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Who needs a tech futurist? In today's world, you do

Pat Ryan’s job is to think about tomorrow.

He fills a new role as tech “futurist” at tech consulting company SPR. His job is to study budding technologies he projects will catch on in the next few years and “make them concrete” for clients.

“What we’re trying to do is be much more proactive and much more deliberate on what we think our clients are going to be asking us for instead of being reactive,” said Ryan, who’s proper title is executive vice president of emerging technologies for the Chicago-based company. “We’re now trying to get ahead of that curve because things change really fast, and they’re changing faster.”

Pat Ryan. SPR

Pat Ryan

Though Ryan is in the consulting business, the role he plays — as tech futurist — has increasing relevance for practically every organization in an age when digital technologies are enabling entirely new businesses (ridesharing, for example) and threatening old ones (the taxi industry). Companies may not have a dedicated role like Ryan’s, but looking to the future for what’s to come and then taking action in the present needs to be someone’s job.

“If they don’t do that, their competitor will do that — that’s an existing competitor, or it’s a competitor that they haven’t even heard of today,” he said.

A tech futurist at work

Forecasting which way the tech winds will blow is no simple task. Ryan watches technologies that show real business promise — blockchain, for example, for steeling transactions against fraud. He then learns their ins and outs — “I probably still code every single day,” he said – so can he train his co-workers, consultants who field questions from eager clients.

Lots of companies are on the cutting edge, too — they just need some guidance to push ahead in the right direction. Ryan gave the example of a client he’s working with to figure out how to put blockchain to use. (He didn’t identify the client for confidentiality reasons.) The company’s CTO is also a tech futurist: He envisions a world reshaped by the distributed ledger technology. “Part of his role as the CTO is to have this futurist hat,” Ryan said. “That’s exactly why we’re working with him now.”

Just a few years ago, blockchain was a curiosity piece with an odd name, and there was little interest in it beyond the financial services industry. Now law firms, manufacturers and healthcare facilities are exploring the technology, one that Ryan says will someday be a platform companies will use for a whole range of applications.

Preparing for what’s to come

Now, with the technology still green, is when the real work begins, Ryan said. For example, he’s looking beyond the business implications of a smart contract, a computer program that brokers agreements between parties.

“How do you unit test it? How do you put it into the continuous integration pipeline?” he said. “If you’re going to really make it stick, we’ve got to get through some of that blocking and tackling of the technology.”

Another technology that’s bound for prime time, Ryan said, is natural language processing, which facilitates conversations between humans and machines. SPR’s clients aren’t yet asking for it, but the technology is improving at a rapid pace — and demand will take off. So companies should act now.

“You could and should be incorporating voice user experiences into whatever application you’re making,” Ryan said. “So if you have a mobile app, you should have a voice application.”

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