university recently printed a fully wearable dress, and in China they have printed a working mobile phone – plastic case, electronics and all. [I’ll dig out some links to evidence later.]

Imagine what this means for retailers? It’s not that far away from Star Trek style ‘replicator‘ technology. Go to a website, download the design for a new pair of shoes, stick in the leather cartridge and print yourself something to go with the new dress you printed earlier.

Hanging on

Grulke seemed to suggest that you can can almost smell when an industry or a company is hanging on to a product line. They’ll talk about gaining market share, brand loyalty and difficult trading conditions. They’ll do research which will confirm that the people who buy their product really does love them and wants more – but what about the next generation? Do they get it?

Our grandparents loved wearing hats with their suits – and I’m sure hat companies’ surveys showed strong brand loyalty and love of their products – but how many people do you see wearing trilbies these days? And how many hatting companies are there now? (I should know, I’m from Stockport…).

They may be able to show a recent upwards trend on the sales chart. But Grulke suggests that:

Even a dead cat bounces when it falls from a great height…

So what’s the solution? Grulke says that companies must “ride the technological tsunami” – that is to embrace change and not shy away from it. Following the cannibalisation metaphor, his advice was:

Eat yourself before someone else does.

So what will be your competitive advantage in the future?

According to Grulke, people will not be your greatest asset. Instead, it will all be about:

  • Skills, not knowledge
  • Attitude, not experience
  • Leadership, not management
  • Relationships, not people

His final prediction is that nearly everything will be commoditised, particularly infrastructure. (The scary part of this prediction is that he thinks China will automate their industry and agriculture, thus making 300 million jobless..)

To compete in a world where everything is a commodity, his advice to companies is:

Don’t compete. Find the white-space.

And don’t be afraid. “Search for the hero inside yourself”. If you need help, go buy his book

3 Comments
  1. simon permalink
    April 20, 2007 1:15 pm

    This ones ecen better than the last… I want to live in a world where no one works… and I print my pleaseures… but how will it all be paid for??

  2. April 22, 2007 1:53 pm

    Maybe it’ll be like Star Trek – one big socialist universe where money is no object… 🙂

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