The art of anticipation

Today’s futures forecast – major disruption is expected…

Once upon a time, not so very long ago, things didn’t change very much. Tomorrow would be very much like today, which was much the same as yesterday and the day before was. But slowly, ever since around the 1960s, the rate of change has started to speed up a bit. The pace really began to pick up in the 1980s and 1990s, but even then many people believed things would stop changing after a while and go back to normal – and after all computers “are just another tool aren’t they“? But things just kept on changing, and increasingly we started to accept the fact that frequent change was inevitable, albeit in evolutionary, predictable ways that were perhaps not too difficult to cope with. Today, a few brave souls are finally beginning to realise that tomorrow’s changes are becoming increasingly unpredictable, discontinuous and disruptive, and that the reality is that tomorrow is unlikely to be like anything we’ve ever had to deal with before.

Predicting the future is, in itself, not that difficult – science fiction writers have being doing it for years. But what they consistently get wrong is how long it is going to be before their visions become a mainstream reality. 1984 is still on its way. The voyage to Jupiter due to depart in 2001 has been indefinitely postponed. And somehow I don’t think that by November 2019 Los Angeles if going to be full of flying cars, or off-world colony replicants for Harrison Ford to identify and terminate. But one day, I’m sure all these things will come to pass.

Meanwhile this video link appeared the other day. A group of schoolchildren had asked delegates at the LWF12 conference for their views on the future – what it will look like, and what are the skills that will be needed to be successful? Full credit to the school and children involved in making the video – however many of the responses were somewhat predictable – digital literacy, more engaging computer technology,  global communication through utopian technological fixes, or the more dystopian, ‘we’ll all have to save more to survive’. And it may be more honest, but is it acceptable anymore to admit you don’t really know what the future will bring?

Now, given that I’ve had more time than the delegates did to think of clever answers, what struck me was that they were generally speaking providing essentially wild, uninformed guesses, aspirations and fears. Which is worrying really, because, assuming things continue to change discontinuously at an increasingly fast pace, my prediction is that one of the most essential successful survival skills of the 21st century will be the ability to anticipate and predict what’s going to happen next, and even more importantly, when. And that’s something that’s yet to make it onto the curriculum.

Futures forecasting is, of course, by no means new, and there are plenty of well established techniques and methodologies. Essentially there are two main approaches. The first is ‘predictive’, where subjective guesses are made about expected desirable and undesirable outcomes, supported by likely evolutionary time-scales, projections and statements made about the social, economic, technical and political circumstances that will need to be in place for that particular future to occur. The second type is a ‘predictive’ forecast based on detailed and sophisticated data analysis and extrapolation of current market and social, cultural, and economic trends and cycles – and ‘web analytics metrics‘ derived from computer-generated user behaviours is an approach that’s already very big business. A third approach is called ‘scenario writing’, which usually involves a mixture of normative and predictive forecasts.

In our future world the holy grail for our global corporations is to be able to predict what you are going to do or want before you even know it yourself, and then push it at you. And as a result we are going to need to be a lot clearer about what sort of a future we really desire for ourselves and others. More than ever before we are going to need a rich mixture of creative and logical thought and action to be able to survive by knowing how to learn from the past to understand the present and anticipate the future. And a new hybrid approach to the recently denationalised subjects of Design and Technology and Information Technology would be an excellent place to start.