‘One needs to be humble in designing the future’ – interview with Mark Turrell

Mark Turrell

Mark Turrell

This interview with Mark Turrell, author of the book Scaling: small, smart moves for outsized results, takes place in a series of discussions with the keynote speakers of An Interesting Afternoon – The world in 50 years and how do we get there? This event by the Dutch Future Society takes place at April 11, 2014 in Amsterdam. For registrations, follow this link.

How do you see the future in fifty years?

I see it very positive. The past gives us a fairly good insight that human typically do more good things than bad things. And I see many good things coming from technology: Electricity, communication systems, even sewage treatment. Because of that, I believe that we will fix many of challenges that we are struggling with today. When we will look back on things, we’ll thinking “did we really struggle with that?”.

Many advances will be made possible because humanity itself is rewiring. Today’s collaboration infrastructure, based on the Internet, search technology, smart phones and cheap connectivity, means that we humans have created a substantial new collective intelligence system. We are becoming intelligent as a species. And this new-found intelligence is already being applied to addressing technology and societal issues, as well as the more mundane industrial and commercial requirements.

However, there is a plausible outcome that, over the next fifty years, really bad things might happen. This collective intelligence infrastructure has the effect of making the world less stable. Which means, that things can spread really fast. And that may lead to social unrest, paranoia, nationalism and so on. All of these things can spread. Also there is a nervousness in government that the people are becoming aware and that the governments will try to maintain control on things that they cannot control. The privacy scandal of the NSA is an example of that.

Which innovations would probably generate the biggest change?

I believe there will be significant changes as energy becomes basically a free resource. Energy abundance will change the dynamics of many things. For instance, there could be breakthroughs in space technology that will allow us humans to travel further faster.

There are other domains too. We will see big advances in healthcare. For instance, today’s cancer treatments are pretty barbaric, such as chemotherapy. There could also be four or five breakthroughs on telecommunication. Our phones and mobile devices are bricks that we carrying about. In the future these things are likely to dematerialize, in and onto the human body. And language translation is already getting close to big breakthroughs allowing us to communicate with people all over the world in their own language. Maybe we have to then watch out for the wrath of God as we recreate the Tower of Babel and work together as humanity to reach the stars!

A have a darker thought in mind, and that relates to technology and machines. As a 200,000 year old species we have not been on the planet a long time. At some point we started to use tools, and these tools have become dramatically more sophisticated as we have added technology. An outside the box way of looking at this is that perhaps we humans have been persuaded to create machines. And, over time, we are becoming dependent on machines to exist, potential slaves to machines. There could be the Black Swan event that gets us into the world of The Matrix. The original version of the script had humans being used to tap into their brains, not for their body energy. So perhaps our human minds become wetware, the processing power for a machine species. Out there perhaps, but many systems we take for granted are designed by machines, and only exist because of machines. – a trend that can only accelerate.

 What can we do to anticipate the future and make it a better future? Which issues should we address?

We can develop tools to help us understand what is going on, and to improve our ability to make predictions. What makes the job more interesting is that we can design the future by taking steps to nudge our path in ways that make beneficial outcomes more likely.

As future studies becomes a more mainstream activity, entrepreneurs will start to challenge future studies and use them as reference point to define their goals in building a future.

We should be aware also of the potential for misuse of foresight studies for corporate reasons. If we look at climate change for instance, there are examples of companies framing the information to influence the public debate. Futurists need to be aware of this framing that will always happen.

What does it ask from futurists?

My work regarding Scaling is designed to change the future. Scaling is a toolset that helps to understand systems and then design initiatives to change outcomes. It is a new lens to interpret how systems function and how to change things. One of the conclusions is that one needs to be humble in designing the future. There is a level of uncertainty in the design process, opposite to linear planning. The toolset allows you to narrow down incrementally the likelihood of certain options to take place. Through testing hypotheses about the system again and again, you start to get grip of the next steps, which is needed to anticipate on the future in that system.

 Predictions are often wrong. What is a sensible way to say things about the future? How to navigate between confidence and uncertainty?

Certain things are predictable to a certain type of confidence and a high degree of accuracy. Our level of confidence about scenarios of the future is lower as things get more complex. Events in one system tend to affect other systems as well. In the last decade we have had several “once in a generation” events that have taken place one after another, such as the revolutions in the Middle East. There are, though, things that futurists can talk about with a high degree of confidence. For instance, one can be confident that in 50 years we will still have money, as it is difficult to replace across multiple systems. At the same time there is an important role for futurists to talk about big events with a low probability that could disrupt systems. Talking about the weak signals and the wildcards is important to help people start to think through those events that may change entire systems.

About Freija Van Duijne

Twitter: @FreijavanDuijne Futuring is my passion. I am fascinated about what the future might bring. Always looking around for leads about the future and open for new insights. I am futurist, trendwatchter and strategist at the The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies, a thinktank in the Netherlands. My background is in Human factors psychology. I did my Masters at Leiden University and I did a PhD in Delft University at the faculty of Industrial design engineering. I have been involved in foresight studies since 2006. I am frequently asked as an expert for future studies in area of food, natural resources, health and governance. I am also a speaker and workshop facilitator on futures studies, trend presentations and the many topics that I blog about. My contributions to Futuristablog represent my own personal opinion and is never a statement of the Ministry of Economic Affairs.
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