Looks Back – and,
oor Ken Olsen. While the man created a high-tech titan in DEC, history may have a more lasting memory of Olsen's stupendously inaccurate reading of the imminent PC revolution. No matter that he was actually talking about one centralized computer that controlled everything in a home. Olsen's still stuck with that quote.
But that's the inherent hazard in predicting the future. Forecasting by nature is a high-risk business – particularly if you're serving up your visions in front of the World Future Society.
Those dangers, though, certainly haven't deterred McKinley Conway. A man who's created a considerable slice of history, Conway has always kept an eye firmly fixed on the future. And for more than half a century he's been serving up his predictions.
Now the publisher of Site Selection has brought his many futurist sorties together for a reckoning in a new book, Forecasting for Fame, Fortune and Frustration. His 44th book, Forecasting provides an interesting perspective, spotlighting not only the future, but the past and the present as well. And in that, it lives up to its subtitle: Old and New Looks into the Future.
The book begins, for example, with two Conway forecasts made more than 60 years ago – using ceramic materials in turbine aeronautic engines and installing thrust controls in jet engines. Formulated while he was working for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (the forerunner to the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration), both ideas have been widely embraced. And they continue as central elements in the cutting-edge planes that are being designed today to fly in the future.
But not all of Conway's forecasts have fared as well, as he readily concedes.
'No Fame, Little Fortune,
Quite A Bit of Frustration'
"I have been making forecasts for more than 50 years," he writes in Forecasting. "To date, my predictions have brought no fame, very little fortune and quite a bit of frustration."
Indeed, the future can be a wildly fickle lover for a forecaster,
Conway recounts. Consider, for example, two of his predictions vis-à-vis air travel.
In 1969, Conway formulated the original idea for "airport cities," chronicled in two of his books, The Airport City and Airport Cities Twenty-One. That strategy has proved to be a highly effective development tack. Communities around the world have successfully adopted the concept of utilizing airports as integral elements in city planning.
Not so, though, for Conway's 1970 prediction that "human-powered flight" would become broadly adopted by 2022. "Pedaling around the neighborhood at treetop height would supplant jogging for many," Conway noted. "Further refinements would lead to use by commuters and for many business and public services." Humankind, however, hasn't demonstrated any great enthusiasm for the idea. "I still believe this will happen before 2022," he writes in Forecasting. "However, it should be noted that I have been too optimistic about this development for many years."
Similarly, some of Conway's other ideas simply failed to achieve liftoff, as the book demonstrates. One example: his 1992 prediction of the proliferation of "domed cities and bubble farms."
"This was a vaguely defined forecast at best," Conway concedes in Forecasting. "I see no spectacular results by 2012."
Clearly, though, Conway has been on-the-money with a significant percentage of his predictions, in the process establishing his legacy as a pioneer in industrial and economic development.
Predictions That Created a Legacy
One of his most lasting contributions, for example, is his founding of two precedent-setting industry associations – the International Development Research Council (IDRC) and the Industrial Asset Management Council (IAMC). "The record will show," Conway notes in Forecasting, "that [IRDC] established many planning standards, as well as an all-important code of ethics for the profession. The work is carried forward today by the prestigious Industrial Asset Management Council."
But creating those industry giants was an uphill battle. As is often the case with promising but new notions, the ideas initially attracted only a handful of interested individuals. Conway recounts, for example, starting IDRC by meeting "with a dozen like-minded executives in the old Roosevelt Hotel in New York in 1961." But the association went on to grow to more than 2,000 members, staging conferences worldwide.
Another calculation that's come to rich fruition can be seen in Conway Data's suite of Web sites, including Site Selection and SiteNet. That sizable Internet presence took its first tentative steps all the way back in 1983, when Conway created the first development-focused Internet site, SiteNet. Today, those Web sites are on track to attract more than 1.1 million unique visitors in 2008.
Once again, though, that idea at first failed to ignite the public's imagination. In fact, SiteNet's unveiling at an IDRC conference in California in 1983 failed to stimulate much of anything at all.
"The exhibit caused absolutely no excitement," Conway recalls in Forecasting. "Very few of the executives in attendance had microcomputers, and even fewer saw any need for them. Even so, I went home and wrote a report that predicted a 'new revolution in computer applications … computer utilization by IDRC members … launching network services for members.' At that time, this was mostly wishful thinking."
Such "wishful thinking," though, has fueled other Conway ideas that went on to become vital realities. Other additional examples of note include the key linkage between science and industry, and the industrial development of the U.S. South.
Conway's new book also includes numerous highlights of his wide-ranging and varied career.
Crystal Ball Still Churning
Photos are liberally sprinkled throughout the volume, featuring far-flung locales, as well as some very familiar faces. In the latter category, Jimmy Carter and Lyndon Johnson, as well as fellow futurist Arthur Clarke, are pictured with Conway.
And, the book makes clear, this 87-year-old futurist is still vigorously engaged. Forecasting includes Conway's newly created blog, The Telcom Coup 2008. The interactive Telcom Coup proposes a much-altered political future that would include, for example, "a nationwide poll conducted every two years in conjunction with congressional elections" and "a flat sales tax [that would] eliminate the federal income tax."
Conway also continues to churn out predictions through Internet reports posted in SiteNet's Future Studies section. Recent additions have taken on topics including the development of the Arctic, as well as the need for more aggressive action in the development of desalination plants.
Forecasting, in short, is much more than Conway's look back at his past predictions. At the same time, it's a continuing look forward. Plainly, Conway is still predicting – and working to shape – the future.
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