50 what-if questions to reimagine the future
We have handpicked a selection of trends & shifts in technology to help you come up with more relevant business ideas.
"What if...?": find new ideas and examples to disrupt your industry.
Some of the most notable and disruptive inventions of tomorrow will require a paradigmatic change in the way we interpret things today, in the way we perform tasks, in the technologies and resources we have access to.
In this page, we collected some future trends, technologies, possibilities, opportunities, that inspired us the most, with concrete examples of how small and large organizations are leveraging (when not creating themselves) these trends.
What if your customers could customize every single detail of your product?
The manufacturing industry is becoming increasingly capable of creating small batches (or even single units) of personalized products at very competitive prices. Imagine ways to let your customers customize their favorite product or service, and to produce/deliver it cheaply. Nike iD online store allows users to customize the look and feel of their shoes, from texture, to shape, to color, for (only) 150€. Good morning mass customization.
What if you only had voice to interact with users?
Voice will likely become one of the most important interfaces in the future - the fact it's the interface we use the most between humans should be a valid proof for this. Smart assistants like Alexa (Amazon), Google Assistant (Google) or Siri (Apple) are the first mass-market examples of how voice interfaces could look like in the future. Imagine services that listen to your users (all the time?), helping them in their daily life. P.S. try making them grandma-friendly.
What if your customers moved countries every week?
An increasing number of people moves from country to country - for work, visiting friends and relatives, or simply visiting. The end of roaming costs in the EU made already the life of Europeans much easier - now, what can you do to help trans-national commuters, digital nomads and global citizens? Think at Transferwise borderless bank account: it can be opened online everywhere in the world, accepts payments in every currency and charges none or very small fees regardless of the currency or your location.
What if you turned from B2C to B2B (or viceversa)?
Airbnb and Ryanair originally designed a service with only B2C customers in mind. Later, they added a B2B version of their services. For example, Airbnb for Work offers defined standards for business travelers - a selection of locations with WiFi, a workspace, possibility of self-check-in and flexible cancellation policy. While Ryanair, on their website, added the possibility to purchase a business package. Now consider your product or service: how can you repackage it to make it attractive for businesses/consumers?
What if you were charged a fee for delivering a bad customer experience?
Users can contact businesses via Whatsapp. If a company replies after 24h, the company needs to pay per message sent. Faster replies are free. It's a smart incentive to position Whatsapp as the quickest channel to get answers from companies.
What if you could reframe your service into bite-size components?
Duolingo turns a lengthy, painful process (learning a new language) into a playful list of little, easy, 5-min lessons. How can you reframe a long, boring process into a list of quick, fun, rewarding activities, that the user can tackle at different times in a day?
What if you used your user's DNA to customize your service?
For a 99$/€ fee, you can have your DNA tested thanks to services like 23andMe and Ancestry. These tests allow you to discover the geographical origins of your ancestors, trace their journeys over time, connect with other distant relatives who took the test and ultimately reconnect with your extended "family". With more and more people taking these tests worldwide, how can you leverage this data to deliver better value to your customers? For example, Spotify offers personalized playlists reflecting the cultural music of users’ heritage, based on their DNA test (provided by Ancestry).
What if you went fully global?
Information and telecommunication technologies ade the world interconnected. The internet created a parallel, ubiquitous digital world, accessible from everywhere at a very low cost. And fast and cheap transportations are allowing billion people to fly everywhere in the world. The globe has never been smaller. No surprise that more and more brands (especially new ones) are natively global, virtually extending their reach to every country in the world. For instance, Netflix today acts as a global TV operator, producing and distributing content worldwide, and creating international social phenomena - remember "Stranger Things"?
What if your product was so simple, a child could use it?
Imagine an interface that doesn't need explanations. Interfaces like the ones of Android and iOS are largely self-explanatory, and let every user find what they're looking for in an intuitive manner.
What if your customers could share your products and services?
