Everything I’ve Ever Learnt About The Future

Here’s a prediction. You are reading this because you believe that it’s important to have a sense of what’s coming next.

Or perhaps you believe that since disruptive events are becoming more frequent you need more warning about potential game-changers, although at the same time you’re frustrated by the unstructured nature of futures thinking.

Foresight is usually defined as the act of seeing or looking forward – or to be in some way forewarned about future events. In the context of science, it can be interpreted as an awareness of the latest discoveries and where these may lead, while in business it’s generally connected with an ability to think through longer-term opportunities and risks be these technological, geopolitical, economic, or environmental.

But how does one use foresight? What practical tools are available for individuals to stay one step ahead and to deal with potential pivots?

The answer to this depends on your state of mind.

In short, if alongside an ability to focus on the here and now you have – or can develop – a culture that’s furiously curious, intellectually promiscuous, self-doubting, and meddlesome you are likely to be far more effective at foresight than if you doggedly stick to a single idea or worldview. This is because the future is rarely a logical extension of single ideas or conditions.

Furthermore, even when it looks as though this may be so, everything from totally unexpected events, feedback loops, behavioural change, pricing, taxation, and regulation have a habit of tripping up even the best-prepared plans.

Looking both ways

In other words, when it comes to the future most people aren’t really thinking, they are just being logical based on small sets of recent data or personal experience. The future is inherently unpredictable, but this gives us a clue as to how best to deal with it. If you accept – and how can you not – that the future is uncertain, then you must accept that there will always be numerous ways in which the future could play out. Developing a prudent, practical, pluralistic mind-set that’s not narrow, self-assured, fixated, or over-invested in any singular outcome or future is therefore a wise move.

This is similar in some respects to the scientific method, which seeks new knowledge based upon the formulation, testing, and subsequent modification of a hypothesis.

Not blindly accepting conventional wisdom, being questioning and self-critical, looking for opposing forces, seeking out disagreement and above all being open to disagreements and anomalies are all ways of ensuring agility and most of all resilience in what is becoming an increasingly febrile and inconstant world.

This is all much easier said than done, of course. Homo sapiens are a pattern seeing species and two of the things we loathe are randomness and uncertainty. We are therefore drawn to forceful personalities with apparent expertise who build narrative arcs from a subjective selection of so-called facts. Critically, such narratives can force linkages between events that are unrelated or ignore important factors.

Seeking singular drivers of change or maintaining a simple positive or negative attitude toward any new scientific, technological, economic, or political development is therefore easier than constantly looking for complex interactions or erecting a barrier of scepticism about ideas that almost everyone else appears to agree upon or accept without question.

Danger: hidden assumptions

In this context a systems approach to thinking can pay dividends. In a globalised, hyper-connected world, few things exist in isolation and one of the main reasons that long-term planning can go so spectacularly wrong is the oversimplification of complex systems and relationships.

Another major factor is assumption, especially the hidden assumptions about how industries or technologies will evolve or how individuals will behave in relation to new ideas or events. The hysteria about Peak Oil might be a case in point.  Putting to one side the natural assumption that we’ll need oil in the future, the amount of oil that’s available depends upon its price. If the price is high there’s more incentive to discover and extract more oil especially, as it turned out, shale oil.

A high oil price also fuels the search for alternative energy sources, but also incentivises behavioural change at both an individual and governmental level.  It’s not an equal and opposite reaction, but the dynamic tensions inherent within powerful forces means that balancing forces do often appear over time.

Thus, we should always think in terms of technology plus psychology, or one factor combined with others.  In this context, one should also consider wildcards. These are forces that appear out of nowhere or which blindside us because we’ve discounted their importance.

Similarly, it can often be useful to think in terms of future and past. History gives us clues about how people have behaved before and may behave again. Therefore, it’s often worth travelling backwards to explore the history of industries, products, or technologies before travelling forwards.

If hidden assumptions, the extrapolation of recent experience, and the interplay of multiple factors are three traps, cognitive biases are a fourth. The human brain is a marvellous thing, but too often tricks us into believing that something that’s personal or subjective is objective reality. For example, unless you are aware of confirmation bias it’s difficult to unmake your mind once it’s made up.

Once you have formed an idea about something – or someone – your conscious mind will seek out data to confirm your view, while your subconscious will block anything that contradicts it. This is why couples argue, why companies steadfastly refuse to evolve their strategy and why countries accidently go to war. Confirmation bias also explains why we persistently think that things we have experienced recently will continue.  Similar biases mean that we stick to strategies long after they should have been abandoned (loss aversion) or fail to see things that are hidden in plain sight (inattentional blindness).

In 2013, a study in the US called the Good Judgement Project asked 20,000 people to forecast a series of geopolitical events. One of their key findings was that an understanding of these natural biases produced better predictions. An understanding of probabilities was also shown to be of benefit as was working as part of a team where a broad range of options and opinions were discussed.

