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Discovering The Future

I was in a large hotel a couple years ago and had to take a picture of this space below the main stairs – which if you are of a certain age you would have seen full of pay phones.  Once cell phones became common this could probably have been predicted, but many other future trends are not as obvious (except in hindsight).

I graduated from High School in 1978, a time when George Orwell’s novel “1984” was still in the future. We genuinely feared the possibility that this “big brother” gripping the masses through mass hysteria and fear could become reality.  1984 came and went without this highly negative potential coming to pass, but today we seem closer than ever to that scenario so vividly described – election hacking anyone?

The idea of futurists as a legitimate and useful discipline really did not develop until the 1960’s.  It seems that today, as in the past, some of the most popular and well publicized predictions are of the negative “end of the world” sort.  These scenarios basically follow the same theme “If you continue to behave tomorrow like you do today how long could this last?”.  There is a fundamental flaw with this logic, however, because they tend to look at a single variable in a complex and constantly adapting environment making the prediction of limited use. The same year I graduated from High School a Royal bank of Canada monthly letter addressed futurism.  See if these points aren’t still valid in 2020:

  • It is the age of information, it is also the age of misinformation.  The media’s penchant for disseminating misinformation should be kept in mind.

  • Caution that anyone who bases predictions on the assumption of doing more of the present tomorrow will likely be grossly off.

  • To a large extent, the future will be what people believe it will be.

  • If authoritarianism feeds on fear, it also feeds on its close relative, ignorance.

  • By gathering, testing and proving the facts, futures studies offer the opportunity to be prepared for problems before they arise.

In our modern age of algorithm driven news feed’s, we stand the distinct chance of only seeing one side of an issue, a person, or a policy.  Because of the popularity of psychology and behavioral economics we understand better than ever our heuristic (bias) to only see one side of an issue.  Unless we take specific thought and action to relieve ourselves of that ignorance, we will likely join the ranks of the “rabid one-sided conversations” we see on virtually all platforms.  So be sure to check the facts, even if they don’t agree with your perception.

We are wise to consider a wide range of possible futures from multiple different perspectives (customers, suppliers, potential disruptive industries, friends of a different political party, a new news source, etc.).  Inevitably any future scenario will result from a thrashing out of differing forces, policies, views and potentials.  Research on scenario planning has proven the value of developing multiple potential futures e.g. conservative - status quo - aggressive.  Remember the three core characteristics of a great futurist (professional or amateur) are to be curious, open, and reflective.

Finally, I love the advice from “Crucial Conversations” to start with heart – what do we really want?  Is our goal to prove our position/scenario is right, or to learn and be more informed? By starting with humility and clear intent we stand a much better chance of creating a future in which we and those around us will all thrive.

As eloquently stated in Robert Allen’s classic “As A Man Thinketh” we will create the future we think about – or as noted in 1978 “To a large extent, the future will be what people believe it will be.”  So, what future are you creating?


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