Sharing economy is eating the world: we share more and more assets, especially very expensive assets that we use for short spans of time. Therefore, try to imagine a setup that lets customers not own an asset, but access it only when needed, helping them splitting the cost amongst peers. Some examples: car sharing, bike sharing, scooter sharing, ride sharing, office sharing, house sharing.
What if you could predict customer behavior?
Think of ways to answer customer's needs extremely quickly by predicting the need even before it becomes explicit. Amazon patented a system for predictive logistics (paywall): based on buying trends, your searches, and regional data, they already send products close to you even before you buy them.
What if your customers were extremely wealthy?
Imagine VIP features that would make you rich if you can sell them once. For example, look at crowdfunding campaigns: in addition to small pledges, they often allow a few donations of thousands of euros, in exchange for a priceless experience (for example, a dinner with the CEO of the startup, or a limited edition, or a special aknowledgement, or just ethernal gratitude).
What if artificial intelligence was dealing with new customers and claims?
There is no business that won't be disrupted by artificial intelligence. Many startups, for example, extensively uses artificial intelligence and chatbots to deliver insurance policies and handle claims - for example, Lemonade.
What if you could help your customers go carbon-free?
Make it easier for customers to go carbon-free and adopt sustainable behaviors. For example, many booking platforms for flight, train, and bus trips allow passengers to compensate for the CO2 produced during the journey, by adding a small donation to ad hoc programs. KLM's passengers can also decide whether compensating for themselves only or for an additional passenger as well.
What if you extended your vertical integration?
Ease your customer's experience through vertical integration. Think at the urban mobility business: you may have in your pockets a card for public transport, a membership for bike sharing, a membership for car sharing (+ maybe scooter sharing?), and you may occasionally use Uber or TAXI. Whim is creating a one-stop shop monthly subscription that integrates public transport, bike sharing, car sharing and a package of TAXI rides. An easy all-in-one, integrated service (for now available in Helsinki, West Midlands, and Antwerp).
What if you surprised your customer with something unexpected?
When your customers buy a product or service from you, you may tend to deliver just what was demanded. Now, try going the extra mile: can you surprise your customer by delivering something MORE? It could be an additional present, a nice, personalized message of appreciation, or smart packaging. For example, Tomorrowland - one of the most popular music festivals in the world - delivers your bracelet for the event in an outstandingly artsy box, instead of a plain envelope.
What if the product was also an experience?
How can you turn products into experiences? Starbucks revolutionized the coffee market by transforming a simple product (a coffee) into a whole experience: they make you feel special by adding your name on your cup, and provide you with comfy couches and WiFi.
What if you donated a % of your revenues to charity?
New generations are more generous and altruistic than ever and give preference to organizations and brands that actively change the world for the better. Capture more clients by letting them be effortlessly more generous. Amazon Smile provides the same service of Amazon, with the only difference that it forwards 0.5% of revenues to a charity of your choice.
What if you allowed external providers into your service?
Imagine ways to let other companies integrate their services into your service. This way, other organizations have access to your pool of users, while you enrich your product or service with additional features and possibilities provided by your partners. For example, Slack allows hundreds of third-party extensions into its communication platform.
What if your whole memory was digitalized?
Lifelogging is the process of tracking personal data generated by our own behavioral activities. At our office, Manu is one of the early backers of the Narrative Clip. This small camera takes a picture every 30 seconds and stores them, in a smart way, in the cloud. This tracker is interesting because it combines big data management with a photographic memory. The Quantified Self movement takes the aspect of simply tracking the raw data to try and draw correlations and ways to improve our lives from it. Companies like Fitbit, Jawbone and Withings are playing in this field to give users insights into their daily activity and sleep.
What if everyone in your organization was an entrepreneur?
Intrapreneurship is responsible for a great deal of product and service innovation around the world today. At Board of Innovation, we’re strong believers of intrapreneurship. Our mission is to make “corporates innovate like start-ups to challenge the status quo”. In 2014, you could start by organizing your own intrapreneurship program. You could start with bootcamps – a great way of developing new concepts in a short time. More ambitious? You can even develop your own in-house start-up accelerator like Sanoma did!
