When it comes to predicting the future, many people simply say that only time will tell. But is that really true? Can we not already form a reasonable picture of what lies ahead?
This is the theory at the heart of futures research. This scientific discipline, which can be studied at the Free University of Berlin, for example, involves identifying developments and potential and leveraging them for business. “We aim to highlight opportunities for the future. This involves looking at ways of utilising social and technological developments. We see ourselves as ‘future builders’, and it is our mission to help people and companies shape their futures in the best possible way,” says futurologist Dr. Jörg Wallner, who is Director Strategic Foresight at 2b AHEAD ThinkTank GmbH. He and his colleagues use qualitative social research methods such as the Delphi technique. As a first step, they also analyse patents, the latest scientific publications from around the world and other documents, many of which are difficult to access. Based on this, futures research is able to create well-founded prognoses looking ten years ahead. Futures research is therefore currently focusing on implications for the period up to around 2030. We spoke to Dr. Wallner, who gave us a fascinating insight into future trends in general and the key changes in the world of industry in particular.
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An overview of the top three general future trends
When it comes to making out the three most important future trends for the next ten years, all you actually need to do is look at the interests of the major venture capital companies. On this basis, Dr. Wallner has identified the following trends – immortality, settling on Mars, and “new gold”. Technologies such as cryopreservation ensure that the search for eternal life regularly gets coverage in the media. Settling on Mars is another vision of Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk. He would like to prove that humanity is not limited to one planet. In doing so, his thinking goes far beyond state-run space administrations, who initially want to use probes to find out whether life on Mars is even possible.
The term ‘new gold’ is used to describe innovative technologies and materials that can trigger a kind of ‘gold rush’ in their respective industries.
While these first two future trends are clear, trend number three throws up one fundamental question before you can get started – what exactly is “new gold”? “This term is used to describe innovative technologies and materials that can trigger a kind of ‘gold rush’ in their respective industries,” explains Wallner. He includes functional food in this, which uses additives to go beyond purely nutritional needs, and aims to have a positive effect on health. This trend is thus a targeted response to the idea of the quantified self, whereby people continuously monitor and better themselves using digital gadgets. Due to its potential for both the food and the pharmaceutical industries, it is likely that there will be a huge market for functional food.
Consequences of the pandemic – accelerated digitalisation and new ways of working
Throughout society as a whole – and in the working world in particular – the coronavirus pandemic has brought about rapid changes. Office-based activities in industry – such as engineering, administration, human resources and corporate communications – are increasingly seeing the benefits of digitalisation. Using online tools and conducting video meetings have long since become part of everyday working life. Did the COVID pandemic disrupt the prognoses for 2030 in this regard? “Although the acceleration of digitalisation across the world has been remarkable, we handle it as a ‘wildcard’ in terms of our methodology. This means that our fundamental prognosis for 2030 hasn’t changed, but developments are now progressing faster than expected. There will be no going back,” Wallner says. Generally speaking, change processes in society tend to be associated with countermovements – as can be seen in retro trends such as the preference for vinyl records in these times of digital music consumption. This will not be the case in the working world, however.
Coworking spaces on the outskirts of towns will support a better quality of life for people who have chosen to live in the suburbs because it is so expensive to rent in major cities.
Changes to the working world are affecting everything, including concepts for workplaces and business premises. Companies from almost every business sector have given up office space, and the new spaces businesses need are getting smaller. In future, work space will no longer be designed to accommodate all the members of staff who will later work there. In other words, not all employees will have an allocated office workstation. Working from home and hybrid work, which combines working in the office with working from other places, are therefore becoming more usual. At the same time, a basic level of trust on the part of managers is fundamental to the success of agile work concepts and new work. Flexibility and the sense that work is meaningful are also becoming increasingly important. As part of this, it is also to be expected that new workspaces are being created. Coworking spaces on the outskirts of towns, for example, will support a better quality of life for people who have chosen to live in the suburbs because it is so expensive to rent in major cities. Working in these types of spaces will save workers several hours of commuting time without them having to give up the routine of a regular working day in an office environment. What’s more, the reduced journeys also cut CO2 emissions. In fact, the subjects of climate change and sustainability have become focal points for senior executives – as expected. These issues will take on an increasing dynamic, for example in terms of burgeoning requirements for the entire product life cycle.
