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HP’s Long Game And The Cities Of The Future

Christoph Schell, President of HP [HPQ] Americas Region wants to talk about the future which is, as Mark Twain famously said, where we are all going to spend the rest of our lives. It is unusual for a writer to be approached for a story by a Fortune 500 company that is not about its technology, products, people or financing, but rather about its vision for the future beyond its upcoming products. Way beyond. “We’re thinking thirty, forty years into the future,” Schell told me in a wide-ranging conversation a few weeks ago. “We start with world scenarios, who the consumers will be, how they’ll live, and what they’ll need.” He told me his organization spends as much time thinking about these trends and emerging technology as they do about their core business. “The future is[his emphasis] our core business.”

Christoph Schell, President HP North America (L) and HP CTO Shane Wall (R)

In 2015, HP CTO Shane Wall charged Andrew Bolwell, [VP & Head of HP Tech Ventures] with establishing a Future Group consisting of both technology experts and diverse disciplines like economists, political scientists, and sociologists. It was a small dedicated team at first. Bolwell called it a “brain trust,” but hastened to say that the focus on the future now includes so many groups across the company it now involves hundreds of people. Today the dedicated employees focused exclusively on the work report to Doug Warner [VP Innovation, Global Head of Technology Vision, Strategy and Incubation]. Bolwell now heads up HP Tech Ventures, HP’s VC arm. The company produces an annual Megatrends report and publishes HP’s Innovation Journal, available free on its website which now has more than three million readers. The Journals are remarkable in their strong sense of storytelling. Bolwell told me in an interview that narrative trajectory of mankind was something they were keenly aware of, and a big part of the work they do.

Quarterly internet publication by the HP Futures Group.

Bolwell told me he had four big takeaways from his years studying the future: (1) rapid urbanization (2) changing demographics (3) hyper-globalization and the digitization of goods and services and (4) accelerated innovation. “We’re looking at disruptive technology like 4D printing [emerging print technology where objects reshape themselves or self-assemble over time] because that is a technology that world will need.”

In the 2018 Megatrends Report, CTO Wall writes, “we describe three fascinating new and converging technology trends: BioConvergence, where the natural world and computing technology fuse; Frictionless Business, in which procurement contracts and made-to-order physical goods are as instantaneous as is the transfer of data today; and Beyond Human, where we use bio- and cyber technologies to defy disease and augment our bodies. The convergence of these trends will be a tipping point, where figments of the sci-fi imagination become fixtures of our everyday lives.”

Warner elaborates in the most recent issue of HP’s Innovation Journal: “The magnitude of change we are embarking on is like nothing we’ve ever seen before in our history… by 2030 there will be an estimated 8.5 billion people on Earth. A large portion of this population will be made up of the additional 1 billion people joining the middle class, predominantly in Asia and emerging markets. This new consuming class will represent nearly $30 trillion in spending power, residing largely in urban epicenters.

At the same time, we are going to see tremendous drags on the economy, including human and natural resource strains. The number of persons aged 60 or above is expected to more than double by 2050. This will lead to a decline in the number of workers per retiree, putting a strain on productivity and output. Global public debt may near 95% of the gross domestic product. We will have significant new infrastructure maintenance costs, and the desires of the surging global middle class will drive resource shortages.”

Schell told me the report is widely disseminated among senior staff and influences the company’s decision making. The company’s vision for its printing business, for example, goes way beyond the machines we’re familiar with today. “We’re only two and a half years into 3D printing, but it’s already clear to us that it’s going to develop into the factory of the future.”

HP’s CTO Shane Wall and I sat down at SXSW in March for a deep dive into the megatrends driving their thinking. “We see a world that’s undergoing accelerated urbanization. By 2050, 70% of the population will reside in megacities, which we define as populations of 10M people or more. In 2030, less than fifteen years from now, there will be 41 megacities, and by 2050, there will be 50, over half in emerging markets. New distribution methods, driven by local 3D printing, can be done at factory scale but on the voxel [volumetric pixel] level”.

HP 4210s in Singapore. HP predicts advances in 3D printing will change the way goods are transported.

Products will be personalized and made on demand. They will allow most products to be produced locally, customized and on demand, massively disrupting the current manufacturing and distribution of goods, a system developed over ten generations that will be upended in two.

“A world that manufactures goods with 3D printing needs to design those goods, and the whole process, in 3D, which means in VR,” added Schell. Most interesting is HP’s view of the emerging third world markets as keys to the company’s growth. “Africa is a story in itself, and will grow on an even faster pace than China and India. By 2025, the continent will exceed the size of those populations, reaching 1.8 billion people. It will have 40% of the working-age population of the world, and massive social and political problems, including 50% unemployment.”

One thing the company seems especially worried about is cybersecurity and the growth of cyber-crime. Indeed, it has added three of the world’s most renowned hackers to its staff in an effort to get inside the minds and methods of cybercriminals.

Schell and his colleagues at HP planting a tree, as scripture says, under whose shade they shall never sit. It captures the imagination. HP wants to adapt to the world, and anticipate its needs, not dictate them. That’s very different than the more glamorous great man story embodied by Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Elon Musk and the iconic founders of HP itself, Dave Packard and Bill Hewlett, who legendarily founded the company in a one-car garage in 1939.

This post was originally featured on Forbes.com on May 23, 2018

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