There is this great temptation that futurists always have to resist: “can you please say something about the future? Just tell us some of your insights of what the year 2050 might look like?” It could make you feel appreciated professionally, or even powerful as a futurist to give such insights. But essentially, it is nonsense. And deep inside, we all know.
Dart throwing monkeys
Remember Philip Tetlock demonstrating how dart throwing monkeys were nothing better at predicting the future than foresight experts? “Future babble” is Dan Gardner’s term for this. He targets the experts, including book authors and key note speaker futurists, who appear very of their visions of the future. Luckily, there is another way for futurists to present themselves and that is by embracing uncertainty.
Too many uncertainties on the way
I really have no idea what life will look like in 2050. There are just so many uncertainties that I would be wrong anyway! To name a few, we don’t know about the next energy revolution. Would materials technology make a boost and deliver super affordable miniaturised, ultra powerful solar cells? The same applies about battery technology. These innovations could be game changers, which make any linear forecast about the future sound ridicule in the years to come.
What can we say then as futurists?
Actually, like everyone else, we can only see the present. It is only that we are better trained at recognising trends and global challenges, regarding energy, water, food, demographics and so. Also, futurists are skilled at thinking about combinations of trends that could generate a certain image of the future. However, we always emphasise that these are nothing more than scenarios that help us think about the future. Thus create memories of the future to quote Arie de Geus one of the founding fathers of the Shell scenario tradition.
OK then, which trends could be shaping the future?
In brief, the trends that I am seeing right now are all about how society is changing. We have so much more technology at hand than ever before. McKinsey analysed the biggest potential game changers. They mentioned mobile internet, automation of work, internet of things, cloud technology, advanced robotics,(near) autonomous vehicles, next generation genomics, energy storage, 3D printing, advanced materials, advanced oil and gas exploration and recovery, renewable energy.
New technologies allow us to connect in so many and meaningful ways. It brings up new opportunities for businesses and empowerment of everybody to take up entrepreneurship in their own ways. We meet, share, learn and build together. We see new economies of guest room sharing, car sharing, food sharing, new learning communities and online university education. We start to see how networked organisations, connected companies, are very successful in absorbing change and prepare for the future. The list of meaningful trends is endless.
Trends as a starting point for inspiration
Do trends sufficiently explain what the future may look like? Absolutely not! They may give clues about what our future life may look like. And sometimes a wild idea can become real in a couple of years. Generally, I see these types of suggestions merely as an inspiration for product designers, policy makers and companies to start their creative process in exploring possible directions for the future.
Our cognitive biases
Meanwhile as futurists, it remains very important to focus on the cognitive biases that were all fall for. We can be overly optimistic or pessimistic. We can be trapped by a certain framing. We can be overly focused on a single trend that we extrapolate linearly into the future. And there are many other types of biases.
Bring the future alive in the conversation
That is why I cannot tell the new spot on the horizon. Like everybody else, I don’t know what life will look like in 2050 or worse, in 2080. I believe that the role of futurists is to encourage thinking and talking about the future. This may open people’s eyes and see more options. This means more possibilities to be prepared for certain trends, or to take advantages of developments in the coming years. It helps people to open their eyes and look wider than before. And last but not least, it may help them to accept uncertainty and no longer need the futurist to give them answers about what the future is going to be.