For 48 years now the World Future Society brings together a remarkable futurist community. It had been my first time and it was a truly inspirational experience. Here a brief gist of my impressions featuring great examples of the work of futurists in society. Let me build on the opening plenary of Paul Saffo. There is nothing more boring, he said, than futurists talking about what they had predicted. Instead helping people to think better about uncertainty and the pace of developments is what matters. The tools of prediction will never be perfect, as society is also becoming more complex. An effective intuitive practice is equally needed and a futurist can help to achieve just that.
The foresight experience
The best way to appreciate uncertainty is to become involved in the process of foresight. By being part of this process, people will notice that ‘predictions’ or scenario storylines are just the visible part of what futurists do. More important is the journey of asking the right questions that create an imperative for action and shaping the future.
Grasping the exponential S-curve of change
Part of this journey is helping people getting a better understanding of the exponential S-curve of change. While people tend to hold a linear view on the future, they often over-estimate change on the short term and under-estimate change on the long term. Both biases can give rise to ridiculous predictions or changed not properly being picked up.
Big data, better predictions?
With the new possibilities of analyzing big data, it is tempting to think that this will give us the ultimate tools for making predictions. These new methodologies and data processing algorithms will most likely offer a much richer arsenal for futurists. However, our social system also tends to become more complex. We are the most globally connected generation of the history of humanity on earth, as was also pointed out by Stacy Childress who work on the next generation of learning. With ever more sophisticated technology, our creativity is endless, possibly creating many unforeseen futures.
Trends of a shifting global youth
The trend analysis of global youth by Jared Weiner and Erica Orange made perfectly clear that trends are not uniform. There is not one image that summarizes all of what the Millennial generation is all about. As the economy is changing, young people start to define the future of work, the future of play, security, creativity and collaboration all in different ways. Trends and countertrends are abundant. By identifying what is happening in the world, futurists can help starting the conversation about building a better future using weak signals of emerging trends.
Visualizing the future
Our imaginative senses can be stimulated by images, pictures, music and films. For most of us our brains are wired for sensorial stimuli. We remember visuals, sounds and even smell. These trigger associations, which we need in envisioning a future. Futurist artist Gray Scott talks about future maps as cultural echoes. Science fiction writers in particular are at the core of this playground to create and shape possible futures. In this sense, the future has already happened and technology is just the echo bouncing back at humanity. Right now, we are entering an age of information utopia with unprecedented technological possibilities. Can we visualize ourselves as a species and change the world is what Scott is asking us. His work always starts with thinking of the dominant archetype, the narrative that is in the core of the future that we are creating.
As much as we have the tools for building a better future, there are massive global challenges that need to be on this agenda. Lester Brown, recipient of WFS distinguished service award, wrote numerous books on global ecological trends that not only give serious concern, but have also encouraged globally for people, governments and businesses to take up initiatives that counteract the potential consequences of global warning and ecological depletion. Brown pointed out that trends in wind and solar energy are showing that the transition is going much faster than people expect. Marcio de Miranda Santos showed how foresight is being used in Brazil to pick up emerging issues to anticipate the needs and challenges of Brazilian agriculture in the light of the global food system.
What if the future mattered?
This was the question that Paul Saffo asked in his keynote. The futurists gathered at the WFS conference showed clearly that foresight has much more to offer than, what he called, “futuretainment”. Future studies provide a rich set of methods and approaches, all intended to enrich peoples thinking processes and stimulate a course of action to build a better future. On top of that, foresight practitioners seem keen on learning from their network. The World Future Society is offering a wonderful platform for these networks to emerge globally.