Futures thinking seems essential in our times. With so many uncertainties about water, food and energy for 9 billion people in the next forty years, and so many exciting new technologies on the way, futurists can help to see new possible futures and support decision makers. However, futurists are not clairvoyants or wizards. Here at Futurista, we’ve also been critical about predicting the future and the misguiding impact of cognitive biases. Likewise, Nesta, a British charity with the mission to help people and organisations bring great ideas to life, felt the two sides of futures thinking and funded research to get under the surface of different ways of talking about the future.
Their conclusions: futures thinking is not wasteful or pointless, it is essential as we enter a era of accessible technologies that more and more of us can manipulate, everyone has the chance to shape their own future. They distinguished the maxims for forward thinking:
1. Data driven forecasting
Relying deductively on quantitative theoretical models to predict the future can be dangerous. The financial crisis has proven that. However, from an inductive point (working the other way around), online data are an increasingly rich resource for understanding patterns of behaviour. Patterns in searching, sharing, tagging and talking are indicators of what is buzzing in society. The website Impact Story is a neat example of a data source that allows extrapolation into the future. It reveal scientists interests in term of sharing articles, adding them to their libraries and making comments.
Nesta makes one important comment to avoid over excitement about big data, referring to hypes. Philip Tetlock (who also demonstrated that experts are no better in predicting than dart throwing monkeys) observed that the most familiar ideas receive the most attention and not necessarily about the ones that are most important in the future. Their report mentions the Google’s Flu Trend monitoring, which are wildly overstated compared to actual cases of the flu. They also warned that by focussing overly on one bright trend, one can easily overlook opportunities and dangers that lie off the side. The case of carbon nano materials, shows that in the nineties fullerenes and carbon nanotubes received a lot of attention. However, later on people started to think about the hazards of nanotubes, which could be similar to asbestos. This early excitement about nanotubes blinded media attention for the potential impact of graphenes.
Nesta metioned Quid.inc a company who was aware of this bias and wanted to make sure to distinguish seeds of change from hype. They wanted to discover the change in the conversation by constructing a technology genome. The white spaces between clusters could be where the seeds of change are.
2. Using plausible scenarios to guard against fragility
Scenarios describe future worlds that are so much different from today for words to lose their meaning. Scenarios invent future worlds by extrapolating from the main drivers of change and insights from trends and technology assessments. In those worlds different concepts exist, different lifestyles and different social values. As for instance Adam Kahane shows, these scenario studies are helpful in thinking about possible and plausible futures. The value is not so much in convincing people of one scenario, but much more in encouraging action to create the future. Methods for scenario thinking are changing. The good old two axis approach is loosing its popularity in favour of methods that allow for wild cards or weak signals to be the focus of analysis. In addition, dynamic scenario discovery techniques are being used more widely. This technique uses agent modelling to produce large numbers of possible futures. These are then grouped and evaluated according to how decisions made today to see how they may affect the future.
3. Stories imagining the future, including fears and desires
People like Arthur C. Clarke had clear visions about the future. Faith in their particular view creates the irrational persistence needed to push through transformative technological change. For instance, his idea of communication satellites was a source of inspiration that preceded the launch of satellites later in history. Stories can mobilise people. They help to convince people to pursue a future that does not yet exist. In the same manner, Abundance, the book by Peter Diamantis inspires people so see a future of abundant energy, food and water. Whereas right now, most people mainly associate these with envisioned scarcities.
Science fiction writers, like Heinlein, Asimov and Dick have showed us their visions of the future. Other disciplines like future games bring the future alive in the safe environment of the game. Role playing and speculations about decision making are all part of the game, hence building and taking part of your own story about the future.
Shining a light on the future
Nesta uses the metaphor of the torch that shines a light on the future. Possible futures involving scientific knowledge that does not exist are seen in science fiction literature. Probable futures extrapolate from existing trends. Plausible futures are the world of scenarios. Preferable futures stem from desires and are largely emotional. All of these could be considered in future studies.