Forecasting new technologiesPaul Saffo dislikes being called a visionary, although many would describe him as the quintessential futurist. Instead, Saffo prefers to be called a forecaster. Not quite as glamorous a term, but a lot closer to what Saffo, 42, says he actually does as the director of the Institute of the Future (IFTF) in California’s Silicon Valley.
“I forecast,” he says. “I don’t predict. People who are futurists are excited about some aspect of the future. My job is to figure out what is likely to happen. I am not an advocate for one particular outcome or another. I’m more boring than a futurist.”
Saffo is director of the widely respected IFTF, a non-profit foundation that for more than 30 years has forecast critical, technological, demographic and corporate trends to help companies and government organisations plan successfully for the future. As a technology forecaster, Saffo spends most of his time looking at electronic technologies, typically from a five- to 10-year time range, but sometimes as long as 30 years, depending on the project.
Invited to Stockholm in October to speak at the New Economy Forum 2000, he delivers his ideas succinctly and with the humour and fresh approach for which he is known.
Dressed entirely in black (with a white collar at the neck of his shirt, he could easily have passed for a high priest of technology), Saffo sits back against a plush armchair in a parlour of Stockholm’s regal Grand Hotel and contemplates the New Economy in this very Old World setting.
“We are just at the beginning, but already you can see the huge impact e-commerce is having on business,” he says. “The big wave is yet to come. We have the hype and the disappointment, but we are about to see big things happen. We are integrating the e into commerce so that eventually the term e-commerce will disappear. Digital technology is the solvent removing the glue out of old much-cherished social, political and business structures. All business will be pervaded by cyberspace. It changes everything.”
“The important thing to remember is that in cyberspace there is no distance between two points,” he continues. “You can be 2,000 miles away from your potential customers, but with one click, you create huge commercial opportunities. This presents great opportunities for small businesses to project themselves out into the wider world.”
It’s a brave new world that almost anyone can conquer, given the flexibility and creativity, Saffo says. “It’s not a zero-sum game. The total size of the business environment is growing. If some entrepreneur goes out of business, it’s not because he was knocked out by competition. It’s his own damn fault, if he didn’t adapt and change. The winners will be the companies that look for new ways to do business and respond to challenges with imagination and creativity. New conduits call for new products and new kinds of thinking.”
Critical to success in the digital business world is constantly questioning your assumptions, says Saffo. “Take nothing for granted. You run the race every morning when you get up, and then you start over again the next day. I don’t mean that old business is dead. Quite the contrary. A lot of older established companies will find new ways to do business. What they will gain is efficiency and greater opportunities. We are already seeing a change in that companies today are less product-focused and more service-oriented.
“Generally, success in e-business is built up from a lot of specifics. The shift goes from commercial to industrial. You pick up customers you never had before, and you have lower transaction costs. This plays havoc with price havens.”
The secret of the forecaster’s job, says Saffo, “is to look for things that don’t fit. Look for the discontinuity. Most of us look for things that fit into categories we already understand and that’s a good way to miss things. Things that don’t fit may well be indicators of what lies ahead.”
As an example, he relates the story of how he was driving through Mendocino County in California and, crossing into the town of Mendocino, he noticed a sign that said, “End Emergency Call Boxes.”
“Now, that’s odd, I said to myself. I couldn’t decide why I thought it was odd, why it caught my attention, but something about entering a zone of no communication. Something had changed in our expectations. And as I thought about it, I came to the idea that while the 1980s were defined by the microprocessor, the ’90s were defined by how we were connected to things.”
Saffo started his career as a lawyer, an experience he says has been invaluable to his work today. As a lawyer working with venture funding and start-ups in the Silicon Valley, “I had a front row seat for watching innovation at work, and innovation is an important part of my job as a forecaster.”
What he likes best about his job is that “you never know what’s going to walk in the door. As a professional forecaster, I never cease to be surprised. And it’s delightful. Exhausting, but delightful.”
Saffo has said that work is not only coming to home, but home is coming to work. This is a positive trend, he says, “because we don’t have any choice. Business teams are spread around more time zones. You can’t get your job done between 9 and 5. You’ve got to find some time to have a personal life. I believe there’s no such thing as home work, but there is home overwork. Everyone is carrying work home and working late into the evenings and something has to give.”
He points to Procter & Gamble in Sweden as an enlightened company trying to find this balance. The company has washing machines in the building so that people can bring their dirty laundry to work. Granted, says Saffo, P&G, by the nature of its product, has a special relationship to detergent. But in another worker-friendly move, the company has a special office equipped with a day bed and some toys. So when home logistics just don’t work one day, parents can bring their child to work.
Some of the lessons of the old school that will never perish in the new digital age are keeping customers satisfied. Saffo points to Amazon.com as the perfect example. “Say whatever you may about their stocks, they are a great company. They are completely obsessed with their customers and making sure their customers have a great experience. So there are great new ways to bring that old principle of customer service to life in cyberspace, by having a readers’ circle and readers’ reviews and really giving their customers a voice in a way that was never done before. They leveraged the technology to provide the service, but service was always the goal. That’s how e-business meshes the best of the new with the old.”
a business and technology journalist based in Stockholm
photo Steve Castillo