Has the future ever been more important than today? It has certainly never been as worshipped as it is today. But to what end? OSRAM’s Head of Innovation, Thorsten Müller, and futurologist Bruno Gransche of the University of Siegen discuss the pros and cons and the outlook for 2030.

Solutions looking for problems

When we think of the future, we often imagine scenes from science-fiction movies, such as flying cars, odd high-tech machines, and people being teleported. All these images of the future have one thing in common: Technology features heavily. It comes as no surprise then, that expectations of our life in a smart world—as vague as they may be—are mainly connected to technology. “Technology’s great potential lies in enabling people to do more things more independently than they could without it,” Gransche explains. “One advantage of technology is that it delivers both more and less than we intended.”

This epitomizes the great conceptual challenge that technology providers are facing. “Companies regularly treat technology as a solution looking for a problem,” says Müller. “We often design technology a certain way because we can, not because there is a specific benefit in doing so. The eject button on the remote control of a CD player is a good example. It’s utter nonsense to have that on a remote control,” Gransche says.

“Sometimes, we approach a customer with a potential innovation, for example in predictive maintenance, and the customer is really enthusiastic. But over time we come to the conclusion that the problem actually lies elsewhere. That’s why, in my experience, it’s important to work with customers to identify their real needs,” Müller adds. Every innovation appears to promise time savings, but Gransche views that as technology’s great lie. Any time savings are negated by countervailing ‘rebound effects’, for example if others know that you now have more time thanks to the technology you are using.

Fewer experts means smarter products

The two experts agree that no one can really predict what the world will look like in 2030. “Nevertheless, we should let our imagination run wild, as I believe that’s what inspires us,” Müller says. “It’s important to create consistent scenarios. We have developed a wide range of self-contained scenarios for the development of networked buildings and driverless cars. It’s unlikely that any of them will come to pass exactly as we imagined, but hopefully they will enable us to predict some developments. We now also have early indicators that we need to monitor,” he explains.

“Take autonomous driving. When you consider the congestion charge in London and potential bans on diesel vehicles in Stuttgart and other German cities, it’s not inconceivable that internal combustion engines will be banned from city centers at some point in the future. That may lead to other developments, such as the sharing economy and autonomous driving. At the same time, we have to keep an eye on local developments that may lead to a self-driving electric car designed for Stuttgart being banned in London.”

In this context, even demographic developments can create new challenges. “While developing our products, we’re also faced with the problem that these are no longer being installed only by qualified tradespeople. That’s why the product must be able to configure itself. It needs to know: What am I, where am I, and how should I integrate,” he adds.

There’s method in messiness

As much as it needs a plan, progress also needs genius and chaos. “There’s a lot of technology around that nobody had predicted. Penicillin, for example, was only discovered because someone forgot a dirty Petri dish in the lab over the summer,” Gransche says. He believes there is only limited benefit in asking customers what their needs are. “The truly visionary ideas are unlikely to come from users. If you had asked people in the 19th century what improvements to mobility they would like to see, they would have said faster horses.

Technological progress also often involves the loss of skills. “Technology is an excellent way of killing off certain skills. That’s not necessarily a problem, as long as we’re aware of it and agree to it. I have no idea how to drive a horse-drawn carriage, for example. But I can still use a manual transmission, which in the U.S. is virtually an anti-theft device.”

On our road to progress, communication of the opportunities and risks involved often falls by the wayside. This is very much the case in Germany, where the ‘schizophrenia of progress’ is particularly noticeable. The desire for progress is balanced by an equally strong fear of it. “Our task is to show that the benefits of technological progress outweigh its drawbacks. Three aspects are key to this: Understandability, transparency, and voluntariness,” says Müller. “The danger lies in the promise of convenience that a lot of technology makes. Some companies even promise to make the world a better place. But ultimately, all their technology provides is convenience for the privileged,” Gransche adds. “I’d like to see the grand visions focus more on improving the lives of the majority of global society. Being a customer has to be affordable, and as a society we cannot afford to just focus on the customer.”

Assuming that there really will be greater connectedness around the world and in all major spheres of life, Müller sees the key to well-being in a digital future in education and in the creative handling of technology: “I believe that technology should revive our curiosity and our desire to acquire more knowledge.” This only works if there is equal access to education—one of the great political promises of the last century that is yet to be fulfilled.

The digital twin

And that is why Müller and Gransche are quite critical of the growth in data capture of individuals in the future. “The huge challenge we face is the increasingly complex role of the consumer, who’s becoming more and more overburdened. I’m doubtful that there’s a solution. There’s a great danger of heteronomy,” Gransche says of the growth in digital monitoring of the individual and the rise of artificial intelligence.

Against this background, the vision for 2030 does become quite clear. “In the future, I will be living with my digital twin. The intelligent systems, i.e. the house, the car, the hotel, the gym, and the workplace will adapt to this twin, which will be based on my past preferences. I’d like to think that the systems will still permit me to change my mind,” Gransche says. Müller believes that technology is increasingly encroaching on an important aspect of the modern individual: “It’s all about self-determination. It’s important that I can change the system’s response to me,” he says. “If I no longer like the light settings at my workplace, say, then I want to be able to change them.”

But artificial intelligence and big data also offer great opportunities. For example, recognizing patterns in complex systems with overwhelming volumes of data, basing decisions on this data, and learning from the decisions made. “We’re only at the start here,” Müller says. “Greater processing power and closer networking are opening up possibilities we couldn’t have dreamt of just a few years back. Light will play a key role in the capture and transmission of data in the future.”