How weak signals can help you stay ahead of the next wave of innovation

A crucial ingredient for any successful business is understanding the trends shaping the world around us and that point to future opportunities.

If you miss these shifts, you risk being disrupted and, worse, going out of business. But if you can catch these potential trends early and capitalize on them, they instead mean growth and opportunity.

Catching these subtle changes early isn’t easy, however. All world-changing shifts don’t just magically appear, they start as weak signals, and you must look for them. A weak signal is very early evidence of a potential future mainstream trend. Given the very early nature of these signals, they may or may not actually become a trend. But identifying and monitoring weak signals over time is integral to getting in on new trends early. Sometimes this can be the difference between catching a new wave and leading this change or getting left behind.

As futurists, we want to be the disrupters, not those being disrupted. To do that, we need to constantly observe society and the world around us to find these new trends and weak signals.

Here are eight weak signals that our team is watching for future impact.

Eco-consumerism

Consumers are becoming more aware of how their consumption contributes to climate change, and this is changing their buying behaviors accordingly. As consumers become more eco-friendly, they’re putting pressure on brands to do the same by repurposing waste, using biodegradable materials, and prioritizing renewable resources. Companies that don’t embrace sustainability or give back to the planet in some way risk losing the support of consumers. With 77% of consumers concerned about the environmental impact of the products they buy, that’s a large demographic to risk losing.

Here’s a look at eco-consumerism at play:

  • These bio-concrete tiles are made with Japanese knotweed and American signal crayfish, two invasive species in the UK that would otherwise be considered waste. They also reduce carbon emissions caused by traditionally made concrete.
  • These running shoes from Zen Running Club are made entirely from plant-based materials, resulting in a fully biodegradable shoe.
  • Molded fiber, an eco-friendly packaging alternative, is gaining momentum. Once a time-consuming process, recent innovations like HP’s Molded Fiber Advanced Tooling Solution are accelerating the adoption of more sustainable packaging.

Rise of reality

While we are still living highly digital lives, and there is significant hype surrounding a potentially virtual future in the metaverse, there is also a growing need for a return to reality. After the lockdown portion of the pandemic, many of us are ready to return to physical spaces, travel, and in-person entertainment to escape Zoom fatigue and tech burnout. As more people crave unplugging over new online experiences, it will be critical for new technologies to enhance our physical experiences and interactions. Even further, tech companies are responsible for improving their products to battle burnout and enhance user experience.

Here’s a look at the rise of reality at play:

  • AiFi, an HP Tech Ventures portfolio company, offers AI-powered autonomous retail solutions, making shopping a seamless experience for consumers and retailers.
  • To address tech fatigue, many tech companies could provide time-limit features or recommend breaks to users. Other companies are getting even more creative, like these hologram startups aiming to make remote meetings feel less impersonal.
  • Location-based VR experiences, powered by technologies like HP’s VR backpack, allow users to blend the virtual with reality.

Distributed enterprise

In a recent HP Wolf Security report, 46% of office workers admitted using their work devices for personal tasks, and 69% claimed to have used their personal devices for work activities. This overlap between work and personal devices has been exacerbated by the increase in remote work, which has further blurred the line between consumer and enterprise. Enterprise products and services are being increasingly distributed across smaller home offices rather than large company headquarters. This has significant implications for cybersecurity and maintenance and could contribute to feature changes.

Here’s a look at distributed enterprise at play:

  • With the era of hybrid work upon us, there is a growing need for devices connecting home and corporate offices. Solutions like HP Presence provide powerful collaboration tools to reinvent how people connect.
  • Employees and companies can better protect their data from cybercriminals by embracing decentralized cybersecurity. Approaches like zero trust security are gaining popularity, with 78% of firms planning to adopt zero trust in 2022.
  • Remote maintenance is not entirely new, but it’s increasingly essential as remote work grows. Advanced remote management technologies, like NVIDIA’s Fleet Command, are working to optimize processes for global IT professionals.

Omniscient health

As people continue to be hyper-conscious of their health, there has been significant growth in health-related technologies ranging from wearable devices to AI-powered diagnostics. Wearables like fitness trackers have become smarter and more powerful, so users are gaining greater insight into their health. Health providers can use this new data, paired with the power of AI, to aid in their care. Microfluidics could also enable faster, less invasive, and more accurate diagnostics. As monitoring our health becomes part of our daily routine, chronic issues could be caught sooner, leading to more proactive care.

Here’s a look at omniscient health at play:

  • Using data from continuous wearable sensors, physiQ generates personalized and actionable insights for patients and their healthcare providers.
  • For people with chronic illnesses, health monitoring tools are essential. Fortunately, many startups are working to create more straightforward and less invasive health monitoring methods, such as BOYDSense, which developed a breath-based glucose level monitor for those with diabetes.
  • Using microfluidics, researchers at Northwestern developed a sticker that absorbs and uses sweat to accurately diagnose cystic fibrosis in newborns. Another research team from the University of Minnesota has also created a new microfluidic chip that could provide point-of-care diagnostics.

