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Sustainable Futures

4 ways to future-proof your company

<p>In today&#39;s economy, unpleasant surprises lurk around every corner. Here&#39;s how to be prepared for whatever tomorrow throws at you.</p>

The future is, or course, unknowable. Don't believe anybody that claims they can predict precisely what's going to happen. It would be foolhardy to bet the farm -- or the firm -- on a false certainty.

But just because we can't know precisely what the future holds doesn't mean that we can't better prepare for it. We can analyze trends, spot signals, develop scenarios and make plans.

At Forum for the Future, we've helped companies such as Levis, Pepsico, Sony and Unilever think about what they need to do in order to prosper in the future. So, here's four approaches that you might follow to future-proof your organization.

First, start with those trends that are more predictable. You can track those trends that began in the past, are happening now and are very likely to continue in the future. These trends often have such inbuilt momentum that we can be pretty certain -- barring major catastrophes -- that they will happen.

Many of these mega-trends -- such as global population growth, urbanization or climate change -- already will be very familiar to you. Consider the ones that will have greatest impact and prepare for them. Be ready, for example, to adapt to the impacts of climate change.

This sounds simple and straightforward, but it's remarkable how many organizations ignore even the very clear trends. For example, on the current trajectory, half of U.K. shopping will be online in a decade. Amazon will have overtaken Walmart as biggest retailer in the world. Yet many supermarkets are still building brick and mortar stores.

Second, think about the uncertainties. How will these mega-trends interact? Are some trends incompatible in the longer-term? What will be the political, social and psychological responses? Here, it rapidly becomes clear that there are a range of possible futures.

A good approach is to develop a set of scenarios, or stories of the future. Each will contain elements of what will come to pass, but no single one of them will be entirely correct. Scenarios can help to test today's strategy and to make it more resilient. So, recognizing that there are a range of possible futures, do as the futurist Peter Schwartz suggests: Think of the best strategy today likely to succeed in all those possible futures.

The best-known example of this approach is Shell's scenario work, which allegedly helped them navigate the major oil shocks and come out stronger. At Forum for the Future, we've helped many organizations use scenarios to discover blind-spots in their forward strategy or to guide the R&D strategy.

Third, scan the horizon for those emerging technologies, organizations or patterns of behavior that might be signs of things to come. I like to think of these as the seeds or shoots that are just poking through now, but that will grow into towering trees and forests of the future. By my reckoning, anything of world-changing importance that will occur over the next 15-20 years is already happening somewhere in the world. As William Gibson puts it: "The future is already here, it's just not evenly distributed."

Companies use such horizon-scanning as part of competition analysis, and to avoid being blindsided by new technologies. It also can be very useful in helping people get to grips with the future and recognize that change is coming, and fast. When we did "Fashion Futures" with Levis, we could point out to skeptics that every one of the future examples we used already was being developed, or actually happening, somewhere today.

And fourth, probably the best way to know what future holds is to create it yourself. If you've got power -- either on your own or with others -- you can shape what happens. Before you do this, it would be sensible to have spent some time doing steps one, two and three above. But once you have thought about the future in a structured way, then don't be passive in the face of what's to come. Think of ways to make your own luck and create your own future.

Crystal ball photo by Pete Saloutos on Shutterstock.

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