An exercise that is increasingly rare these days is to imagine the future. Could it be because it is really difficult to foreshadow it with a good approximation, or because-especially lately-any prediction has been contradicted or blown away by reality, the fact is that we reserve little time to imagine what shape our lives will take in five or ten years from now.
There is a question they often ask at job interviews, “Where do you see yourself in five or ten years?” I don’t know if the perfect interview handbooks provide a shortlist of intelligent answers to give but it is interesting as a question. And while it is also true that things change so fast that it is impossible to tell which way they are going, it is also true that in some areas we can make predictions.
I was thinking about this while looking at running shoes from 10 years ago. Who at the time would have imagined what shoes would look like today? Certainly there were already seeds of future developments: there were the lighter uppers with less support, there were interesting experiments done on the drop and on the shape of the shoes. Looking back serves mainly to see how far we have come and, perhaps, to see retroactively whether any of the predictions were right.
What I didn’t guess right
I find it more interesting to evaluate the predictions I did not guess. For example: I thought the midsoles would undergo more revolutionary changes. In 2013, Energy Boost was introduced, and in subsequent years other compounds with various gases added to the offering, but the impression – repeat, the impression – is that these were not really earth-shattering inventions or products. They have made it possible to improve the times of many runners and to create lighter, higher-performance shoes but without really upsetting performance.
I do not rule out being too demanding and unrealistic: the development of a new midsole compound requires a great deal of effort (and a lot of capital) in terms of research and development, and it is not ruled out either that the performance gains will eventually prove marginal.
In the sole/midsole department, the real innovation was the introduction of the carbon fiber plate, it is undeniable. I did not foresee this, although it is not entirely new. Evidently my job is not to be a futurologist.
Carbon fiber has dramatically improved the performance of a great many runners, especially elite runners. Those who were already going very fast were able to further increase their performance through this solution, while those who were in the middle or bottom group did not have the same room for improvement. In fact, carbon technology, because of its mechanical nature, rewards those who already have very good running technique and already run very fast. Slower runners (that is most runners) have not seen significant improvements, so much so that we often talk about them as shoes intended for a select and numerically smaller audience.
It is also true that this technology is not yet mature (in the sense that it still has room for improvement) and we will see this shortly thereafter.
And what I had guessed right
The evolution of the running shoe toward simplification was evident, and by now almost all products-and of any stripe-are composed of only a few parts and often have uppers consisting of a single piece masterfully shaped and assembled. Shells, supports, buttresses, and whatnot have in turn been simplified and often eliminated, thanks in part to the technology of mesh uppers that have made it possible to create zones of varying density, strength, and elasticity.
The shoe of the future
And here we come to the predictions, which we will check together in 5 to 10 years. Are you in? Good.
I’m predicting three areas in which the running shoe can be expected to evolve.
The upper will undergo incremental improvements and evolutions, but the path is marked and it is promising: maximum results with the least use of material, also in consideration of reduction of production waste. An interesting development is that of the trail upper: this is the only one that, for technical and foot protection reasons of the trail runner, still requires the application of panels or reinforcements in strategic positions, to better protect crucial parts, exposed to hard surfaces and unpredictable obstacles. It will be interesting to see how the industry will find ways to “armor” the shoes without making them too heavy.
The midsole and outsole-that is, the part of the shoe with the highest technological and mechanical content-will undergo two possible evolutionary lines, depending on whether or not the carbon plate is used.
Without the carbon: foams will have to continue to evolve by improving especially in three aspects: weight, elastic responsiveness, and durability. The foam capable of finding the best balance between these characteristics will be able to improve mechanical performance (“pushing” more), with less and less weight (and thus fatiguing the runner less and less), and finally lasting longer, for more kilometers and more time (i.e., keeping its mechanical characteristics stable and wearing out as little as possible).
With carbon: a few years after its introduction we are already seeing several applications of this technology in different shoes. Some people use it in plate form, some in the form of fiber rods (adidas’ “Energy Rods”) and those, finally, who are making it increasingly suitable for more types of runners, such as Carbitex, which has developed a fiber plate that has different mechanical responses depending on the speed of use and the direction in which it is stressed. The aim is to make as universal and adaptable as possible a technology that has demonstrated undoubted advantages, even if not yet perceptible to a vast number of runners.
The responsibility of companies to the environment will be increasingly evident. It already is in many cases, but consumer demand has convinced many brands of the importance of producing in ways that are increasingly environmentally conscious.
This kind of attention might have driven only some consumers until not so long ago, but now this kind of sensitivity is much more widespread and has become central to many people. By now (and increasingly in the future) those who respect our planet will be chosen and those who do not demonstrate that they care about it will be penalized. Therefore, we will see more and more shoes that use recycled or fully recyclable plastics and also products that propose the use of organic or low- or zero-impact materials.
And it will not stop there. The concept of the “life cycle” of products is becoming increasingly popular: more and more people are realizing that the life of a shoe begins the moment the raw materials are produced and doesn’t end when it is thrown away because it is “finished” but when it is disposed of, again, in a responsible way, namely by recovering and recycling everything that is recyclable and minimizing the environmental impact of what is not.
If the previous areas were concerned with the shoe as a product and its place in the production cycle and environment, the last aspect in which interesting developments can be expected is that of the consumer, i.e., the runner, that is: you.
In this regard, I have no evidence or market trends to prove what I am about to say but rather I’d like to highlight a lack of current supply. Today, if you think about it, you can buy shoes that are designed and manufactured for homogeneous types of runners: for those who go fast or slow, for those who are prepared or not, for those who are light or heavy, for those who run on road or trail. In this offering the individual (i.e., “you”) is not present. In short: “your shoe” is the one that best suits your style and athletic training within ranges that, for simplicity and production needs, each brand identifies.
If you think I’m talking about a very high-customization shoe, you know exactly what I mean. I do not believe it is, at present, an easily achievable scenario, but as production methods and technologies are refined, it is not out of the question that in the future we may come to customize our running shoes in ways that are unthinkable today. Starting from standard models we could decide to change the geometry, drop, profile, cushioning, upper type, and more. We could, in other words, become shoe designers.
I repeat: it will not happen this year nor probably in the next 2 or 3 but I do not rule out it as a plausible future.
You, me, us at the center of an increasingly loved and respected world, and with our custom-made shoes on our feet, exactly as we have always dreamed.
Maybe we don’t even have to dream about it anymore but we can start wanting it.