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Intelligent Machines

Forecasting Futures

How to spot emerging technologies that will change the world.

Since 1994 and the dawn of the commercial Internet, I’ve been a venture capitalist constantly looking for the next wave of disruptive innovation. In the process, I’ve developed several deeply held beliefs about how to explore and identify significant new technologies. Technology Review’s editors used their own methods to pick this issue’s TR10, but here’s what I do.

My first principle is that you must try to live with any field of innovation you think is important. You must be a user of any and all technology. I’m an early adopter by nature, but I focus extra energy on any new area I am exploring professionally. About a year ago I became obsessed with the idea that humans would be fully instrumented—down to the cellular level—within a decade. For six months I bought and tried a huge range of devices that collect data about the body: electronic sleep coaches, scales that connect to Wi-Fi, a variety of medical devices. This experience eventually led me to invest in a company, FitBit, that is laying the groundwork for a time when we routinely instrument ourselves to collect and analyze data about our lives.

Although I’m a participant in the ecosystem that creates innovation, I’m not the source of any fundamental technology. Instead, I seek out and spend time with people who are. Curating and attending conferences on emerging technological issues has helped connect me with the amazing people creating the innovations I’m interested in.

This story is part of our May/June 2011 Issue
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I’m not too bashful to ask those people about stuff I don’t understand. I understand the value of building up deep knowledge that can be applied to the areas I invest in. I also spend a lot of time reading about technologies so that I can build even deeper knowledge.

It is important, though, not to focus only on technology that already exists. A valuable guide can often be found in science fiction, which has a track record of turning into science fact. Don’t limit yourself to futuristic books about space travel, either. What I call “science fiction history”—books written in the past about what our own world would look like today—can provide very useful insight. The notion of cyberspace laid out in ­William Gibson’s 1984 book Neuromancer and the “metaverse” described in Neal ­Stephenson’s 1992 novel Snow Crash are two examples of fictional virtual worlds that in many ways became reality years later.

Finally, remember that great innovators don’t understand the phrase “that’s not possible”—and neither do great investors. Make sure you allow yourself to dream about what the future might be like. Even though you must retain a grasp on reality, keep your mind open to anything. Amazing innovations are being created everywhere, all the time, by obvious—and not so obvious—people.

Brad Feld is a managing director of the foundry group, an early-stage venture investor that specializes in Internet and software startups.

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