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Forecasting the Future: Tom Conger and David Pierce Synder Face Off [Crystal City magazine]

by Hope Katz Gibbs
Crystal City magazine
Spring 2003
Photo by Hilary Schwab

FUTURE FORECASTS: TOM CONGER

CRYSTAL CITY MAGAZING FIRST PROFILED TOM CONGER in December 2000. Back then, the Arlington-based consultant predicted 2001 would be filled with technological breakthroughs such as kitchen appliances with Internet access, a hybrid gasoline-electric cars and bottled air.

Many are indeed materializing—even bottled air, which is becoming increasingly popular in California and China. In fact, the 38-year-old says that his company, Social Technologies, LLC, had its most profitable year in 2002.

Conger attributes his company’s success to tough times. “Companies look to the future for a way out of the doldrums,” says Conger, who this year is slated for projects with Kellogg’s, Kraft, Ford, General Motors, Alticor, Best Buy, Coca-Cola, and Procter & Gamble.

One of only a couple of hundred professionally-trained futurists in the U.S., Conger holds a degree in Studies of the Future from the University of Houston-Clear Lake-a career he didn’t even know existed when he graduated from Texas A&M University 20 years ago.

But that changed the evening, he attended a lecture about the future of space travel by a visiting professor named Peter Bishop, the chairman of the University of Houston’s futures studies program. Conger asked a lot of questions, and the signed up for Bishop’s program the following fall. The rest, Conger says, is history.

As for the future, 2003 and beyond, Conger remains cautiously optimistic that the economy will get stronger. “It is tough to know when the economy will stabilize. Faced with uncertainty, developing a balanced portfolio is the best approach for business people.”

Of course, exiting from the stock market completely in a downturn runs the very real risk that you’ll miss out on the first-and very important days of a sustained rally. The truth, Conger says, is that recession is simply an inherent weakness of capitalism, and the U.S. economy is on the down side of a natural business cycle.

So what should Americans do to protect their pocketbooks? “We need to look more at the psychology of our own spending habits,” he says. “We need to determine if, and why, people are spending too much, borrowing too much, and using credit cards more. Once we analyze our own behaviors, we can act prudently.”

What is the future of the IT industry, according to Conger? “The new economy is powered by technology, and I am pretty confident the tech sector will flourish again,” says Conger.

Conger is concerned, though, about the economic and social fallout of war. “If the U.S. isolates itself politically, it runs the risk of isolating itself economically, “ he says. “ Should the world begin to perceive America as a group of cultural imperialists, it will undoubtedly begin to isolate us.”

For now, Conger believes American firms would be smart to their businesses abroad by focusing on emerging markets. “The middle classes in India, China, and Russia are flourishing at a remarkable rate,” Conger says. “They are still keen on buying the best America has to offer.”

And when tackling these new markets, Conger recommends companies do it in a respectful manner.

“I’ve found that companies are more successful overseas when they do more than customize their products to suit the taste of a particular country,” he says. “The bottom line benefits when companies honor the culture of the country, rather than try to over-aggressively push American goods and ideals. “

“I think we’re still a couple of years away from a full recovery,” he says. “Of course, next week something unpredictable could happen and we could have a full recovery. Or things could get worse. You just never know.”

What he does predict—with about 99 percent certainty—that 2003 is going to be a tough year for seeing into the future.

FUTURE FORECASTS: DAVID PEARCE SYNDER

DAVID PEARCE SNYDER IS A SOCIAL FORECASTER with a penchant for what’s coming next in the field of technology. He’s the principal partner of a Bethesda, MD-based company, The Snyder Family Enterprise, and is regularly called upon by businesses, educational, and governmental institutions to identify trends to predict what might happen. He has written hundreds of articles, reports, and five books, including Future Forces and The Family in Post-Industrial America.

His prognoses have attracted the attention of the media, landing him spots on Nightline, the Today Show, CNN, and MSNBC. Congress and the White House have also hired him to serve as an instructor for their staff development programs.

A 1961 graduate of Antioch College with a degree in government, and the recipient of a graduate certificate in Operations Research and Systems Analysis from the University of California at Irvine, Snyder started his career in the 1970s at the Census Bureau. Throughout the next decade, he worked as a consultant for the Rand Corporation, before being hired by the IRS as its Chief of Information Systems. Later, Snyder became the agency’s Senior Planning Officer, where he began tracking long-range trends.