You must be aware of another bias – Group Think – in this context, but if you are aware of the power of consensus you can at least work to offset its negative aspects.

Being aware of how people relate to one another also recalls the thought that being a good forecaster doesn’t only mean being good at forecasts. Forecasts are no good unless someone is listening and is prepared to act.

Thinking about who is and who is not invested in certain outcomes – especially the status quo – can improve the odds when it comes to being heard. What you say is important, but so too is whom you speak to and how you illustrate your argument, especially in organisations that are more aligned to the world as it is than the world as it could become.

Steve Sasson, the Kodak engineer who invented the world’s first digital camera in 1975 showed his invention to Kodak’s management and their reaction allegedly was: ‘That’s cute, but don’t tell anyone.”  Eventually Kodak commissioned research, the conclusion of which was that digital photography could be disruptive.

However, it also said that Kodak would have a decade to prepare for any transition. This was all Kodak needed to hear to ignore it. It wasn’t digital photography per se that killed Kodak, but the emergence of photo-sharing and of group think that equated photography with printing, but the result was much the same.

Good forecasters are good at getting other peoples’ attention using narratives or visual representations. Just look at the power of science fiction, especially movies, versus that of white papers or power point presentations.

If the engineers at Kodak had persisted or had brought to life changing customer attitudes and behaviours using vivid storytelling – or perhaps photographs or film – things might have developed rather differently.

Find out what you don’t know.

Beyond thinking about your own thinking and thinking through whom you speak to and how you illustrate your argument, what else can you do to avoid being caught on the wrong side of history? According to Michael Laynor at Deloitte Research, strategy should begin with an assessment of what you don’t know, not with what you do. This is reminiscent of Donald Rumsfeld’s infamous ‘unknown unknowns’ speech.

“Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know….”

The language that’s used here is tortured, but it does fit with the viewpoint of several leading futurists including Paul Saffo at the Institute for the Future. Saffo has argued that one of the key goals of forecasting is to map uncertainties.

What forecasting is about is uncovering hidden patterns and unexamined assumptions, which may signal significant revenue opportunities or threats in the future.

Hence the primary aim of forecasting is not to precisely predict, but to fully identify a range of possible outcomes, which includes elements and ideas that people haven’t previously known about, taken seriously or fully considered.

The most useful starter question in this context is: ‘What’s next?’ but forecasters must not stop there. They must also ask: ‘So what?’ and consider the full range of ‘What if?’

Consider the improbable

A key point here is to distinguish between what’s probable, and what’s possible. (See Introducing the 4Ps post).

Sherlock Holmes said that: “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.” This statement is applicable to forecasting because it is important to understand that improbability does not imply impossibility. Most scenarios about the future consider an expected or probable future and then move on to include other possible futures. But unless improbable futures are also considered significant opportunities or vulnerabilities will remain unseen.

This is all potentially moving us into the territory of risks rather than foresight, but both are connected. Foresight can be used to identify commercial opportunities, but it is equally applicable to due diligence or the hedging of risk. Unfortunately, this thought is lost on many corporations and governments who shy away from such long-term thinking or assume that new developments will follow a simple straight line.  What invariably happens though is that change tends to follow an S Curve and developments tend to change direction when counterforces inevitably emerge.

Knowing precisely when a trend will bend is almost impossible but keeping in mind that many will is itself useful knowledge.

The Hype Cycle developed by Gartner Research is also helpful in this respect because it helps us to separate recent developments or fads (the noise) from deeper or longer-term forces (the signal). The Gartner model links to another important point too, which is that because we often fail to see broad context, we tend to simplify.

This means that we ignore market inertia and consequently overestimate or hype the importance of events in the shorter term, whilst simultaneously underestimating their importance over much longer timespans.

An example of this tendency is the home computer. In the 1980s, most industry observers were forecasting a Personal Computer in every home. They were right, but this took much longer than expected and, more importantly, we are not using our home computers for word processing or to view CDs as predicted. Instead, we are carrying mobile computers everywhere, which is driving universal connectivity, the Internet of Things, smart sensors, big data, predictive analytics, which are in turn changing our homes, our cities, our minds and much else besides.

Drilling down into the bedrock to reveal the real why.

What else can you do to see the future early? One trick is to ask what’s behind recent developments. What are the deep technological, regulatory of behavioural drivers of change? But don’t stop there.

Dig down beyond the shifting sands of popular trends to uncover the hidden bedrock upon which new developments are being built. Then balance this out against the degree of associated uncertainty.

Other tips might include travelling to parts of the world that are in some way ahead technologically or socially. If you wish to study the trajectory of ageing, for instance, Japan is a good place to start. This is because Japan is the fastest ageing country on earth and consequently has been curious about robotics longer than most. Japan is already running out of humans and is looking to use robots to replace people in various roles ranging from kindergartens to aged care.