What if all your customers had access to a 3D printer?
It’s likely that 3D printer prices will decrease over the next few years due to competitive pressure and higher shipment volumes. Gartner predicts that 7 of the 50 largest multinational retailers will sell 3D printers through their physical and online stores by 2015. So how can you re-shape your business model knowing that in 2015 more than 50% of your customers will have access to a 3D printer, either at home or in a special 3D print shop? Today, the P2P 3D printer network 3DHUBS (also called the Airbnb of 3Dprinting and covering 2400 printers worldwide) makes easy access possible!
What if people needed to pay for privacy?
Privacy is a major global topic since many years now. A recent study by the University of Colorado Boulder found that average smart phone users are willing to pay up to $5 extra for a typical application – or ‘app’ – that won’t monitor their locations, contact lists and other personal information. As lifelogging devices like Narrative challenge this whole domain, the near-future scenario of people paying for their privacy doesn’t sound that crazy. Could you use this as a new opportunity in your company?
What if your industry was fully decentralized?
When talking about decentralized industries, people often refer immediately to energy. However, other industries are also challenged by this new ‘model’, often referred to as P2P networks. Airbnb recently reached over 650,000 listed rooms on their platform, conquering IHG and Hilton. Car-sharing services like ZipCar are mobilizing more and more users to collaboratively consume a car instead of buying a new one. Discover how you can start your own P2P startup from this inspiring keynote from Robin Chase (ZipCar) at the Lean Startup Conference.
What if people could ‘Pay What They Want’ for your products & services?
If you bought Radiohead’s 2007 album In Rainbows or a digital package at Humble Bundle, you’ve participated in the ‘pay what you want’ sales model. It’s pretty self-explanatory: content owners offer goods and let buyers decide how much they want to pay for them. We recently saw this model popping up in the creative services industry. The Web Agency 8K considers themselves the first agency in the world where you pay what you think the design is worth. The open platform Bundle Dragon brings the ‘pay what you want’ model to everyone. Try it for yourself today!
What if we paid with self-created virtual currencies?
Currency – the bills and coins you carry in your wallet and your bank account – is founded on marketing. And on the belief that banks and governments are trustworthy. In recent months, Bitcoins have been all over the news with people questioning this new kind of money – virtual currencies. Get inspired by Paul Kemp-Robertson’s TED talk about a new generation of currency, supported by that same marketing… but on behalf of a private brand. From Nike Sweat Points to bottles of Tide (which are finding an unexpected use in illegal markets), meet the non-bank future of currencies!
What if power naps were allowed at your company?
We recently installed a ‘Power Nap Space’ at our office where people can take a power nap in the afternoon. Power naps of fewer than 30 minutes – even those as short as 6 and 10 minutes – restore wakefulness and promote performance and learning. A University of Düsseldorf study found superior memory recall once a person had taken a 6-minute nap, suggesting that the onset of sleep may initiate active memory processes of consolidation which, once triggered, remains effective even if sleep is terminated. A starting guide for power napping at work can be found here.
What if you could optimize the performance & private life of your employees?
It’s scientifically proven that good corporate wellness programs result in happier and healthier employees (read: save money on healthcare for both the employee and employer)! Virgin Pulse, Fitbit Corporate Solutions & Kinema Fitness are just a few examples of the many existing service solutions you can ‘buy’ as a company to boost your employees’ karma. But why buy a service if you could start small and design it yourself? This article outlines the 5 things to keep in mind as you design a wellness program for your company.
What if you owned your own bank?
First there was crowdsourcing, then crowdfunding and then rewards-based crowdfunding models such as Indiegogo and Kickstarter. But perhaps equity-based crowdfunding is the model that will change the way start-ups raise money in the early future. At the Board of Innovation, we have already become a ‘shareholder’ via equity-based crowdfunding of the new Belgian bank NewB and the digital news agency NewsMonkey! What if your company starts using this model for launching new innovative spin-offs and getting market traction in a really early phase?
