The risky art of planning for tomorrow

They are here. From washing machines that no longer need soap to wash and mobile phones so flexible that they can slip into your wallet, to gadgets that will spell the beginning of the end of the humble computer keyboard, the products from the future have already been invented.

And there's more to come – car doors that slide and disappear underneath, eggs that self-time themselves when boiling and nail files that automatically release vitamins when used.

Yet, long before the rest of the world gets to see them and marvel at their ingenuity, these products were conceptualised, created and developed by people whose job is to predict what we will be eating, wearing, buying and investing in.

"We create the future now and release it when the time is right," says Jabir Walji, a futurist and strategic innovator for UK-based company Systematic Innovation.

He explains: "For example, we came up with the Gillette multi-blade that everyone uses now when two blades did not even exist. Now the two-blade, three-blade and the multi-blade were all conceptualised even before the basic two-blade was launched. So basically, the future was created [back then] and then released subsequently."

They are different kinds of people that help us to create the future – trend observers, inventors, planners, product developers and even astrologers. But the ability to predict the future and evolution of products, services and the trends that govern them, adds Walji, is "so commonsensical that everyone can do it". He and his company call that crystal ball strategic innovation. 

"It's a system that teaches you logically how to bust your box and create a new one," he says. "Today, innovation has become a science, not an art. And by applying that to marketing, processing and manufacturing, you open up an unlimited world of possibilities that can bring you huge returns."

The expert however is quick to add that what he does is very different from trend forecasting, where experts analyse existing trends, past fashions and make assumptions about what they think will be in demand in the future. 

"There are evolutionary trends for every single product and it has followed the same basic pattern over the years," he says.

"We use this as a methodology which we call Dynamisation. The progression is that all systems evolve from being static or immobile structures to structures featuring one or more joints and to completely flexible systems, to fluids or gases and then finally ‘fields'. Take the computer keyboard for instance. The desire to make the device more compact has led to the invention of a folding keyboard, which means more joints.

"Then we saw the appearance of keyboards that can be rolled up, which makes it flexible. Today, we have virtual keyboards that are projected out to any surface while still delivering the desired function, which is field. We can find and apply this pattern in each and every product development or marketing. It is really very simple."

Walji, who is in the process of opening an office in Dubai, says the wealth of knowledge his company holds is derived from years of studying patents and charting their progress and development.

"We have studied more than three million successful patents and that gives us knowledge about how different products are developed and we base our models on that," he says. "The beauty is that someone in a completely different industry would have already solved the problem for you.

"Recently we took a business process from Boeing and gave it to the ICICI Bank in India. Functions stay the same, it's just the solution that changes."

The business of forecasting however is not without risks. According to data collected by Systematic Innovation, more than 80 per cent of innovations fail before they reach the market while another 80 per cent of those that manage to reach the market are doomed for failure. A huge number of new ideas – about 90 per cent of them – are either delivered late, over-budget or to a lower quality than was originally planned. 

In 1985, soft drink giant The Coca Cola Company launched a sweeter version of their existing product called the New Coke in an effort to get ahead of rival PepsiCo. After spending millions of dollars in research and campaigns, the exercise backfired as the public completely rejected it. The American company was forced to re-introduce their previous drink, calling it Classic Coke.

While PepsiCo revelled in Coca Cola's massive blunder, it made the same mistakes in 1992 when it launched its caffeine-free, clear soda Crystal Pepsi in 1992. While a marketing blitzkrieg sustained it for a while, Pepsi pulled the drink off the market soon afterwards, a clear sign of rejection.

From Ford's Edsel to the Betamax, some innovations in history have turned into complete disasters leading to huge losses. There is a high risk in innovations, agrees Walji, but applying the right methodology, like Dynamisation, helps in reducing the risks. 

Another essential quality, he reveals, is patience.  "The virtual keyboard is a great example. Although it is a great innovation, it will not be successful because virtual keyboards do not have the same feeling as typing on a physical keyboard – and people are sure to reject it," he says.

"We will have to wait for some more innovations where typing on a virtual keyboard will give the same sense of touch and feel as typing on a real one. We are now developing a car that can drive itself with General Motors. But we can't unleash it to the market just yet because people will not accept it," he says. "Instead, what we do is take one step at a time. We will start with mirrors that adjust themselves or a windscreen that cleans itself and get the public used to the concept.

"But nothing is foolproof. Taking small steps cut down your risks and gives you time to analyse the reaction from the public."

Top marketing blunders

Ford Esdel, 1958
Considered one of the most spectacular failures in the history of the automobile industry, the Ford Edsel, was rejected by the public who saw nothing new in its design, that is was too big and that the pricing was confusing. After spending $350 million (Dh1.28bn), Ford ceased production of this non performer in 1959.

New Coke, 1985
The Coca Cola company thought it would get ahead of competitor PepsiCo by introducing a sweeter formula to replace its existing product. Big mistake. The public rejected it outright and Coke went back to its original formula, but not before the soft drinks giant had invested countless millions of dollars.

Crystal Pepsi, 1992
The marketing gurus at PepsiCo might have thought they had a winner on their hands when they decided to launch a caffeine-free soda in the US, Canada and Australia. A major publicity campaign sustained the lifespan of this "clear alternative" to a cola for a year. But flat sales eventually forced Crystal Pepsi off the shelves.

The Millennium Dome, 2000
This large, dome-shaped structure located in south-east London, originally used to house the Millennium Experience, a major exhibition celebrating the beginning of the third millennium. Many have called it a badly thought-out, badly executed plan, for which the government had no clue what to do with.