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How to hone your disruption-spotting skills

Listening to the whispers on the fringe of technology can lead companies to relevance and success in the years to come. Quantitative futurist Amy Webb explains how it works.

Data is in Amy Webb’s DNA. Much of what the quantitative futurist at Future Today Institute advises CIOs and business teams is how to get past the natural inclination to look back for insight into the future.

A big part of preparing for success decades ahead, Webb says, is setting your radar on weak signals in the present. Develop the skill of noticing and tracking “emerging tech” before it emerges—that is, technology in embryo form that may grow into mainstream must-haves in 20 years.

It’s kind of like flying cars. “The signals in the present have to do with automation, so new flying car prototypes feel fresh and novel,” Webb says. “And yet, every decade for the past 100 years, ever since the first patent was filed, someone has filed a patent, built prototypes, and received funding for flying cars. This tells us that flying cars aren’t new—and in fact, the slow-moving trend has been automation.”

Teams can be taught to think strategically to build a preferred future. Webb explains how to spot disruptive technologies and trends in detail in Future Today Institute's 12th annual 2019 Emerging Tech Trends Report.

She shares a few tips on how to identify which trends to watch.

Break with biology

You have to carve out a new way of thinking, Webb says. Recognize how the world is changing, and see where and how disruption might take place.

“Because the future is unknown, we tend to rely on patterns that we’ve already seen,” Webb says. That leads to businesses making decisions based on past experiences and viewing change through their own, limited worldviews.

The U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is an example of responding to previous events rather than basing emergency preparation on current potential triggers. “The TSA system in the United States is a response to the horrendous attacks on Sept. 11,” Webb says. “And in a lot of ways, that structure is set up in response to something that’s already happened, versus a system that could be responsive to future threats.”

Think exponentially, but act incrementally

Webb’s disruption-spotting motto: “Think exponentially, but act incrementally.”

“That’s a way of saying the future doesn’t show up fully formed. It’s unfolding in the present all the time,” she says.

Thinking exponentially considers how a particular technology might impact your company in the next quarter. Then, as the technology, the business, and the market mature over time, you ask, “What does that look like over a period of many years?”

Webb acknowledges the pressures of quarterly reviews and yearly reports. That’s where the incremental actions come in.

“You have to focus on an immediate time span that feels comfortable to your company, but you also have to think about how disruption will unfold over the next few decades,” Webb says. “And you need to think short and long term simultaneously.”

There are easy ways to take incremental action, she says. For instance, identify one person in the organization to become an expert on one particular emerging technology, such as deep learning, a segment of artificial intelligence. The expert’s job is to learn what’s happening in that subject area. Among the expert’s tasks might be setting a Google alert and reading academic research about that technology, following makers to watch the technology’s early progress, and tracking where investors put their money. The expert can provide company management with regular updates.

What’s next for edge computing? Learn how innovations at the edge are transforming manufacturing, entertainment, public safety and more in this free report.

Build diverse teams

Webb stresses that diversity is part of a company’s success equation. That includes not only gender, age, ethnicity, and socioeconomic background, but also the way leaders and team members think. She advises that team structure be organized with both process thinkers and more visionary, creative thinkers in the room when forming business strategies.

A team of people with the same backgrounds and worldviews is a good way to miss what’s coming next. “A homogeneous team will look at signals in the same way. Organizations must be intentional about diversifying foresight teams,” Webb explains.

Where to focus

You’ve prepared your team to think strategically and learn how to keep an ear open for future trends. Now what? Many areas are ripe for disruption over the next several years, Webb says. She highlights the following three areas, but the big picture is available in the free report.


“Every organization should brace for new data and privacy regulations in the coming year,” Webb says. “Proposals are coming from the EU, OECD, and also state and federal government agencies. Regulatory changes are coming at a time in which there is still tremendous flux in artificial intelligence. AI isn’t a single technology but the third era of computing.”

AI’s system of autonomous decisions follows the second era of computing—programmable systems—and the first era of tabulation-based computers.

“Every single CIO should be focused on all of the weak signals that tell us something about the future of regulation,” Webb advises.

Extended reality

Webb’s research points to the beginning of smartphones. What comes next is a proliferation of smart peripherals that rely on both the cloud and edge computing. Think connected yoga pants, toothbrushes, and glasses, for example. All three are on the market, but people may not take them seriously or see them as having a future impact. Any CIO who doesn’t think smart glasses are on the horizon is in danger of missing the boat, according to Webb.

This is a prime opportunity to act incrementally. Have a team member follow extended reality to track development and follow the weak signals in the present.


There aren’t established 5G networks in the United States yet, but China is pushing far ahead—and not just in developing the critical infrastructure, Webb says. Because China’s 5G initiative is state-funded, it may take the global lead, she notes. That has implications for the future of all our devices and how secure they really are.

That connection is key, Webb says. It means not only staying on top of current trends but thinking ahead and making the connection about how today’s trends may impact the future.

From working with IT leadership teams for more than a decade, Webb says the companies that thrive are the ones that are most nimble. A large part of that agility is spotting disruption in advance and figuring out a way to use it by the time it arrives.

This article/content was written by the individual writer identified and does not necessarily reflect the view of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company.