Alan Kay famously said “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” But how do we go about inventing a future that isn’t a simple linear extrapolation of the present?

Kay and his colleagues at Xerox PARC did exactly that over the course of the 1970s and early 1980s. They invented and prototyped the key concepts of the Personal Computing Era. Concepts that were then realized in commercial products over the subsequent two decades.

So, how was PARC so successful at “inventing the future”? Can that success be duplicated or perhaps applied at a smaller scale? I think it can. To see how, I decided to try to sketch out what happened at Xerox PARC as a pattern language.


Look Twenty Years Into the Future

If your time horizon is short you are doing product development or incremental research. That’s all right; it’s probably what most of us should be doing. But if you want to intentionally “invent the future” you need to choose a future sufficiently distant to allow time for your inventions to actually have an impact.

Extrapolate Technologies

What technologies will be available to us in twenty years? Start with the current and emerging technologies that already exist today. Which relevant  technologies are likely to see exponential improvement over the next twenty years? What will they be like as they mature over that period? Assume that as the technical foundation for your future.

Focus on People

Think about how those technologies may affect people. What new human activities do they enable? Is there a human problem they may help solve? What role might those technologies have in everyday life? What could be the impact upon society as a whole?

Create a Vision

Based upon your technology and social extrapolations  create a clearly articulated vision of what your desired future. It should be radically different form the present in some respects. If it isn’t, then invention won’t be required to achieve it.

A Team of Dreamers and Doers

Inventing a future requires a team with a mixture of skills.  You need dreamers who are able to use their imagination to create and refine the core future vision. You also need doers who are able to take ill-defined dreams and turn them into realities using available technologies. You must have both and they must work closely together.

Prototype the Vision

Try to create a high fidelity functional approximation of your vision of the future. Use the best of today’s technology as stand-ins for your technology extrapolations. Remember what is expensive and bulky today may be cheap and tiny in your future. If the exact technical combination you need doesn’t exist today, build it.

Live Within the Prototype

It’s not enough to just build a prototype of your envisioned future. You have to use the prototype as the means for experiencing that future. What works? What doesn’t? Use you experience with the prototype to iteratively refine the vision and the prototypes.

Make It Useful to You

You’re a person who hopes to live in this future, so prototype things that will be useful to you.  You will know you are on to something when your prototype become an indispensible part of your life. If it isn’t there yet, keep iterating until it is.

Amaze the World

If you are successful in applying these patterns you will invent things that are truly amazing.  Show those inventions to the world. Demonstrate that your vision of the future is both compelling and achievable. Inspire other people to work towards that same future. Build products and businesses if that is your inclination, but remember that inventing the future takes more than a single organization or project. The ultimate measure of your success will be your actual impact on the future.







The first ten or fifteen years of a computing era is a period of chaotic experimentation. Early product concepts rapidly evolve via both incremental and disruptive innovations. Radical ideas are tried. Some succeed and some fail. Survival of the fittest prevails. By mid-era, new stable norms should be established. But we can’t predict the exact details.

Slide Bite: Early Era Products

April 21, 2016

The chaotic early days of a new computing era is an extended period of product innovation and experimentation. But both the form and function of new products are still strongly influenced by the norms and transitional technologies of the waning era. New technologies are applied to new problems but often those new technologies are not […]

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Slide Bite: Grassroots Innovation

April 19, 2016

How do we know when we are entering a new computing era? One signal is a reemergence of grassroots innovation. Early in a computing era most technical development resources are still focused on sustaining the mature applications and use cases from the waning era or on exploiting attractive transitional technologies. The first explorers of the […]

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Slide Bit: From Chaos

April 18, 2016

At the beginning of a new computing era, it’s fairly easy to sketch a long-term vision of the era. All it takes is knowledge of current technical trajectories and a bit of imagination. But it’s impossible to predict any of the essential details of how it will actually play out. Technical, business, and social innovation […]

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Slide Bite: The Ambient Computing Era

April 16, 2016

In the Ambient Computing Era humans live in a rich environment of communicating computer enhanced devices interoperating with a ubiquitous cloud of computer mediated information and services. We don’t even perceive most of the computers we interact with. They are an invisible and indispensable part of our everyday life.

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Slide Bite: Transitional Technologies

April 15, 2016

A transitional technology is a technology that emerges as a computing era settles into maturity and which is a precursor to the successor era. Transitional technologies are firmly rooted in the “old” era but also contain important elements of the “new” era. It’s easy to think that what we experience using transitional technologies is what […]

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Slide Bite: Computing Eras Aren’t About Hardware

April 14, 2016

Computing “generations” used to be defined by changing computer hardware. Not anymore. The evolution of computing hardware (and software) technologies may enable the transition to a new era of computing. But it isn’t the hardware that really defines such an era. Instead, a new computing era emerges when hardware and software innovations result in fundamental […]

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An Experiment: Slide Bites

April 14, 2016

Over the last several years, a lot of my ideas about the future of computing have emerged as I prepared talks and presentations for various venues. For such talks, I usually try to illustrate each key idea with an evocative slide. I’ve been reviewing some of these presentations for material that I should blog about. […]

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Redux | The Third Era of Computing

March 21, 2016

In 2011 I wrote a blog post where I present the big picture model I use for thinking about what some people were calling the “post-PC computing era”. Since then I’ve written other related posts, given talks,  and had conversations with many people.  Time appears to be validating my model so it seems like a […]

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