Amy Webb: building strategy on insight into trends
In the final episode of season two of WHAT'S NEXT, Amy Webb explores how you spot deep, emerging trends and integrate them into your thinking — and long-term planning.
Amy Webb is the founder of the Future Today Institute, a leading foresight and strategy firm that helps leaders and their organizations prepare for complex futures. Amy pioneered a data-driven, technology-led foresight methodology that is now used within hundreds of organizations. She is a professor of strategic foresight at the NYU Stern School of Business, where she developed and teaches the MBA course on strategic foresight.
In the final episode of season two of What’s NEXT, she explored how to spot real, meaningful trends amongst the noise, and how to turn that into a strategy.
Watch the complete episode
Why does Amy Webb’s Future Today Institute give away a huge annual report on trends? Isn’t that something hugely valuable?
“The trends are the starting point, not the end,” said Webb, kicking off her appearance on What’s NEXT. “You start from the trends and work out what comes next.”
And doing that well means understanding the context and history, too. She gives the example of the Metaverse, something David often talks about on the show. It is not, as she points out, a new idea. There are new modalities of the idea, but there’s a much longer tradition, going back to Second Life. The things to pay attention are not the content, but the pipes, access, and distribution. “From a strategy point of view, the executive management team needs to work on these,” she suggests.
Public Trend Spotting
The bias towards openness shown by the report is threaded through all the Institute’s work. Their methodology is public and open source. Why?
“There’s a difference between learning and studying a methodology, and actually getting really good at using it,” said Webb. “It’s no different from, say, learning a musical instrument in that way.”
And the big mistake most people make is that they don’t look at the source data. The report is useful, but if you’re going to do this for your organisation, you really need to go to the original sources, suggests Webb.
That’s exactly how the Institute goes about spotting signals of emerging trends in the noisy chatter of research, tech, and investment. They scrape information from a range of sources and use natural language processing to extract weak signals that our cognitive biases would miss.
Finding trends in first sources
“We’re interested in early, early-stage stuff,” said Webb. “We’re looking at patent databases, pre-pub academic research and early-stage funding rounds.”
She’s not looking to spot individual products or companies as much as she’s looking for repetition: things that keep showing up, and which indicate something that’s coming.
This process could spot Amazon starting to build out smart city tech, for example — the results of which have just rolled out. “We’ve seen top-down initiatives in this space fall down everywhere it’s been tried globally,” said Webb. “Why? Nobody wants that kind of surveillance.”
But, she explained, if you enter at the consumer level, then the network gets built from the ground up, the net result is the same without the resistance. It doesn’t require council approval, and Amazon can still sell the data to law enforcement.
Synthetic biology is future
But, for Webb, one trend is a standout:
“Biology is the most important technology of the 21st century,” she said.
Over the past 20 years, there has been significant investment, research, and development in the area of synthetic biology, which draws together multiple fields. The goal? To redesign life to improve it for a range of purposes.
That could be a synthetic approach to creating seeds, or tailoring plants to resist climate change. It allows enzymes that eat plastic, self-repairing coatings on glasses… Yes, a lens that you can’t break is coming, to the profound relief of glasses-wearers everywhere. Even the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, as mRNA-based inoculations, are examples of synthetic biology.
Webb suggests that the growth of this field is going to need multiple technologies to support it: 5G and 6G tech, for example, along with advances in robotics. But more specifically, it requires that sort of pan-national infrastructure that other major trends are struggling with.
The AI (bad) example
Take, for example, AI. It has been in development for hundreds of years. The big change has been the availability of enough computing power to truly deliver on AI’s promise.
“China, the US and the EU have all gone different directions,” she said. “The EU is regulating, the US is pushing it in a way that doesn’t aid the public good, and China is using it for geopolitical purposes.”
This dispersion of effort is slowing the growth of the technology.
The largest number of papers in AI are coming out of China, not the US. And the EU is spending more time on regulation than research. How can we bring all the parties to the table to work together?
Webb points out that the stakes are much higher in synthetic biology. “We have some regulation — but it’s about products, like GMOs, not processes at the moment,” she said.
Building trends into strategy
How do the sort of trends she spots — like synthetic biology — create opportunities and challenges for our businesses?
“To do that you have to go out more than three years in your planning, but pretty much every business conflates vision and tactic with strategy,” she said. “The hard work is to define a vision non-aspirationally.”
Executives tend to define vision by their KPIs: a billion customers by 2030, for example. Webb again:
“Goals aren’t your vision. You have to think about what allows you to get to that target, and not just what you need to do for the next year. “
“Think about how you want your customers to feel, what their journey will be — given that the issues of networks, connectivity, and devices will be very different in 2030. People need to get better at these truly strategic thinking, in both the short and long term. Have the vision, but make a lot of small bets along the way.”
This is a summary of an interview with Amy Webb, conducted by David Mattin and Monique van Dusseldorp during the NEXT Show on June 23rd, 2021. You can catch up with Amy and her work on Twitter and LinkedIn. Her latest book, The Genesis Machine, will be published next year.