4 Key Uncertainties with Technological Change

Change in the world can be complex and partly the product of emergent patterns, but that is seldom a reason to throw our hands up in the air and decide to not wrestle with the uncertainty we face each day when thinking about or planning for the future. Uncertainty is inherent to “the future,” perhaps more because the future is in fact unwritten than because we lack information about it (there are no actual future facts). In few places are we in the West more regularly bombarded with the message of an inherently uncertain future than when it comes to technology and technological change. So, how can you think about the uncertainty of technological change in a way that helps you identify what you’re dealing with and determine how to get your questions answered?

Classic Thinking About Anticipating Technology


Figure 1: Basic S-Curve

One of more recognizable approaches to thinking about and talking about technological change is with the s-curve, as seen in figure 1. When it comes to new technologies, researchers and marketers have long used the s-cure to anticipate the life cycle of technologies as the grow from crazy ideas to experiments to new entrants in the market to a universal tool.  Beyond a single s-curve, foresight professionals and other researchers have looked at the sequential development of new generations of technology, which ends up looking like the chain or staircase of s-curves seen in figure 2. In this second image we are looking at how successive generations of new technologies each supplant the technology that came before. Think of flight with its early balloons, then propeller aircraft, then jet aircraft, etc…


Figure 2: Successive Eras of Technology

This is a traditional approach to talking about how technology keeps changing and it continues to have considerable value. This continues to be a useful framework if for no other reason than it reminds people to anticipate – and look for – a new generation of technology that could emerge and displace the existing technology on which they have all built their business models and competencies. For now, let’s look at this chain of s-curves as a sequential development of technology and we will use it as the basis for identifying the key uncertainties that you should think about with regard to new technologies.

The Key Uncertainties

We can use the sequential development of technology chart (the chain of s-curves) to identify the first two key uncertainties that we want to consider. Looking at figure 3 we can see that uncertainty #1 has simply to do with forecasting or anticipating the evolution of the current generation of technology. How much farther has it to go, how much more powerful and cheaper will it get? When in the future might it hit its “middle age”, so to speak?


Figure 3: Identifying Key Uncertainties

We can also use this chart to identify uncertainty #2, which has to do with forecasting (or anticipating) the transition from our current generation of technology to the next generation. This uncertainty entails identifying which of the (potentially) many competing technologies out there might become the next generation. It also requires thinking about when this transition from the current generation to the next generation might occur.

In the past the chain of s-curves chart and these two key uncertainties were more than enough for organizations to work with when planning and anticipating the future. Today, however, organizations of all types have to consider that several new technologies may be emerging simultaneously to change your environment. This is a lateral expansion of technological change. No longer can organizations simply focus on one line of technological change; now they have to be aware of several. Thus, uncertainty #3 is the question of how many new lines of technology will meaningfully impact your environment?


Figure 4: Multiple, Successive Eras

This leads us to uncertainty #4: anticipating the different ways in which those many new lines of technology might impact your operating environment. Sometimes this entails looking at how each individual new technology will evolve and other times this requires considering how these new lines of technology might interact or even co-evolve. Referencing figure 4, we have to recognize that today technologies B, C, and D each may be farther and farther from your core business or market, meaning that they may end up reshaping the larger environment around you rather than directly changing your business or the capabilities of your competitors.

The Key Uncertainties You Should Think About:

  1. How will the current technology evolve?
  2. What will be the transition to the next generation of technology?
  3. How many new lines of technologies will meaningfully impact your environment?
  4. How might those multiple new technologies impact your environment?

Addressing Uncertainties

Now, given these four key uncertainties to consider, what kind of short-cuts can we use to help time-challenged managers address these uncertainties? For each of the key uncertainties we can identify some obvious information sources, expertise, and activities you can draw upon to develop insight. Keep in mind that in providing the following chart, we are not suggesting that they are all easy, quick, or cheap; just that the chart itself should give you a quick way to determine what kind of resources and activities you can use to address the corresponding uncertainties.


Key Uncertainty

How to Develop Insight


How will the current technology evolve? Review the reasoning of subject matter experts They will be intimately familiar with the recent history, state of the art, and mainstream expectations
What will be the transition to the next generation of technology? Review SMEs, review the discussions of venture capitalists Both sources will be familiar with discussions and experiments within the field about what “comes next”
How many new lines of technologies will meaningfully impact your environment? Collect opinions and reasoning from multiple professional perspectives To become familiar with developments well outside your field and what people there are trying to accomplish
How might those multiple new technologies impact your environment? Use multiple approaches and methods to explore potential interactions, pathways of change, and broader social implications Forecasting the impact of multiple technologies across the economy or society requires more than one theory or model of change

Again, this is just a quick tool for you to use with your organization, something that gives you some easy-to-understand structure for your strategic conversations about technological change. As with any foray into foresight work and futures research, we could delve much deeper into this discussion, but this should either help get you started or help simplify some of the conversation.

So, which uncertainties do you think you’re dealing with and how are you addressing them?


If you’d like to learn more about how we can help you with your foresight and strategic analysis needs, then please visit our homepage at www.visionforesightstrategy.com

How Do You Handle an Uncertain Future (with limited resources)?


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