IRI 2038: Envisioning the Future of R&D

Ted Farrington, Christian Crews, and Jennifer Blenkle

Ted Farrington is senior director at PepsiCo Corporate Research, working in the food-processing area. He has worked for several consumer products companies and been active in IRI for many years, having cosponsored several Research-on-Research groups in the area of breakthrough innovation. Ted holds BS and MS degrees in math and physics from Clarkson University, an MS in chemical engineering from Caltech, and a PhD in chemical engineering from the University of

Christian Crews is the principal of AndSpace Consulting; he has many years of experience in foresight both as a consultant and as the leader of corporate foresight at Pitney Bowes and other large organizations. He has an MS in studies of the future from the University of Houston–Clear Lake and a BA in English from the College of William and Mary. He is a founding member of the Association of Professional

Jennifer Blenkle is vice president, research and innovation, at the Industrial Research Institute; she has over 15 years experience leading new program development and research programs for associations and nonprofit organizations. Jennifer has an MA in public administration from San Francisco State University and a BA in political science–public service from the University of California–

The IRI2038 project will explore plausible yet provocative scenarios for the future of R&D management. Using backcasting techniques, the project will consider how IRI and its members can prepare for each scenario. The discovery phase, comprising an internal futures audit and a weak signals environmental scan, was completed in 2012. Complete information about the project can be found at

What will R&D look like in twenty-five years? How will your job get done? The future is happening now, developing from tiny tremors in the environment. Today’s weak signals—emerging trends and indicators of future trends in business, technology, and culture—can help you see where the world is going. As part of its 75th Anniversary, the Industrial Research Institute has commissioned a foresight initiative to explore what the next quarter century will bring for innovation and R&D, as well as for IRI itself. What trends and developments may impact the art and science of research and technology development? This is the question we’ll be exploring over the coming year.

The first step in the IRI2038 journey is a discovery phase, designed to map out the forces likely to shape our future through a futures audit and weak signals scan. For the futures audit, the IRI2038 team interviewed 38 R&D leaders from around the world, asking about their views of past, current, and future drivers of change in R&D management. The weak signals scan scoured the world of information—written, electronic, video, and other sources—for early indicators of possible future trends.1

Taken together, the results of these two exercises reveal an intriguing picture of the future of R&D. Our interviewees identified a diverse set of forces likely to shape the R&D organization of 2038, from intellectual property challenges to the emergence of “freelance R&D” to an increasing embrace of open innovation. At the same time, the weak signals scan suggested a range of less certain future trends, such as human augmentation, that may perturb those from the audit and take the future of R&D in unexpected directions.

Some trends identified in the futures audit were seen as evolving from the past, through the present, and into the future—open innovation is one vivid example. R&D organizations began learning to work with universities and external labs well over 25 years ago. The twenty-first century has seen the emergence of open innovation companies that crowdsource solutions to corporate challenges. In the future this practice will expand beyond R&D, leveraging insight from consumers and customers to redefine all aspects of the supply chain.

Complementing these trends are one-time events that will have long-term impacts. The Bayh-Dole act, passed in the United States in 1980, gave patent ownership rights to any organization utilizing federal funds for research. The act changed forever how corporate R&D interacts with U.S. universities. When we asked what trends our participants were watching today, we heard about remote workers and the shifting center of gravity of R&D toward the Far East.

Looking forward, here are a few of the future trends for which there was broad consensus among R&D leaders interviewed:

  • Freelance R&D: We are all contractors! By 2038, it will be rare to have an extended career with one company. Scientists, engineers, and project managers will be individual contractors working from home. The most important person in the company will be the project recruiter, who bids to get the best talent possible for the project budget.
  • Intellectual property challenges. Everyone agrees the current global patent system is overloaded. Some believe that the process must improve and more resources are required to support it, but they believe the basic principle of patent protection as the cornerstone of intellectual property will be the same in 2038. Others think the classic patent will be of little value, if it even exists by 2038, as the increasing pace of innovation, open sourcing, and some countries’ overuse of their power to force companies to license their patents may make traditional patents irrelevant.
  • Sustainability. Everyone is concerned about the grand challenges presented by the need for clean air, water, energy, and food. But the short-term focus of most corporate goals means that no profit-seeking entity can really attack these challenges on the scale they require. There are many potential technical solutions, but these can only be pursued by technophilanthropists and very unique partnerships such as Singularity University (, which focuses on applying rapidly changing technologies to these grand challenges.
  • Virtual collaboration. Holographic telepresence meetings will be common by 2025. Remote workers will be able to participate with no special facilities required by 2038. There is disagreement among interviewees regarding the future of face-to-face interactions. Some feel they will become unnecessary while others believe research will continue to be a contact sport.
  • Computer science and simulation. Intelligent IT systems will give us more synthesized answers to questions instead of the “you have about 500,000 results” we now get from online searches. Simulation will continue to replace physical testing and allow more efficient design of new drugs and other products.


The weak signals scan identified more than 20 emerging forces that may alter our view of R&D’s role in the future:

  • Human augmentation. Augmentation is occurring in three main ways: physical augmentation of the human body, neuro-enhancement through pharmaceuticals, and augmented reality devices to overlay relevant digital information onto physical reality. While many techniques were initially developed to correct human deficiencies, the power of augmentation technologies is creating humans with capabilities beyond normal range. How will companies evaluate job applicants with augmented capabilities? Would a company ever require augmentation in a position description?
  • Machines doing research. Computer systems are conducting research and making decisions with increasing autonomy; advanced systems are developing the ability to assimilate and use massive amounts of data; search for relevant data in large, unstructured sets; create and test hypotheses; and create and optimize highly complex designs. Rights for intelligent machines and assignment of liability for the consequences of computer activities are topics of active discussion.
  • The era of women. Women already earn more total PhDs and Master’s degrees in the U.S. than men, with clear leads in the health and biological sciences. By 2038, women will close the current 3:1 gap in engineering and be populating all levels of R&D management. Data indicate that women often establish different priorities than men, both with personal resources and in leadership positions. As women move from minority to either equity or a majority in decision-making situations, these differences are likely to lead to bold change. The increasing presence of women, and their differing priorities, is likely to lead R&D in new and unexpected directions.


It is already clear that R&D management will look very different 25 years from now. But in one sense, R&D leaders will be doing the same things they do today: managing people, managing projects, and managing organizations. The tools available to do the job, and the environment in which it’s done, will be very different than they are today—that’s all. At every stage of the IRI2038 project, we will view our results through the lenses of people, projects, and organizational management.

Future columns will include more in-depth discussions of key trends, the scenarios we develop, and “day in the life of” stories for those scenarios. Join us on the IRI2038 journey!

1 IRI contracted AndSpace Consulting and Foresight Alliance to carry out the weak signals scan.

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