Future trends – return to increased warehousing levels and resilience as a headline topic
The coronavirus pandemic and the war in Ukraine have thrust value chains into the spotlight. There are indications that it will take at least two or three more years for container shipping to get back to normal. At the same time, many industrial companies have realised the hazards involved in just-in-time production, which is heavily reliant on supply chains. As Dr. Wallner explains, one clear future trend for industry can already be seen. “Companies are saying to themselves, ‘Okay, so it looks like we can’t exclusively depend on these global supply chains working as they are meant to.’ They are therefore realising that they should perhaps rely more on warehousing so they are better prepared.” The aluminium shortage of 2022 is a perfect example of how relevant predictive planning has become. item, for instance, generally uses long-term planning and partnerships – with aluminium suppliers all over Europe, comprehensive warehouse stock and predictive ordering. When it became clear that the raw material shortage was becoming more acute, contracts were agreed with suppliers – even despite such high prices. As a result, standard articles are being delivered anywhere in Germany within 48 hours.
Companies must be resilient in times of crisis, in the sense that their supply chains must be less vulnerable and their internal organisation must enable them to respond with agility.
Resilience is therefore one of the key characteristics to survive future global crises. In this context, the business sector is also now considering bringing production back into companies’ home countries, or at least closer to home in the form of nearshoring. The idea behind this is to shorten supply chains and therefore make them less vulnerable. However, resilience also includes agile working methods and the latest management styles that make it possible to respond particularly quickly. What’s more, many companies have recognised the importance of having reliable data about their own operations. However, that is not enough. They also need highly qualified data analysts. While these measures may seem very different, as Dr. Wallner says, they share the common goal of boosting resilience. “That will be the common thread of what we have learned from the COVID pandemic – how can I make my company more resilient than it was in the past?”
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Cooperation and the role of digital platforms for B2B sales and recruiting
New circumstances also call for new forms of collaboration. There will therefore be increasing coopetition between companies in the future. Coopetition is a portmanteau term combining “cooperation” and “competition”. Companies that are in competition with each other also enter into collaborations to a certain extent. The best-known examples of this future trend so far are in the financial sector, where established banking houses cooperate with agile fintech start-ups. Both parties bring their strengths to the table. While conventional banks have wide-ranging experience and a broad customer base, start-ups are skilled in using innovative management methods and quickly developing new products and services and launching them onto the market. “We are witnessing a transformation in value chains, which are moving away from the previous logic and becoming more like value networks. Value can only be sensibly created at a growing number of points when it is being generated through a joint effort rather than a solo enterprise,” says Dr. Wallner. It is for this reason that industry will increasingly offer packages from several providers and make them available on digital platforms.
In addition to sales logic, recruiting will also be shaped by digital platforms in the future.
In ten years’ time, according to forecasts, around 50 percent of business will function in such a way that appropriate digital platforms will use real-time data and artificial intelligence (AI) to answer queries from potential customers. Effects on the work of field staff in B2B sales are also therefore inevitable. Their tasks will change significantly, because the AI will use data to make key decisions. Wallner describes this trend as follows: “Price-setting, which currently often lies in the judgement of a member of the field staff, is increasingly being automated. AI is taking over this element of B2B sales. We are already seeing a wave of dynamic pricing systems being rolled out.” These make it possible to answer the following questions in (almost) real time: What is the customer relationship like? What is the state of the market, competition and supply situation? These responses, which are firmly grounded in the data, then form the basis for setting the price. In addition to sales logic, recruiting will also be shaped by digital platforms. Firstly, there will be new technologies that can check whether applicants meet the relevant profile. Secondly, there will increasingly be platforms for high potentials that will ensure recruiters can contact them at the earliest possible stage. These are just a couple of examples of how digitalisation and the associated trends will shape the working world of the future.
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