Internet of energy

At our current rate, global energy consumption is set to see a 50% increase between 2020 and 2050. With the growing volume of data, demand for clean energy, and increasing adoption of emerging technologies, a new energy system may be critical. Antiquated energy infrastructure, like electrical grids, cannot keep up with technology advancements and energy demands. The Internet of Energy may be the best solution, as it can reduce inefficiencies, limit waste, and maximize the potential of existing infrastructures. It could also lead to the adoption of smart grid technology, which would hugely benefit users and energy consumption.

Here’s a look at the internet of energy at play:

  • Smart panels from startups like Span balance home electricity use to avoid overloading utility grids.
  • Packetized Energy, recently acquired by EnergyHub, is a software platform aggregating energy devices such as water heaters, HVAC systems, electric vehicle chargers, solar inverters, and distributed batteries into dispatchable and flexible grid resources.
  • General Electric (GE) launched a startup, Current, which pairs LEDs and solar panels with software. This allows the system to gather data to apply insights to corporate operations to increase lighting and productivity savings.

Geospatial AI

The increasing number of satellites and improved image quality provides a plethora of data that, combined with supercomputing, allows Geospatial AI (GEOAI) to extract and impart impactful insights. This integration of geospatial studies and AI helps machine learning mimic human spatial reasoning and dynamics to better understand environmental and geographical impacts. This could lead to hyper-local and instantaneous weather forecasting, real-time wildfire detection, and other capabilities that could make environmental conservation and planning more seamless.

Here’s a look at GEOAI at play:

  • Google’s Machine Learning for Precipitation Nowcasting from Radar Images performs weather forecasting using real-time data instead of hours-old data.
  • The city of Boston will use data from satellites in the TreeTect pilot to improve tree equity and anticipate tree maintenance tasks.
  • Scientists from Stanford University developed a deep-learning model that maps fuel moisture levels across 12 of the US’ Western states, making it easier to predict where wildfires are likely to ignite and spread.

Transportation transformation

Growing concern for pollution and congestion is leading to disruptive innovation in transportation technology, policy, and infrastructure, which will radically change how we transport people and things in the future. Crowded freeways, slow delivery times, and an urgency to counteract climate change all demand revolutionary change in the transportation industry.

Urban transportation is central to the effort to slow climate change, with plenty of opportunities for growth and innovation. Home to more than half the world’s population, cities account for more than two-thirds of global carbon dioxide emissions. Transportation is often the most prominent and fastest-growing source of emissions and is the U.S.’ second-largest source of greenhouse gas emissions.

Here’s a look at transportation transformation at play:

  • Though not quite a reality yet, the idea of a hyperloop has long captivated society, with companies like Virgin and The Boring Company working towards its creation. The technology exists to create the ultra-fast transportation concept, but there are still significant hurdles to overcome.
  • TuSimple has created autonomous trucks, which promise improved safety, efficiency, and sustainability. Its trucks allegedly shaved 10 hours off a 24-hour run.
  • Florence has implemented smart trams, which could shape future transportation for other European cities.

3D-printed electronics

Advances in 3D printing technology that allow for voxel-level specification of materials, combined with improvements in metal substrates, will enable electronic components to be printed at the same time as durable parts, rather than being added as a separate assembly step after printing. These capabilities could allow electronic devices to be 3D-printed on demand as all-in-one elements, with no assembly required. This would minimize production costs and time and create an opportunity to reduce the size and weight of electronics.

Here’s a look at 3D-printed electronics at play:

  • Japanese CAD and 3D printing company SOLIZE uses HP 3D printers to make out-of-production spare parts for NISMO, the motorsport division of Nissan
  • Optomec’s Aerosol Jet printing technology enables 3D-printed electronics using aerodynamic focusing.
  • Nano Dimension’s Dragonfly IV 3D printer can generate entire circuits in one step.
  • Researchers at the University of Florida have developed a method of printing copper on fabric, a milestone for wearable electronics.

Considering the state of our world, futuristic thinking is a necessary skill we all need to learn and practice. With the constant and rapid pace of change, everyone should be honing their futurist skills. And thinking like a futurist isn’t reserved for a select group of people. It is a fundamental skill set that anyone can learn.

This is not something all of us do naturally, though. Only a small percent of the population thinks and plans for the future. In fact, only 35% of Americans regularly think about their five-year future. Those who aren’t thinking of their futures are disadvantaged over those who do. If we want to stay one step ahead in our fast-paced world, and if we’re going to move forward and create the future we want, we must adopt long-term, futuristic thinking.

To help you get started, here are three essential practices that I have found very useful in my career as a futurist:

  1. Monitor shifts — Pay attention and understand what’s happening in the world around you. Notice the small changes that create new needs. Keep an eye on these weak signals and any others that appear.
  2. Visualize future outcomes — Start with your vision for the future and work backward from there, not the other way around. What was the catalyst for your vision of the future?
  3. Adopt an innovative mindset — Have a “can do” attitude and be unstoppable. Embrace everything as a learning opportunity, even failure.

The more you think like a futurist, the better you can create the future you want.

Which of these weak signals are you interested in? Any others you are monitoring? Share your thoughts with me in the comments.

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