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Can Your Brand See the Future?

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We live in a time of unprecedented chaos. Whether it's economic, environmental, technological or cultural uncertainty, the world we inhabit isn't easy for people, or brands to navigate.

Comfort would certainly come from predictability. Unfortunately, prognostication is a dangerous game. Consumer trends may seem logical in hindsight -- but they're seldom clear looking forward.

That's why it was with particular interest that I spoke with Sean Gourley, CTO and co-founder of Quid.

Quid is a company that builds software to capture, structure and visualize vast amounts of data, helping clients find a better, more informed way forward.

Speaking with Gourley (who will be keynoting at Sustainable Brands 2012), I began to understand how data processing and algorithms have evolved to help us see the footprints of the future.

It's Not All Technology

Gourley believes prediction comes down to three factors: data, algorithms, and human intuition.

Today, we have vast amounts of data at our disposal -- useful when looking for substantiation, but a bit flat-footed unless one knows how to draw subtle insights from it.

Which is where incredible computer power comes in.

According to Gourley, newly evolved software enables us to run algorithms on data so rapidly and skillfully that previously invisible patterns and connections can be unearthed -- virtually in real time.

That said, technology and data can't replace the power of humans, in part because we make creative connections that computers simply can't. And also because humans have the power to push predictions forward and give them momentum, enabling subtle footprints to actually become indelible and clear trends.

Ultimately, successful prediction comes down to marrying humans with technology and information. But what about execution?

Two Factors That Make the Future Happen

According to Gourley, building a next-generation product -- or future-proof brand -- can come down to a convergence of technology and ideas.

Ideas are wonderful things. But they need to be married to technology to come to life. The classic case is Leonardo da Vinci inventing the helicopter, but not having the internal combustion engine to drive it.

Inversely, we see daily how existing technology can be driven to new heights by fresh ideas. Think iPod, an amalgamation of existing hard drive and touchscreen tech adapted to a new use.

Because of this tension between ideas and technology, new thinking often goes through a cycle of birth, bloom, decay and rebirth.

Consider sustainability. Our modern iteration of the concept was captured by Al Gore's Inconvenient Truth and fired up our collective imagination. But it wasn't married to technology that could create instant solutions. So the idea decayed. Far from dead, though, it then morphed into areas such as plastics, packaging, and energy creation. New ideas in their own right, these are successful because they're married to technologies that can bring them to life.

The Next Facebook?

Facebook is often cited as the ultimate "who knew?"

While it may have been difficult to predict the rise of this specific company, the footprint of social networks existed years before.

As Gourley says, every billion-dollar company was once a $10 million company. And its journey to success likely corresponded to other, well-documented company routes to success. Patents were applied for, capital was raised, a C-Suite was hired. The future was there to be seen. It simply wasn't noted by the majority of us.

So what could be the next Facebook? Gourley believes the signs surrounding social network privacy are pointing to a very strong trend. Is this a niche your brand can tap into?

Lessons:

1. Don't ignore your power to shape the future:
Technology has given us the power to more rapidly predict future events. But without humans to shape those predictions and encourage them down one path or another, these predictions will just pass into the night.

2. The future is already here -- it's just not widely distributed: With the dramatic rise of data storage, we are now in a place where we can see more then ever, and the future is beginning to be seen more quickly, and more clearly than before.

3. Ideas need technology, and vice versa: We need to understand the ecosystem, the interplay between technology and ideas. They shape and create each other, and can't exist in a vacuum.