Exuberance is a vital pre-requisite to gaze into the future. Entertainer George Burns looked at the future, "because that's where I'm going to spend the rest of my life". But TV diva Oprah Winfrey has been characteristically buoyant: "When I look into the future, it's so bright it burns my eyes". Equally upbeat is the outlook of a galaxy of global and Indian CEOs who agreed to write for The Future Issue on topics ranging from agriculture and apparel to food and pharmaceuticals.
Take the case of travel. A new mode of transport hasn't been invented in a 100 years. Yet, the Future of Travel requires moving at higher speeds, lowest costs and with least energy (forget fossil fuels). That's precisely what some of the newest modes of transport being tried out hope to achieve. The closest to commercialisation, of course, is the Hyperloop. It promises speeds three times that of high-speed trains, costs much lower and banks on renewables. Virgin Hyperloop One CEO Jay Walder reckons time for incremental improvements in transportation is over.
Or, take one of humanity's oldest occupation - farming. Just as modern agriculture chased higher productivity for decades on end, it pored over the anomaly that higher productivity came at the expense of greater resource intensiveness with even greater use of land, water and other agri inputs - and higher amounts of greenhouse gas emissions. That era will have to end if humanity has to transcend to a sustainable future. Liam Condon, Member of the Board of Management of Bayer AG, and President of the Crop Science Division, says agriculture and food production will have to be part of the solution, not the problem. The Future of Farming lies in business models that reward sustainability, innovative practices and tools focusing on small farm holders and advances in science - data science, particularly, will create new opportunities for farming with insights regarding land, weather, soil, seeds and finally markets.
Nestle India Chairman Suresh Narayanan adds that the Future of Food is in emerging dietary patterns around 'total wellbeing' and 'holistic health'. Food producers will have to create trustworthy, healthy and nutritious product lines with one challenge - no compromise on taste. Besides, ongoing changes in higher 'out of home' consumption may also lead to greater demand for 'single portions' instead of 'shared portions'.
Humanity's next other basic necessity is clothing. WFH has reduced the need for clothing. The longer lockdowns stay, the steeper will be the fall in demand for clothes. So where does the Future of Apparel lie? Levi Strauss's CEO Chip Bergh writes that companies will redouble efforts towards sustainable clothing: use lesser water, chemicals. Consumer demand will be forecast using AI while consumers will be tempted to shun use-and-throw clothing in search of sustainable clothing that is built to last.
The pandemic has resulted in unprecedented pressure on the pharmaceutical industry to deliver a drug or a vaccine - in the shortest possible time. The latter is just what the industry isn't used to. New drugs take as long as 10-14 years to hit the market, vaccines as much as 9-11 years. So what's the Future of Drug Discovery? The timelines can't be crashed without AI and data science. Perhaps, virtual testing and AI-based predictions of which drugs may work across genetic types. Biocon's Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw writes that India can capitalise on the goodwill generated through supply of drugs during the pandemic to the world to position itself as a laboratory to the world. Especially, with its legacy of hosting the world's largest number of USFDA-approved pharma plants outside the US.
But no area in the future will remain unaffected by technology. Microsoft India President Anant Maheshwari sees the Future of Technology in 'Trust' as companies increasingly adopt WFH/WFO hybrid approach. Those who will be able to build additional layers of digital protection, including cybersecurity and privacy, may make the most of the opportunity as opposed to vanilla tech solutions. With India already brimming with some of the planet's best technology resources, it is perhaps most uniquely positioned to be the world's true technology engine, says Maheshwari.
The world is awash in liquidity but industry is chary of investing due to economic uncertainties. So what's the Future of Investments? Kotak Mahindra Asset Management's Nilesh Shah believes that investments will move towards emerging markets which will continue to grow faster than developed economies. Not just for equity opportunities but also because of higher interest rates in comparison with the developed world. The higher the governance standards, the more likely will be the investments. Thus, investments will eventually chase higher returns with lesser regard for risk.
And finally, the coronavirus pandemic has raised a spectre over the handling of natural disasters - even future pandemics. If and when they occur, Big Data will be at the heart of disaster management, as it is already beginning to. Satellites and drones will not just monitor but will also perhaps help detect any such situations. And specialists are already predicting that with the advent of distributed manufacturing, large factory accidents will hopefully be a thing of the past when gargantuan plants will cease to exist.
These are just a handful of CEOs in the following pages who crystal-gazed the Future for this Special Issue of Business Today. Stimulate your mind.