Have Faith in the future?

America's leading futurist riffs on the role of drugs

Riccardo Vecchio

Faith Popcorn keeps a somewhat Spartan medicine cabinet.

Old staples like St. Joe’s aspirin and vitamin C share the shelves with such new age nostrums as valerian root and echinacea. And then there’s the Manic Panic pink and purple hair color, and the Cosequin anti-arthritis capsules for her two dogs. Nevertheless, we thought we’d ask futurist Faith Popcorn to give us an exclusive look at the future of the local drugstore and forecast the next revolution in getting pharmaceuticals into the hands of consumers.

Popcorn gained a worldwide reputation for accurately predicting the future of consumerism — what we’ll buy — as well as where we will work and how we will live. The CEO of her own marketing consultancy, Faith Popcorn’s BrainReserve, she advises Fortune 500 companies about trends in consumerism and the future of their industries. She’s been called “the trend oracle” by the New York Times and hailed as the “Nostradamus of Marketing” by Fortune.

Paul Costello, executive director of the medical school’s Office of Communication & Public Affairs, recently talked to Popcorn about the future — not tomorrow, not a year from now, but way out there.

Where’s the corner drugstore heading?

Popcorn: On one hand, they’ll all but disappear. We’ll see fewer drugstores and drug aisles. We’ll have ATM-like machines providing the drugs — especially for ordinary problems like eye infections and yeast infections. We’ll also have long-distance diagnosis and a home-delivery system. You’ll put your palm on a computer screen at home to transmit health information to your doctor, who will send the drugs straight to your door.

Where we do have drugstores, they’ll be specialized. Some will be very high tech, with robots that will support all of your information needs. Others will be alternative-medicine-style pharmacies with plenty of human interaction. 

So one size fits all is gone?

Popcorn: Absolutely. We’ll have more fragmentation. Mass marketing is over. We’ve been saying that for 20 years.

How will pharmaceuticals change food in the future?

Popcorn: Like the drugstore, there are two directions that food can go in: Super, ultra-organic or very high tech and manipulated — for instance apples that are coerced through genetics to lower your blood pressure. This is happening already with margarine that prevents cholesterol absorption.

What’s the next radical change in drug use? 

Popcorn: Customized medicine and more compliance. We’ll get better at following doctor’s orders because we’ll see that with customized medicine, those orders make sense for us as individuals. We won’t get a blanket answer but an answer based on our own genetics, health condition and environment. We'll also use technology more for self-monitoring and self-diagnosis. You can already get a watch that tells you if you're ovulating. This trend is popping up in Asia. In Korea, they have combination cell phone/blood glucose level testers.

Will pharmaceuticals create a culture in which sleep becomes a thing of the past?

Popcorn: If a drug offers us a way to sleep less, we will use it, especially during our working years. Our lives are so full — we need those hours we usually use for sleep. Active sleep is something else to watch for. We’ll want our sleep time to be productive. If we believe sleep will help us lose weight, have more beautiful skin or be more effective at meetings we’ll start to value it more.

Today, most of us believe that athletes who take performance-enhancing drugs are cheaters. Will these drugs ever get a nod of approval from sports enthusiasts?

Popcorn: We will eventually decide that sports are about skill and strategy, not building muscle mass. We’ll feel that exercise is kind of a silly way to build muscle mass. And if you can pop a pill to build muscles — in a healthy way — why not?

If you’re thinking, pharmaceutical drugs and business opportunities, where would you be headed next?

Popcorn: Towards the drug equivalent of cosmetic surgery. The dollars are so incredible. If you have a pill to look younger, the demand will be huge.

What are you looking forward to personally?

Popcorn: Pharmaceuticals to achieve an escape, a drug-assisted mini-vacation. I call them “playcations.” With terrorism, pollution and just plain security on our minds, society is going to be looking for ways out. These mini-vacations via meds are a solution.

Is it an induced state of euphoria? What exactly do you mean?

Popcorn: It could mean a drug that lets me take a five-minute nap and have the best dream that I could possibly have. I’d love to have that drug.

What will shock us about pharmaceuticals of the future?

Popcorn: Used in combination with virtual reality technology, they’ll allow us to spend time with people who are deceased. The drug will enhance the reality of the experience. So you can actually walk down your old street and have a conversation with your dad, even if he’s gone.

Now that’s far out.

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