This interview with Roland Kupers, author of the The essence of scenarios. Learning from the Shell experience, 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?
Deeply uncertain, open but not empty! The point is not ‘knowing what the future will be in fifty years time’, but to understand the forces that are shaping the futures today and what they say about the choices we face in the present. Because in the end, we always live in the present. The practice of futures for me is thinking with futures, not about the future. In essence it means trying to get a better sense of the multiplicity of futures and what that says about the decisions to be made today. I am very weary of prophets and people who claim certainty about what the future will be.
Which innovations would probably generate the biggest change?
There is no doubt that information technology will continue to surprise us and have a major impact on society. The other thing that will have a great impact on the world is our increased understanding of interconnected or complex systems. In the past, we were used to reduce problems to their parts in order to understand them. Increasingly we start to see how systemic effects occur.
One of the amazing examples in medicine is the realization that 90% of the cells in our body are not human. The first question then, is what you refer to when you say that you are human. And as a doctor, what do you treat the 10% of the cells in the human organs, or do you treat the whole ecosystem that constitutes “you”? This kind of understanding creates a very different way of doing medicine. Another example: does a central bank manage the health of individual banks, or the health of the banking system. Do you look at individual components or look at the whole system.
Closer to home – traffic: Dirk Helbing of the ETH, has written a paper showing that if you put adaptive cruise control in 10% of the cars, you increase peak road capacity by 30%, as a systemic effect. So understanding system dynamics would mean that in the Netherlands you could get rid of road traffic problems in a short period, at a fraction of the cost of building roads. Understanding systems and their emergent behaviour can indeed revolutionize how we manage the world in very profound ways, probably more deeply than an individual technology.
What can we do to anticipate the future and make it a better future? Which issues should we address?
The two most disruptive developments right now are our greenhouse gas emissions and growing income inequality. I don’t mention these from a moral or political point of view, but they are the two greatest threats to our environmental and societal systems. From greenhouse gas emissions it is evident that these not only cause the average global temperature increase, but also they lead to more turbulence in weather patterns. And it is the turbulence that will cause damage, well before increasing average higher temperatures. Think about more and heavier storms, climate migration and refugees, epidemics of vector-born diseases like the Lyme disease becoming endemic in the East of the Netherlands.
For income inequality, it is historically well known that there is a bandwidth of healthy inequality. Income inequality is measured by a number, the Gini. Societies appear to be stable with a Gini number somewhere between 0.25 and 0.35, outside that range you get into that danger zone. Too much inequality tends to make societies unstable and you may get social upheavals or even revolution. It is possible that innovation may even make inequality worse. The rich get richer, and those who don’t have access to technology or knowledge stay further behind. There is a lot of focus on economic development, and indeed rising wealth is a good thing when it pulls people out of poverty. But often in emerging countries the average income is rising, but the inequality is rising faster. The same is increasingly true in developed countries, and particularly in cities.
What does it ask from futurists?
Futurists have to know the past, in order to understand the potential of the future. I always find it very useful to make scenarios of the past. Like the financial crisis, making scenarios of the past helps to learn that people before the crisis have had very different stories of the possibility of such a crisis to happen. Scenario thinking is about the diversity of stories, whether it is the past or the future. One thing that characterises the future like no other timeframe, is that it is a safe space. People are more comfortable in freeing up their imagination for the future than for the past. And that is extraordinarily valuable, but it doesn’t mean you say anything factual about the future.
Predictions are often wrong. What is a sensible way to say things about the future? How to navigate between confidence and uncertainty?
Pierre Wack, one of the early leaders in Shell working with scenarios, uses to say that there are things that are completely predictable. His example was, when the snow melts in the Himalaya, a few months later, the water in the Ganges will rise. This goes back to my point of understanding systems. We need to know what is, and what is not predictable for systemic reasons. One of the great tools in complexity science is agent-based models. That can be incredibly powerful to differentiate between what is and what is not predictable. By simulating the behaviour of systems, you can grasp this. The question shouldn’t be “what is your prediction for X?”, but “is X predictable?”. Then you get a much more interesting discussion.
I think the public understands this much better than we often think. All the major choices in people’s life have very high elements of unpredictability, like your choice of spouse, your choice of job and so on. But somehow in the public sphere, we have created these predictability narratives in which we claim certainties and knowledge about the future. I believe that the people are not fooled by this. And that they realise that voices of institutions over-sell what they know and can know.
Read more about The essence of scenarios. Learning from the Shell experience, by Wilkinson and Kupers from our report of the book launch.