When the world seems to be falling down all around us, can we afford to spend our time thinking about the future?
In the midst of ongoing wars, accelerating economic collapse, and cascading environmental ruin, it's easy to dismiss futurism as self-indulgence, a superficial pastime devoted to spotting the next hot gizmo or telling us all how some coming development changes everything. What really matters is the here-and-now. Serious people know that thinking about the future is frivolous; anyone (or any business) not focusing laser-like on the problems of today is wasting time and money. Right?
Thinking about the future is fundamentally important to dealing with the challenges of today. In order to confront these problems successfully, we have to think carefully about the implications and results of the steps we might take, not just in the immediate moment, but as conditions continue to evolve. As we've seen time and again, it's all too easy for actions that seem reflexively correct to lead to far greater crises down the road.
Futurism—or, as I prefer to articulate it, structured thinking about the future—is a means of putting both the problems we face today and the solutions we might try in a larger context. It does so in three key ways:
It expands our understanding of the scope of the situation. How do these various problems connect to each other? Are there underlying similarities? How would the outcomes that we fear would arise from problem X affect the course of problem Z? Would the steps we want to take in one arena positively or negatively affect outcomes in another situation?
Now, to be sure, good present-focused analysis will give you much of this, too. And doing this sort of thinking about a problem is far, far better than the "ooh shiny!/ooh scary!" model we seem to reflexively use, especially in major crises. But futurism does more.
It expands our understanding of the horizon of the situation. Not just how does this affect us now, but how would this affect us over time? In parallel, it allows us to think through what happens with different kinds of solutions we may want to use to deal with a problem. What's the potential for undesirable consequences? What kind of conditions result after this "solves" the problem?
You might say, "this isn't futurism, it's simply responsible thinking"—again, sorely lacking in much of our current discourse. But you might notice that conventional analysis that looks at horizon issues (implications, blowback, and the like) rarely gets combined with conventional analysis that looks at scope issues (relationships, reinforcement, interdependencies). Carrying off that kind of combination is hard to do, and especially hard to do well.
That's why few of the discussions of (for example) the current global financial meltdown will include more than a cursory reference to energy (and even there, will almost entirely focus on oil), a glance at demographics (and only in regards to pensions and, in the US, Social Security), or anything at all about climate disruption, migration patterns, and the role of participatory technologies. Yet all of these issues both helped to create the conditions that made the financial panic possible, and will shape both the kinds of responses we can undertake and how well those responses will work.
But futurism has one more, critical, trick up its sleeve:
It expands our understanding of the kind of world we want. By bringing into focus both the scope of connections among issues, and the potential impacts and implications on the horizon, futures thinking allows us to begin to see the path we'd need to take to get to a better world—or, at minimum, the paths we need to avoid in order to forestall a worsening situation. Futurism, structured thinking about the future, clarifies the responsibility and capacity we have to create a tomorrow worth living in.
Heady stuff. And a bit presumptuous, too—how can we think that we can see the future?
We can't. We can only see possibilities. But that's okay. We're not trying to predict what will happen tomorrow; we're trying to understand possible consequences. We're trying to lay out maps of the landscape ahead, in order chart a better course. These maps won't always be accurate—sometimes they'll be completely wrong. But the process of creating the maps will give us a more detailed look and clearer perspective on where we are today. Even being completely wrong has value: figuring out why we were wrong, what we missed, can sometimes be even more illuminating than being right.
There's a rapidly-growing variety of methods available to us, from scenario planning to simulations to futures-mapping to so-called "prediction markets." Perhaps the most exciting is something new: massively-collaborative forecasting. Last year, I had the good fortune to be part of the Institute for the Future's Superstruct project, a "massively-multiplayer forecasting game;" during its six-week run in late 2008, Superstruct brought together over 7,000 people from all over the world to explore what the future could hold. IFTF has just released the first report out from Superstruct.
With all of these tools, the goal is to examine tomorrow to give us a better understanding of how to deal with today.
I've sometimes called futures thinking a "wind-tunnel," a way of testing plans and ideas. Now I think that's a bit limited. Futures thinking is perhaps better understood as an immune system for our civilization. By examining and testing different possible outcomes—potential threats, emerging ideas, exciting opportunities—we strengthen our collective capacity to deal with what really does transpire. Thinking about the future, and doing so in a careful, structured, open and collaborative way, makes us a stronger civilization. Focusing only the challenges of the present may seem imperative, especially when those challenges are massive and frightening. But without a sense of what's next, a capacity for understanding connections and horizons, and a vision of what kind of world we want, our efforts to deal with today's problems will inevitably leave us weakened, vulnerable, and blind to challenges to come.
By ignoring tomorrow, we undermine today.
Satellite image courtesy of NASA
Superstruct images and video courtesy of IFTF
Jamais Cascio covers the intersection of emerging technologies and cultural transformation, focusing on the importance of long-term, systemic thinking. Cascio is an affiliate at the Institute for the Future and senior fellow at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. He co-founded WorldChanging.com, and also blogs at OpenTheFuture.com. You can read more of his Fast Company columns right here.