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Technology Futures Report 2021

Projecting the possible. Navigating what’s next.

The World Economic Forum and Deloitte present this first-of-its-kind report, equipping today’s readers with the insights and foresight critical to tomorrow’s leaders. We project historical technology and socioeconomic trends through a new foresight tool and add speculative fiction to bring the possibilities (and personalities) of the future to life.

The COVID-19 crisis is shining a klieg light on the immense challenge leaders face in planning for the future amid extreme uncertainty. In parallel, new technologies of the fourth industrial revolution, such as artificial intelligence (AI), cloud, and robotics, are changing the way we live, learn, and do business at a rate unprecedented in human history. These historic changes, considered within the increasingly urgent context of shifting political landscapes and environmental instability, suggest that now, more than ever, leaders need tools that can help them understand the future beyond the near term and then plan accordingly.

Tools for foresight

Oxford provides the word “future” with nine distinct definitions. Some are anodyne (“the time that will come”), others declarative and deterministic (“what will happen”).

Many people will tell you that the future is clear, transparent, and entirely predictable. Others see it as opaque and unknowable. To them, time and energy spent divining the future feels like folly.

In this report, we argue that neither extreme is accurate. Indeed, we see the future as being translucent, a collage of intriguing shapes and shadows, but few fine details. The pragmatist sees futurism (i.e., the study of the future) as a strategic discipline—a means of harnessing tailwinds, dodging headwinds, and setting a more intentional course toward a preferred tomorrow.

Which is why a third Oxford definition, “the possibility of being successful or surviving at a later time,” perhaps best describes what we explore in this report: We examine possible future scenarios and identify how and where technology can play a role. We want to help you consider which technologies will be relevant to your organization not only in a few years, but also in a decade or longer.
 

Highlights from our research include:

  • A business case for futurism: Rather than fully transparent or opaque, the future is translucent. To harness tailwinds, dodge headwinds, and set a more intentional course toward their preferred tomorrow, leaders must project and consider a full spectrum of possible future scenarios and identify how and where emerging technologies can (and should) play a role.

  • A brief history of the future: A look at the history of emerging information technology innovations from the 19th century to current, with a particular focus on the three enduring “eternities” that have characterized the trajectory of information technology since its inception in the 1840s: interaction, computation, and information.

  • A framework for foresight: Newly introduced in this report, the LEnS framework looks at historical technological and socioeconomic trendlines and projects possible futures based on the aggregation and extrapolation of the data at hand. The framework further accounts for domain-specific filters, allowing leaders to focus on specific issues most relevant to their foresight exercise. This report specifically considers the future(s) of education, information, locality, and economy.

Figure 1: The Longitudinal Emergence Scatterplot (LEnS) Framework for Education

  • Faces of the future: Four pieces of speculative fiction, each set in a different world, as bounded by the LEnS projections above. Unorthodox, but far from folly, fiction allows us to experience projected futures, empathize with those living there, and recognize that today’s emerging technology innovations become tomorrow’s legacy constraints.
  • Signals in the noise: A conclusory recognition that, despite the divergence inherent in futures work, there are three enduring technology trajectories that have, and will continue to, characterize emerging technology evolution. These convergent endgames can, in turn, serve as North Stars for today’s strategic planning and tomorrow’s tactics.

Table 1: A Taxonomy of technology change

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