What if you had invested in Apple or Google 10y ago?
If you did, and you still have it in your bank account, well, you have our respect.
What if every employee believed to be creative?
‘Creative self-efficacy’ is the belief that one has the ability to produce creative outcomes. Believing in your own abilities makes you perform better. This belief can be fostered not just through mastery experience, but also through managers’ expectations and the presence of creativity in the office. We designed several innovation posters to help you inspire your team and other people in your organization. Facebook even has a Minister of Propaganda who prints and distributes posters throughout their offices to shape Facebook’s innovative culture. Ready to start your propaganda? Download our innovation posters for free!
What if your product became available for free?
This is the time to question your business model! If someone is able to bring your product to the market for free, it means that they radically changed the business model you’re working with and found other ways to make sustainable profit. You might love it or hate it, but radical changes like this changes industries. Take Google which earns most of its profit from ads. An example that makes this tangible is the free peer-to-peer navigation app Waze that replaces GPS devices like Garmin and TomTom. Team Fortress 2 is a free-to-play game, allowing users to submit 3D models of items and hats, to potentially have them accepted and incorporated into the actual game. By the end of 2012, users had earned $5m by selling their own designs on the platform.
What if you made room to incubate 1,000 start-ups?
A start-up incubator is a collaborative program helping start-ups succeed. Common problems of start-ups are taken care of: seed funding, workspace, training, mentoring etc. Over the last few years, dozens of incubator programs have popped up all over the world. The success of incubators lies in the mutual benefit for start-ups and big corporates. While entrepreneurs search for funding, economies of scale and a big platform for marketing, corporates could use insights in the next big trends, have access to young talent and be inspired by short decision cycles. No room for an incubator? Participate in an existing accelerator program. A great list can be found in this article!
What if a corporate with 300,000 employees launched a start-up every 3 days?
The crowdsourcing product company Quirky launches 3 new items a week. Some of them go from sketch to the store shelf as quickly as 3 months. The record is 39 days. What if this could happen with start-ups instead of products? Imagine a new startup every 3 days?… GE is working on it! Together with Eric Ries of the Lean Startup, they trained 80 FastWork coaches, exposing almost 1,000 GE executives to Lean Start-up principles. GE also launched 100 FastWorks projects in US, Europe, China, Russia and Latin America. They range from building disruptive healthcare solutions to designing new gas turbines. In 2014, GE plans to expand the program to 5,000 executives and launch hundreds of new projects next year!
What if you could control every device just by looking at it?
Eye tracking is technology that measures the motion of an eye relative to the head. Devices tracking eye movement have long been used in marketing research. At our office, Arne pre-ordered the Tobii Eye, the first accurate and affordable ($195) eye-tracking device. It enables fantastic new experiences in games and other programs, fundamentally changing the way you communicate, play and work.
What if every product & service was custom made?
Custom-made products have always been every marketeer’s dream. Being able to deliver on customers’ personal needs is what makes companies sell products. At the same time, it brings logistical and operational nightmares. Not working with standardized subparts or processes is simply impossible for many companies. Data-driven production techniques like 3D printing, laser cutting and CNC milling, make this possible. Although many 3D printers @Home are already on the market, downloading 3D models via Thingiverse, commercially this technology is still almost only used to make product prototypes or parts for healthcare. What if you could start selling personalized consumer products or services? Twikit is a Belgian start-up that allows customers to print anything personalized.
What if ‘Made in China’ became a quality label?
For the last century, China has been one of the runner-ups in this world. Low wages, cheap production and a supporting environment have attracted many companies in recent decades. Today’s graduates have received one of the finest educations available. And China is one of the few countries with both the raw materials and the production of end products in one country. The end of cheap China has arrived! Quality can no longer be a unique selling proposition in Europe and US. What makes your company unique?
What if you could pay public services with an exercise?
