Wednesday, December 9, 2020

The BPRT Heuristic: Or How To Think About Tech Trends

A number of years ago, one of my teams  was working on a series of technology trend projects.  As we looked deeply at each of the trends, we noticed that there was a pattern in the factors that seemed to be influencing the direction a particular tech trend would take.  We gave that pattern a name:  the BPRT Heuristic.  

Tech trends are always interesting to examine, so I wanted to share this insight to help you get started thinking about any developing or emerging techs you may be following.  

Caveat:  We called it a heuristic for a reason.  It isn't a law or even a model of tech trend analysis.  It is just a rule of thumb--not always true but true enough to be helpful.
  • B=the Business Case for the tech.  This is how someone can make money off the tech.  Most R and D is funded by companies these days (this was not always the case).  These companies are much more likely to fund techs that can contribute to a revenue stream.  This doesn't mean that a tech without an obvious business case can't get developed and funded, it just makes it harder.
  • P=Political/Cultural/Social issues with a tech.  A tech might be really cool and have an excellent business case, but because it crosses some political or social line, it either goes nowhere or accelerates much more quickly than it might normally.  Three examples:  
    • We were looking at 3G adoption in a country early in the 2000's.  There were lots of good reasons to suspect that it was going to happen, until we learned that the President's brother owned the 2G network already in existence in the country.  He was able to use his family connections to keep competition out of the country.  
    • A social factor that delayed adoption of a tech is the story of Google Glass in 2013.  Privacy concerns driven by the possibility of videos taken without consent led to users being called "Glassholes."  Coupled with other performance issues, this led to the discontinuation of the original product (though it lives on in Google's attempts to enter the augmented reality market).  
    • Likewise, these social or cultural issues can positively impact tech trends as well.  For example, we have all had to become experts at virtual communication almost overnight due to the COVID crisis--whether we wanted to or not.
  • R=Regulatory/Legal issues with the tech.  The best example I can think of here is electromagnetic spectrum management.  Certain parts of the electromagnetic spectrum have been allocated to certain uses.  If your tech can only work in a part of the spectrum owned by someone else, you're out of luck.  Some of this "regulation" is not government sponsored either.  The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers establishes common standards for most devices in the world, for example.  For example, your wifi router can connect to any wifi enabled devices because they all use the IEEE's 802.11 standard for wifi.  Other regulations come from the Federal Communications Commission and the International Telecommunications Union.
  • T=The tech itself.  This is where most people spend most of their time when they study tech trends.  It IS important to understand the strengths and weaknesses of a particular technology, but as discussed above, it might not be as important as other environmental factors in the eventual adoption (or non-adoption...) of a tech.  That said, there are a couple of good sources of info that can allow you to quickly triangulate on the strengths and weaknesses of a particular tech:
    • Wikipedia.  Articles are typically written from a neutral point of view and often contain numerous links to other, more authoritative sources.  It is not a bad place to start your research on a tech.  
    • Another good place is Gartner, particularly the Gartner Hype Cycle.  I'll let you read the article at the link but "Gartner Hype Cycle 'insert name of tech here'" is almost always a useful search string  (Here's what you get for AI for example...).  
    • Likewise, you should keep your eye out for articles about "grand challenges" in a particular tech (Here is one about grand challenges in robotics as an example).  Grand Challenges outline the 5-15 big things the community of interest surrounding the tech have to figure out to take the next steps forward.  
    • Likewise, keep your eyes out for "roadmaps."  These can be either informal or formal (like this one from NASA on Robotics and autonomous systems).  The roadmaps and the lists of grand challenges should have some overlap, but they are often presented in slightly different ways.
Obviously, the BPRT Heuristic is not the answer to all your tech trend questions.  In providing a quick, holistic approach to tech trend analysis it does, however, allow you to avoid many of the problems associated with too much hype.