During the last 30 years, Snyder has developed a unique database filled with millions of projections. When his clients call him upon, Snyder uses these vast sources of information to create detailed scenarios, or “instant pre-plays, “ which he believes are the most probable combinations of economic, technological, and social realities likely to be encountered by each client industry, institution, community, or nation.

Before uttering a single prediction, trend, or forecast about the future, Snyder offers a disclaimer: “Some aspects of the future simply cannot be reliably forecasted. For example, there is no way to reliably predict what the stock market will do. There is also no way to predict what politicians might do. Scientific breakthroughs are another wild card. And, so is the weather.”

Snyder, however, believes that some dimensions of the future can be accurately prognosticated. For example, he is confident about the future of the economy. The country has been in a recession-and it is still suffering the consequences; but, he says, this dip has been unlike previous ones.

“Productivity has continued to rise and so have wages,” says Snyder. “That suggests that the underlying structure of the American economy is healthy and that U.S. businesses are doing something right. “

As for the plunge in capital investments, Snyder believes this is because in the 1990s, companies invested tremendous amounts of capital in technology. Now, they are learning how to use it. Although this reality will keep growth flat in the information technology (IT) industry, Snyder predicts that integrating new technology into all business processes will keep productivity rising and quickly restore overall corporate profitability.

“Employers will finally realize the heightened efficiency that those high-tech toys were supposed to offer,” he says. “As more companies get better at what they do, the economic performance will revive and growth will return. “

The downside to increasing efficiency, of course, is that many people will be squeezed out of their current jobs, Snyder says. Consequently, many people will be heading back to school to learn new skills. Among other things, he says, this means record numbers of women will join the workforce.

The good news, is that most people will be earning more money. By 2020, Snyder estimates that 70 percent of U.S. jobs will pay middle and upper level incomes-up from 45 percent in the early 1990s. That boost to the family checking account will provide couples with more disposable income, but high workforce turnover rates will mean most households will continue to require two wage earners to guarantee “income security.”

However, with two breadwinners heading off to work each day and growing numbers of singles parents working at least one job, families will have even less time to cook, clean, and shop for themselves, As a result, consumer services will continue to grow.

“Companies that do your yard work, cook your meals, deliver your dry cleaning, and clean your house will be joined by firms that transport the kids, repair the appliances, and manage household finances-and all will be very successful,” says Snyder, who also expects time-stretched Americans will be eating out more and ordering more take-out food.

This trend will create a market for goods that save time. The good news here is for the consumer electronics industry, which is currently investing large sums in the latest high-tech toy: the videophone. “Video phones are the hottest gadget in Europe and Asia, and 1 predict they will be in high demand in the U.S. in the near future,” Snyder says, who estimates that within 10 years, nearly all U.S. adults and students will be carrying Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs)—combining their cell phones, pagers, and Palm Pilots—and giving them wireless Internet access.

As Internet use spreads—and it will, Snyder says the concept of a global economy will become generally accepted. “The world economy is already evolving into a single system,” he says. “It’s never been that way before, and from all indications there is no turning back.”

Snyder warns, however, that a global war could negatively impact the way the world perceives the U.S. That, in turn, would dramatically limit the acceptability of American goods and services worldwide.

“Right now, American products are well-regarded,” he says. “People all over the globe see what we have, the freedom and personal success our culture represents, and want to emulate us-from our clothes to our taste in music, and our two parent/two children families. So, for the time being, global demand for U.S. goods will likely remain strong.”

Should America start a war that is unpopular, all bets are off. “In particular, if U.S. officials start to persecute, deport, or insult one group (Muslims, for instance), there would no doubt be a tremendous backlash,” he worries. “Suddenly, many people would want to harm America and Americans.”

In fact, Snyder envisions one possible scenario where terrorists resort to the type of local violent behavior seen in Israel and Ireland—where suicide bombers kill themselves and innocent bystanders in U.S. shopping malls and night clubs. This type of internal conflict, he says, could very easily turn into a long-term nasty confrontation between cultures, worldwide and within America.

“And that would be a genuine tragedy,” Snyder said, “because I don’t believe Americans, or any society on the planet, truly wants to hold up human progress. Surely, that’s not what we’re here for.”

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• MICHAEL GIBBS, website illustration and design: www.michaelgibbs.com
• MAX KUKOY, website development: www.maxwebworks.com
• STEVE BARRETT, portrait of Hope on Bio page: www.stevebarrettphotography.com

Contact HOPE KATZ GIBBS by phone [703-346-6975] or email.

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