If you live in Moscow, your morning commute can now include a brief fitness session, as Russian subways now accept squats as payment. In Beijing, on the other hand, travellers can pay with plastic bottles. Governments are ‘paying’ users to recycle or be more healthy. So why shouldn’t you consider this within your own organization? Would this result in a win-win situation?
What if data became worthless?
Google was one of the first companies to understand that selling data on a large scale can be a valuable business model. For many corporations, large data is their main focus these days; monetizing the data available is the goal. Today, transparency is the new status symbol. The next-generation company will offer great service for everyone, all of the time, and maybe even without requiring data. How guilt-free is your company?
What if you had instant access to real-time health information of your employees?
The problem with health and activity trackers is that you have to wear them all the time. A good tracker is one which doesn’t bother you at all and which doesn’t disturb your life. OMsignal has a health tracker woven into textile. Together with their app, it gives you insights into your breathing, heartbeat and stress levels. Currently still in development, Manu was selected as one of the early beta testers. What if you could know the real-time stress levels of all your employees? What could you do with that data to improve their productivity?
What if everyone had a digital log book with data starting from birth?
Products such as a Fitbit bracelet and the Whithings Wifi bodyscale are widely available, quantified self devices for adults. These days, the same kinds of products are bought for infants. Anxious first-time parents who worry about every little movement can monitor their child more closely than ever. Apps could also improve infant health by telling parents the precise nap or changing time. This trend will be really interesting when these kids start working. The big question remaining is ‘who will own the data?’ Corporates will either pay for it or use it as a selection tool while recruiting.
What if your unique heartbeat could unlock doors?
The fact that fingerprints are unique is widely known and used for decades. As long ago as 15y, IBM included a fingerprint scanner in one of their laptops and this feature has also been adopted by the latest iPhones. As face and voice recognition get some traction in the market, few people know that your heartbeat is also unique! All these biometrics combined will be the key to identifying ourselves in the future and passwords will be history. Not happening? Order Nymi, a small bracelet with heartbeat recognition. Which new business opportunities do you see in this field?
What if external business angels could invest in an internal start-up?
When searching for business angels, a start-up needs funding and expertise. In the case of experts from other companies, we speak about a ‘partnership’. But the term ‘external business angel’ can mean much more. What if people from other departments offer their expertise as a volunteer or invest in the start-up (privately or with the department). For instance, IBM’s internal crowd-funding platform was created to do this. Trying to know upfront if, for new products or services, in-house demand exists. Existing clients can also be involved.
What if you used drones in your company?
Much commotion occurred when Amazon announced they were testing a drone delivery service ‘Amazon Prime Air’. Skeptical blog writers and customers shouted that this would never happen. According to them, drone delivery faces legal, privacy, logistic and other problems. All of these problems don’t occur when companies use drones in-house – in warehouses, for example. In the longer term, customer delivery services will pop up as well. In Australia, Domino’s has already been running pilot projects to make pizza flying in the Australian skies.
What if all your employees were freelancers?
Fueled by rapidly changing lifestyles and technology innovation, online freelance work is growing at a record clip, outpacing progress in conventional job markets tremendously. Our increasing desire for greater flexibility, freedom and control in our work lives is driving us towards a freelance economy, with predictions that one in three people will be working online, independently, by 2020. So, how to make freelancing work for you?
What if all devices in your office were connected to the Internet?
New ‘Internet of Things‘ products could make your office smarter. If objects could communicate with each other, helping us to deal with complex and urgent situations, we could focus on the essence of our job! Jobs would become more social and less logistical issues would occur. Distance monitoring and smart logistics are part of our future!
What if you launched your own competitor?
Sparks & Honey, a New York trend-spotting firm, has a wall in its office where staff post imaginative next-generation jobs. One of the new jobs people will have in 2025 is as a ‘Corporate Disorganizer’: big companies want to be more like start-ups, seeing innovation as vital to future profits. Young says they’ll want ‘corporate disorganizers’ who can introduce a little “organized chaos. The disruptor will be tapping into the new systems of the collaborative economy, creating greater fragmentation and a more distributed ecosystem.”