From the Future to the Present: Visualization and Innovation

Recent discoveries of exoplanets that are relatively close to our solar system are used to illustrate the importance of “visualization”—of future consumer lifestyles, work and recreation, and product and service preferences—for the process of innovation. Different aspects of the visualization concept are discussed, including distinctions between consumers and companies, the importance of widely shared images and competition, and a possible role for Zen philosophy. Particular attention is devoted to visualizations associated with digital innovations, such as smartphones, voice assistants and the internet of things. A key conclusion of the discussion below is that the concept of disruptive innovation should be expanded to include the idea of disruptive visualization. The latter phenomenon will probably become more prevalent in the future.

Astronomers announced last August that a planet, Proxima b, not much bigger than Earth, has definitely been identified as orbiting around the nearest star to our solar system, Proxima Centauri, only about 4.25 light years away. In February of this year, astronomers announced an even more significant discovery. There is a planetary system, TRAPPIST-1, 39 light years distant, that includes seven rocky, warm, approximately earth-sized bodies. Three of the TRAPPIST-1 planets lie within the so-called “habitable zone” and may contain liquid water.

Why are these discoveries important? People can now visualize the possibility of traveling to a planet outside our solar system over a period of decades—within the span of a human lifetime—rather than taking thousands or tens of thousands of years in the case of other exoplanets that are much farther away. Thus, these discoveries may serve as a “visual” incentive to innovations in space travel and propulsion technology. Examples of the latter include broad solar sails powered by light photons and the more speculative electromagnetic (microwave), or EM drive, a subject of recent NASA experiments. 

People can now visualize the possibility of traveling to a planet outside our solar system over a period of decades—within the span of a human lifetime…

Visualization, in combination with a clear business strategy, can reduce the typical fuzziness of front-end innovation. It can close the psychological gap between future and present; the future becomes more real for purposes of innovation in the present.

Inspired visualization can be the proverbial “one picture is worth a thousand words.” It can help to bridge a time gulf of a thousand years or a travel span in outer space of a thousand light-years. For practical purposes of innovation, however, the visualized future image should have a reasonable connection to the present in terms of achievable technology.

The Visualization Concept

What are some parameters of the visualization concept? Visualization generally involves the perception of needs and preferences across a large population of potential consumers, conditioned by informed forecasts of lifestyles and external living conditions.

Visualization overlaps with, but is not the same as, several other management-related concepts—vision and associative marketing. Vision refers to a broad, generally long-term picture of company mission and goals; it is not as concrete as visualization. Associative marketing is when a company advertises a product by tying it to a usually vague image of a desirable customer lifestyle (e.g., an enjoyable vacation). Such visualizations would not generally be adequate for specific innovative efforts in product design.

Visualization of the future is not a unitary concept, as potential customers may visualize both: 1) types of products and services they would like to have (e.g., a driverless car), and 2) broad lifestyle features they would enjoy (e.g., the desire to live sustainably in a “green”, eco-friendly city, town or suburb).

Tailoring products and services to highly individualized customer preferences is a current business trend. At a finer level, visualization may therefore involve the detailed identification of personal tasks, options, constraints, experiences and feelings that make up a targeted consumer lifestyle. Such detail, derived in some cases from “big data” analytics, may draw out the front end of the innovation process. Companies will then have a better idea of what consumers really want as opposed to what companies think they should want. (For example, consumers did not want the infamous 1950s Ford Edsel.) Visualization can therefore reduce the risk of innovation failure.

On the other hand, visualization should not necessarily be limited by what consumers say they want, because present-day consumers may not have a full understanding of potential future lifestyles and their associated innovative technologies. This is where part of the innovator’s creative role comes into play. He or she needs to visualize future customer needs and preferences by thinking “outside the box” of current lifestyles.

Speaking of creativity, an innovator may sometimes need to visualize like a novelist. Novelists spend a lot of time visualizing a succession of detailed scenes in the books they write. Science fiction writers in particular create radically futuristic visualizations.

A good visualization should encompass both attractive lifestyle images for consumers and realizable technology designs for innovators. The relevant future context should also be realistic in terms of expected social-demographic, economic and environmental trends, including trends toward sustainability. Many of these trends are evolving in an exponential fashion; future visualizations therefore need to be correspondingly complex—even “disruptive”—in scope. Reinforcing this complexity is the fact that forecasters often disagree about the nature and growth rate (e.g., constant vs. linear, etc. rate increase) of future trends, thus altering their potential impact on innovation in the present.

Many of these trends are evolving in an exponential fashion; future visualizations therefore need to be correspondingly complex—even “disruptive”—in scope.

An example of a possibly disruptive visualization would be elements of a middle- or upper-class lifestyle that become newly available to lower-income consumers through cost-saving innovations in technology (e.g., in IT devices). Or, if current changes in climate—global warming, glacier melt and sea level rise—turn out to mushroom exponentially, then such an altered visualization will imply the need for more radical and sustainable innovations in carbon capture technology and manufacturing energy use. Governments may need to come up with innovative international agreements to make pollution control plans actually work on a global scale.

