Kathy Gibson is at Gartner Symposium in Cape Town – Digital society is the key to our future, but as we focus on the detail of how to make digital transformation happen, we often forget the long-term vision.

The future is a very difficult thing to talk about, remarks Jeffrey Mann, vice-president analyst at, Gartner. “There are a lot of pressures we have to deal with right away – so we already feel overwhelmed with possibilities.”

These changes don’t ever slow down, and thus the ability to project to the future becomes increasingly difficult. And dealing with uncertainty gets harder the further out we’re required to think.

Competitive pressures contribute, with companies worried that they need to always catch up – even if this isn’t as urgent as they think.

“People get jaded when looking to the future. It is always about the new flashiest thing: everything will be AI; blockchain will revolutionise the industry; we are going to have flying cars …

These specific predictions are often a bit unrealistic and are based on the what we see around us now – and people are understandably skeptical about them.

“Instead, we wanted to take a different approach, a pragmatic approach. Rather than try to predict the future, we talk about pragmatic futurism – dealing today with potential or likely outcomes of the future.”

Changing the approach to how we look at the future moves away from the traditional view: postulating possible, probable and preferable futures in order to prepare for them.

“What we want to be talking about is hopes and fears,” Mann says. It is about coping with change, today, about imagining the change and how you will deal with it.

This is how Gartner’s Digitopia project was born. “We asked people what the world would look like 15 or 16 years from now. We wanted stories, for people to be creative.”

Close to 100 responses from all over the world offered some thoughtful insights.

Mann says the storytelling reveals clear patterns, with strong ideas coming though.

“Artificial intelligence came out very strongly, the idea of bigger and smaller bubbled up to the top,” he says.

Interestingly, when compared to the results of the 2014 survey, privacy has moved from being a top theme and given way to AI.

“Future predictions were also overwhelmingly positive,” Mann points out.

A couple of big stories came out, one of which is the idea of a smaller circle – that things are getting smaller.

For instance, people think the physical circle will get smaller, with a shift to a local economy and the rise of 3D printing. People want to be closer to their markets and the food they consume. Homes are expected to get smaller.

There were also some traces of what Mann calls future nostalgia, looking for ways to connect in different ways, and finding happiness in humanity. “Despite technological progress, people are still looking for something human, something small.”

We may soon substitute FOMO (fear of missing out) with JOMO (joy of missing out) – where people look forward to doing things we take for granted now that may not exist in the future. This could be simple activities like driving a car.

There were also some negative drivers like deep fakes and cyber mobbing leading to factionalism and technoprotectionism. These will be driven by choices instead of options, and by closed ecosystems.

“The wrong way to respond to this is to back away from using technology,” Mann says. “You need to have a filter.”

People can look for technology to build meaningful, local, contextual connections with people. You can use it to build business models, getting people to contribute and engage.

“Double down and find the technologies that encourage connection.”

Technology can help people to be in the now, Mann says.

Convenience was a topic that came up time and again, with technology seen to help us to be more efficient and healthier.

“One thing that came up time and again – the number one thing people want help with – is help with their expense report,” Mann points out.

This idea of the future speaks to the digital twin becoming very personal.

“If we want technology to help us with very intimate, direct aspects of our lives, it raises the issue of control and creates risk.

“So totalitarianism raises its head. There  is going to be a trade-off between convenience and control. It will be up to us which we emphasise.”

We are already seeing this in many consumer areas, Mann adds. People are uneasy about how their data is used – but they don’t stop using the systems.

To create the digital twin, technology has to learn all about the user, and it will soon take on the role of influencing behaviour and performance. Already, in-car systems nudge drivers to drive better.

“But there is a downside,” Mann says. “Yes, driving the speed limit is a good thing for society. But when we start applying it in the workplace, we could be cutting off possibilities.

“You could be making it harder to innovate. People are good at innovation. But when you bake in the process, you cut off the possibility that someone will come up with a different idea.”

So while algorithms can drive efficiencies and enable best practice, they may not be altogether a good thing.

Stories about the future had a lot to say about technology and health.

Personalisation was a recurring theme, with effective treatments performing analytics based on individual behaviour and DNA.

Mann recommends that people think about the choice between convenience and control. “Everyone wants convenience, but you want to be aware of the limitations, and make sure it doesn’t drift into totalitarianism.”

When people think about the future, the larger narrative of globalisation is seen to be breaking down. The bigger picture that emerges from the survey is all about sustainability and the choices that society makes in this regard.

Creating society about making choices, Mann points out. “Understanding the implications is key.”

For instance, people want non-processed food. And although GMO increases yield, it is a dilemma for many consumers. Perhaps the solution is urban and vertical farming

Climate control is another long-term issue. There is an element of techno-optimism that technology can help solve this, but we would have to consider what we would lose in return, Mann says.

A sustainable society won’t come from a linear technology projection, it requires that we navigate various options, he adds.

We should all aim to become pragmatic futurists, Mann says.

To do this we should let people tell stories – what he calls a pre-mortem analysis. “What are the ways that our plans could be mislaid? What are the scenarios that could contribute to a big failure?”

Another idea is the [anti] future pledge – starting with principles. “What is it you would never do?”

If you can come up with principles for yourself and your company, you are a long way to preparing for the future, Mann believes.

“Reverse this and come up with a list of the things you will always do.”

The last technique is talking about the idea of a mission statement. “Know thyself,” Mann says.

A high-level mission statement would detail what makes you unique; what value do you deliver; and what capabilities are inimitable?