Fortune's guide to the future

January 3, 2012: 5:00 AM ET

Supercomputers that fit in the palm of your hand. Meat that grows in labs. Foldable cars. Solar power -- from space. Welcome to the year 2022. It's not your grandfather's future. Let Fortune be your guide.

By Nina Easton, senior editor-at-large

Fortune's guide to the futureFORTUNE -- Steve Jobs once said that the best way to predict the future is to invent it. That's a clever way of dancing around the dangers inherent in the business of long-term forecasting. History is littered with the detritus of crystal-ball watchers. There are the dead-wrong predictions -- usually underestimating technology. The 1899 U.S. patent chief declares that anything that can be invented has been; 20th-century prognosticators follow with confident claims that the automobile is nothing more than a novelty, TV won't last, and space travel is a wild-eyed dream. Then there are the predictions that should have been made -- but weren't: the Arab Spring, the euro crisis, 9/11.

A small handful of business leaders like Jobs may indeed be able to invent the future. Most executives (and journalists) are condemned to react to it. Of course that doesn't mean companies, universities, and other institutions shouldn't strive to figure out where the world is heading in 10, 20, or even 50 years -- so that they can deftly deploy resources and develop products and services that anticipate change. To produce Fortune's guide to the future, we talked to dozens of researchers, forecasters, security experts, and analysts whose jobs are to peer around corners, and we asked them to paint a picture of the world 10 years out. The portrait sometimes turned dark: cyberterrorism, resource shortages, and political instability around the world are all inevitable. But the experts offered a mostly optimistic view of the future, based on the mind-boggling scientific and technological advancements that will improve the way we learn, work, and play. Even the U.S. economy, which seems stuck in the doldrums, should come back strong in the second half of the coming decade -- partly on the strength of some of the innovations highlighted in this report. "I'm optimistic that the U.S. will come out the other end in a position of strength," says Peter Nolan, managing director in FTI Consulting's global risk and investigations practice.

The coming changes will be uncomfortable for some. Bosses will need to adjust to a democratization of the workplace. Hierarchies may disappear; some teams may function without leaders. The best ideas may come from the most junior person in the company -- or from outside the organization altogether. "It used to be that your most important asset headed out the elevator every night," says Don Tapscott, co-author of Macrowikinomics. "Now your most important asset may never go up the elevator at all."

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, is already using social media to harness new talent. "What if a 13-year-old could contribute to a cure for cancer?" asks Regina Dugan, director of the agency. DARPA runs a public computer game called Foldit, in which competitors try to fold proteins, one of the most difficult biochemistry impediments to curing disease. Misfolded proteins lead to diseases such as mad cow, Alzheimer's, and cystic fibrosis. Since Foldit launched in May 2008, more than 236,000 gamers have registered, their contributions helping decipher the structure of an enzyme responsible for causing AIDS in rhesus monkeys -- the first example of a major breakthrough in crowd-sourced science, Dugan says. "Innovation," she notes, "benefits when the number and diversity of people participating goes up."

40 under 40: Ryan Seacrest

The CEO of 2022 will have to manage a complex business of far-flung inputs, from customers' and employees' tweets (or the 2022 equivalent) to all kinds of data persistently emitted from billions of phones, sensors, and other connected machines. Companies that can manage and mine all those bits and bytes stand to make a killing.

Those who ignore information, especially voices coming over the social-media transom, do so at their peril, says Jose Lozano, vice chair of the Hispanic news company ImpreMedia: "Companies that aren't proactive will be at a competitive disadvantage."

If the winning companies of the future will depend on young, tech-savvy, somewhat impertinent information junkies, the U.S. will still rule. Youth is a scarce commodity in Western Europe, Japan, and Russia. So, too, with China, where a population decline expected to kick in after 2020 means a surge of retirees without enough workers to support them. Nor are those countries immune from social unrest, fueled in part by government corruption that threatens to hold back long-term economic growth. America's political and economic systems, on the other hand, are remarkably resilient. "There are challenges to be sure, but in the context of what other countries are facing, ours are ones that can be met," says FTI's Nolan.

What worries forecasters most are the black swans -- looming, below-the-surface dangers with the power to devastate nations or plunge countries into war. The bad state actors of today -- Iran, North Korea -- will still flex their muscles, but analysts also fear rogue terrorists who won't hesitate to deploy a nuclear or chemical device on a major city. Cyberattacks that bring down governments are also a worry.

Cybercrime certainly is the biggest security issue corporations will face in 2022. Today an army of hackers in China routinely scour the networks of U.S. corporations in search of intellectual property and trade secrets, says Kevin Mandia, CEO of security firm Mandiant. He adds, "My biggest fear is that in 10 years China will be making everything we were making -- for half the price -- because they've stolen all our innovations."

If Mandia is right, the innovators of tomorrow will have to work that much harder to stay a few steps ahead of the copycats. Like Apple (AAPL), DARPA, and others, they'll have to invent products and services that are so coveted that few will want to buy a knockoff. In other words, they'll have to invent the future.

More from Fortune's guide to the future

Why Ryan Seacrest (For real!) is the future of media

A new vision for the city of the future

4 new ways to solve the energy challenge

The hot tech gig of 2022: Data scientist

Brave new work: The office of tomorrow

The workforce of the future: Older and healthier

4 zany futuristic ideas that could come true

This article is from the January 16, 2012 issue of Fortune.



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