Consumers’ visualizations of their lifestyle needs are often based on prior experience and convenience and may conflict with companies’ broad visions of future trends in product design. For example, when Apple released the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus in September 2016, consumers complained on social media about the inconvenience of removing the headphone jack. The latter technology had been in existence for years. Apple replied to this criticism by stating a “Jobsian” vision of how the new iPhone design was an improvement. Their engineers could now produce a thinner and lighter device that has space for more consumer features (The Washington Post, September 7, 2016).

Shared Visualization and Competition

Visualization is often a widely shared phenomenon, which enhances its potential impact on innovation. Such sharing is greatly accelerated nowadays because of the internet and other electronic social media.

A particularly vibrant image of a preferred future lifestyle is likely to become widespread among entrepreneurs as well as among a large consumer base. Efforts at innovation will therefore get an added boost from the resulting competition between companies and possibly also from collaboration with consumers.

An example of shared visualization is the desire that many consumers have to communicate with their mobile devices, hands-free, through conversation rather than laboriously typing in word-by-word search commands. Some progress has been made in this direction through digital voice assistants like Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Echo. But there is still a huge untapped potential for using artificial intelligence (AI) to systemically create a conversational-digital lifestyle. Other big companies like Samsung (Viv) and Google are already competing in that innovative domain.

Historically, waves of innovation have often gone hand in hand with widely shared images of desirable future lifestyles. In ancient Roman times, no one visualized an “industrial revolution,” because wealthy aristocrats with all of the political power had human slaves to cheaply do their work for them. Much later, the growth of a large middle class during the Industrial Revolution in late 19th-century Europe and North America contributed to the popular visualization of an appealing “living room” lifestyle. A cluster of new devices based on recent discoveries in electricity and electromagnetism—the telephone, phonograph, light bulb, etc.—appeared at this time (during the 1870s). The 21st-century lifestyle conveniences associated with digital devices will probably continue to lead a wave of cyber innovations for the foreseeable future.

Historically, waves of innovation have often gone hand in hand with widely shared images of desirable future lifestyles.

Internet of Things

The digital innovations of the 21st century are often viewed as a third or even fourth industrial revolution. Visualization is particularly important in this era of “smart home” and “smart workplace” design. Consumers and companies envision home and office lifestyles that are more secure, healthy, climate controlled, and energy (including heating and lighting) and time efficient. They are achieving this through cyber system innovations termed the “internet of things” (IoT). The IoT is likely to experience exponential growth in coming years. Lifestyle visualizations will need to encompass inter-machine as well as inter-person and person-machine communication.

Visualization and Zen

Visualization can be aided by Zen meditative practice in two general steps:

  1. Clear the mind through quiet meditation (e.g., seated Zazen, including deep breathing). Only 10-30 minutes may be needed. This improves concentration and focus.
  2. Then, take the time to allow a complete, possibly complex visualization (of a product, service or lifestyle image) to form. This may include contradictory elements than can be resolved later.

Zen training (koans, for instance) is designed to produce insights that run counter to typical linear-rational thought patterns. Zen can thus facilitate disruptive, non-linear visualizations of future consumer lifestyles.

A holistic, Zen approach to entrepreneurial vision would be to take one’s time, “go deep,” and come up with different visualizations of future consumer lifestyles and product preferences, even visualizations that may initially seem to conflict. Opposing preferences may turn out to embrace similarities when analyzed from the standpoint of more fundamental consumer or design values.

Steve Jobs, for instance, developed an iPhone that conveyed, in Zen fashion, both elegance and minimalism in external physical design. This communicated to prospective customers that his device would be easy and enjoyable to use. In effect, Jobs was adding a final visualization touch to draw consumers in.


The front end of innovation does not have to be so fuzzy. To innovate in the present, start by—and collaborate on—visualizing the future. The more consumer lifestyle detail, the better. Strong visualizations can clarify and reinforce the strategic vision underlying an innovation project.

The recent discoveries of Proxima b and the TRAPPIST-1 system remind us that visualization has an important role to play for innovators of the 21st century. One can now visualize interstellar space trips occurring over a span of decades, less than a lifetime. This should be a spur to practical innovations in space propulsion systems.

A recent book by the noted author, Thomas L. Friedman (Thank You for Being Late, 2016), argues that we live in an “age of accelerations.” If social, economic and technological change in the 21st century does proceed at an exponential pace—implying greater uncertainty about future consumer lifestyles—then visualization should become an even more critical element of the innovation process in the future. In effect, visualization is likely to become more disruptive of existing future scenarios, leading, in turn, to innovation that is more disruptive than incremental.

By Gary W. Davis

About the Author

Gary Davis is an economist working in Washington, D. C. He has published articles on Eastern philosophy for business innovation in several management journals, including Innovation Management. In 2009-2010, he published an article, “Contexts for Innovation,” in magazines in both the U. S. and Malaysia. The article recommends a synthesis of Eastern and Western strategies for business teams. He has studied innovation processes in connection with a position as research team leader. Gary Davis has presented economics papers at seminars and national conferences (e.g., of the Southern Economics Association and Society of Government Economists). He also gave a presentation on innovation to a U. S. Federal government seminar. He holds Master’s degrees in Economics and Public Administration and a Doctorate in Public Administration from George Mason University, Virginia.