The Real Power of Engineering: Creating the Future vs. Predicting it

Blog Post created by benz on Jan 12, 2018

  Adapting to future circumstances instead of expecting to anticipate them

 There’s nothing inherently wrong with trying to predict the future, whether that of technology or any other area. It’s easy to understand why “trying” is an attractive pastime, but expecting consistent success is where engineers and others may run into trouble.

Instead, I suggest that engineers use their super-powers of creative adaptation.

My jaded attitude toward predictions comes from work I did a couple of decades ago, forecasting the future sales (0 to 18 months out) of about two dozen measurement products. I put my analytical skills to work with some modest success, but a little honest self-appraisal left me doubting that I’d added real value. Sometimes I was just lucky, and it was hard to take much satisfaction from that.

Some research into the general landscape of prognostication left me wondering if maybe the universe was actually hostile to the whole enterprise of predicting the future. Or if not actively hostile, then resistant in a passive and maddening way.

Back then, greater minds than mine had repeatedly come to grief in such prediction efforts, including a group of brilliant academics and bureaucrats in Japan. They were economists and mathematical modelers, and despite their dedication and diligence, they were no more successful than I was.

In this situation the obvious question was to ask what kind of approaches, if any, were effective in somehow handling the important unknowns the future held. If you accept that you can’t reliably predict the future, what can you do?

In short, you can adapt as the future arrives. To be more successful than others in your field, you can work to adapt faster and better than they do. In fact, you may be able to speed up the process by pre-adapting using techniques such as scenario planning. In scenario planning, multiple possible futures are considered, and steps are taken in advance to outline carefully considered responses to the ones judged most likely to occur.

Scenario planning is usually thought of as a large-scale strategic activity, but you may already be doing it with a narrower view. For example, your designs may be anticipating a clear price/performance trend in either digital signal processing or analog semiconductors such that your product will be ready for the new leading edge. Tactically, this may mean implementing a modular design that lets you drop in the new elements as soon as they’re available in quantity.

As much as I’ve been disappointed in our collective inability to accurately predict the future, I have been repeatedly impressed by the ability of designers to adapt as technologies and markets evolve. Take wireless networking as one example.

Crowd of over 100,000 people at Michigan Stadium.  An example of the demands of large numbers of wireless networking and cellular data users in close proximity

The original designers of Michigan Stadium anticipated that it would need to hold more than 100,000 people, and designed its footings accordingly. However, they had no conception of a future where the vast majority of the fans would be carrying wireless telephones and would expect mobile network or Wi-Fi access. (photo from Wikipedia)

The definitive Wi-Fi standard, 802.11b, emerged more than 20 years ago, in 1997. 3G telecom networks began appearing perhaps a year later. In the years since, growth in all dimensions—users, connected devices, infrastructure, and data rates—has been enormous and continuous. It’s likely to continue at a similar pace for years to come.

While the original standards couldn’t handle these demands, creative engineers were—and still are—constantly working to adapt and expand. They continue to succeed beyond the expectations of many, including me.

They’re also making it clear that predicting the future is less important than creatively responding to shifting demands, expectations, and technologies. That multi-dimensional creativity has included OFDM, OFDMA, MIMO (including multi-user MIMO), beamforming, carrier aggregation, and manufacturing techniques that make microwave and millimeter devices practical and affordable.

Twenty years after my forecasting adventures, the underlying lesson—and my suspicion about nature’s hostility to prediction—remain the same: count on relentless change, and rely on your adaptability and creativity. It’s OK to burn a few mental cycles speculating about what’s over the horizon, but our real power lies in our ability to solve problems and optimize designs when the future becomes the present.