This story reflects the views of this author, but not necessarily the editorial position of Fast Company.
Soylent, the meal replacement for those who consider eating an inefficient use of time, has been called many things, including “slurp sludge” and “healthy gloop.” To its cofounder, Rob Rhinehart, it’s “the future of food.” Just not my future food. Because like many people–apparently including those who “hack” Soylent to make it more food-like–I enjoy cooking, eating, and the social rituals those things entail.
Who cares what one eccentric startup founder believes the future will look like? First, because he’s hardly alone. There’s no shortage of entrepreneurs who double as amateur futurists, declaring to the rest of us what’s coming. Second, because what those folks imagine is coming more often reflects what they want than what most people need.
And what more people need is a greater hand in shaping their own futures. These days, we’re already seeing what happens when enough people start worrying whether they even have one.
Last year, Singularity University’s Peter Diamandis projected that fully autonomous vehicles would hit roadways “well within five years.” Yet in study after study, most Americans across all age groups say they want to stay in the driver’s seat. Even if we know that cars will likely be safer under the control of AI, many of us actually like driving. Reason doesn’t always win out–people’s irrational preferences do.
It isn’t news that Silicon Valley’s idea of the future is often out of sync with what makes most of us tick. The Segway that VC John Doerr once predicted would hit $1 billion in sales and become “maybe bigger than the internet” only sold 30,000 units. Because, according to one analysis, the company ignored customer satisfaction and acceptance needs. Like not wanting to look weird in public.
It’s long been this way. General Motors’s “Futurama” exhibits at the 1939 and 1964 World’s Fairs looked forward to cities custom-built for machines, and to machines that could custom-build new cities. One featured a tree-cutting, chemical-spewing contraption that could build four-lane highways right through a dense jungle. Which would be perfect for selling more cars in South America, right?
Today, with climate change topping the World Economic Forum’s 2016 Global Risks lists, it’s easy to feel grateful that the jungle road builder never got built. The point isn’t to knock GM’s mid-century execs. It’s that there isn’t much separating them from today’s would-be innovators who haven’t proved much better at identifying whether the public really wants or needs their future-defining “advancements.” (And for every protest of, “But the iPhone!” there are dozens of other “innovations” that tanked.)
Predicting the future, we already know, is big business. And why merely satisfy a need, the Steve Jobs-ian logic goes, when you can create one that people didn’t know they had? Get ahead of a trend, and you stand to make gobs of money. Create a trend, and make gobs more.
But who does that really serve?
If this type of charge has been lobbed as a generic broadside before, current events show its consequences are far from abstract, and they’re growing.
It’s not just that forecasts too often reflect a tiny elite’s wishful thinking, it’s that they often paper over uncertainty or downright ignorance. Take Donald Trump’s surprise victory and the upset outcome of the Brexit referendum. Both were largely votes to reject the status quo at all costs, and prognosticators scarcely saw them coming. Psychologists know that people become more inclined to reject things when they feel all their options are bad—net dissatisfaction pushes us to opt out of everything rather than into something.
So when the workforce appears to be careening toward rampant automation, to take just one (not altogether groundless) popular fear, a future of endless freelancing may not strike people as an appealingly liberating alternative, however much they may wish to ditch their desk jobs. Just because you’re seeing users flock to your sleek new freelance marketplace doesn’t mean they’re doing it because they want to. Someone who just got laid off and needs a quick paycheck isn’t rushing to embrace her chosen future; her signup on your platform is your net gain, but not necessarily her career win.
That’s why it isn’t just frivolous or indulgent for a lighting company like Ketra, at least in BuzzFeed’s description last week, to “suggest new problems with your lights that you didn’t know you had, so you’ll buy a new class of products that you eventually can’t live without” (luxury commodities have been around since camels trekked the Silk Road)–it’s actually counterproductive, in an Economics 101 sense.
It’s not the task of every business to do the most good for the most people; that’s government’s job. But it is the function of every business to answer this question with integrity: “What problem are you solving?”
Why “with integrity”? Because Econ 101 poses that question simply for the sake of identifying a target customer segment. The world we live in now, however, begs us to think a lot harder and more urgently about collective problems in addition to consumer ones: climate change, the erosion of democratic principles, threats by stateless enemies. Want to make an impact on the future we’ll all have to live in? Want to really innovate? Start by asking ordinary people what they want tomorrow to look like, then work backward from there.
This is why the familiar outcry for greater diversity matters so much, especially right now. Businesses have gotten much better at talking about inclusion and diversity, and many have made halting but real progress at matching that talk to action. But there’s still a ways to go, and the pressure to do more is mounting. Companies need to reflect the world they’re trying to reshape. When they do, they’re better at seeing humans as something more than math problems, only knowable through trend analysis.
Because in reality, we’re complex, inefficient creatures who seek joy, sociability, and meaning in our lives and in our work. Those things have always been trending. Lately, there’s a lot that threatens them, and that’s a problem that all the internet-connected coffee makers in the world can’t solve, but that real food-guzzling, car-driving people just might.