You can just read about such things, of course. New Scientist, Scientific American, MIT Technology Review, The Economist Technology Quarterly are all ways to reduce your travel budget, but seeing things with your own eyes tends to be more effective. Speaking with early adopters (often, but not exclusively younger people) is useful too as is spending time with heavy or highly enthusiastic users of products and services.  

Academia is a useful laboratory for futures thinking too, as are the writings of some science fiction authors. And, of course, these two worlds can collide. It is perhaps no coincidence that the sci-fi author HG Wells studied science or that many of the most successful sci-fi writers, such as Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, have scientific backgrounds.

So, find out what’s going on within certain academic institutions, especially those focussed on science and technology, and familiarise yourself with the themes the best science-fiction writers are speculating about.

Will doing any or all these things allow you to see the future in any truly useful sense? The answer to this depends upon what it is that you are trying to achieve. If you aim is to get the future 100% correct, then you’ll be 100% disappointed. However, if you aim is to highlight possible directions and discuss potential drivers of change there’s a very good chance that you won’t be 100% wrong. Thinking about the distant future is inherently problematic, but if you spend enough time doing so it will almost certainly beat not thinking about the future at all.

Creating the time to peer at the distant horizon can result in something far more valuable than prediction too. Our inclination to relate discussions about the future to the present means that the more time we spend thinking about future the more we will think about whether what we are doing right now is correct. Perhaps this is the true value of forecasting: It allows us to see the present with greater clarity and precision.

Richard Watson April 2023. richard@nowandnext.com

You are Not Busy

If you think you’re busy, consider your frantic forebears.

In the 1830s, 70-hour working weeks were considered normal in the UK.
There were no days off, except Sundays, and people had none of the time saving technologies that we take for granted nowadays either.

Thankfully, during the 1900s, the shift towards factory production and then office work, along with unionised labour and progressive legislation, caused these hours to almost halve. The figure fell to 40-hours a week after 1945, and now undulates moderately around this number.

These are averages remember. Work has never been equally distributed.

These numbers hide a multitude of harried households and lethargic loafers. Even so, the length of the typical working week doesn’t appear to explain why so many people feel so busy most of the time or why, according to one Gallup poll, people “don’t have time to do everything that needs to be done.”

Clearly, something odd is going on. Either the numbers are not giving us the true picture or else we’re wasting our time, rushing hither and tither in a mindless dance of exhaustion, something that the philosopher Seneca complained about 2,000 years ago.

In his essay In Praise of Idleness, another philosopher, Bertrand Russell, makes a plea for “happiness and joy of life, instead of frayed nerves and weariness.” But he believed that such happiness would only occur if we did less work and developed what he referred to as: “a capacity for light-heartedness and play.” He believed this had been to some extent inhibited by the cult of efficiency.

He said this in 1935.

Little has changed since then, perhaps since Seneca’s time, except that the cult of efficiency has become a religion and we’re wearier, more anxious and less joyful than ever, especially at work.

I would like to consider two things in this context.

Firstly, I’d like to fleetingly consider what people spend their days doing, delve into why they might be feeling so busy, and examine why, deep down, some people might prefer being busy over and above a more leisurely lifestyle.

Secondly, I’d like to examine some of the consequences of being busy and consider a few alternatives. In particular, I would like to think about what we might not be doing, or achieving, by being so busy? Could we perhaps achieve more in the long run if we did less or acted slower in certain circumstances?

Let’s start with something that’s widely overlooked, which is societal acceleration. Almost everything is speeding up, along with our intolerance of things that are not. It’s called convenience and it runs a large part of the global economy and almost the entire digital economy.

Even walking speeds have accelerated. Gentle wandering has been overtaken by busy walking urgently focussed on a fixed destination.

In the early 1990s an American psychologist named n academic (Robert Levine) measured how long it took individuals in 31 different cities to walk 60 feet along an unobstructed pavement. 15 years later, a British psychologist (Richard Wiseman) repeated the research and found that walking speeds had accelerated by 10 per cent, with meandering Eastern cities catching up with their frenetic Western rivals.

Levine correlated this pace with economic well-being, population size, climate and, most interestingly of all perhaps, the degree of individualism vs. collectivism in a culture. Personally, I’d add incomes to this list because the richer people become the more valuable time becomes to them.

But before we rush along, one thing worth briefly examining is what exactly we mean when we use the term busy. In my view, when we think of someone being busy, we usually think in terms of someone having a lot to do, especially things that involve physical movement, someone rushing from one place to another or trying to complete a set task against the clock.

But definitions that hinge on rapid movement might be slightly out of date, especially when we consider the new world of work. Definitions involving movement largely date from a time when work was a largely physical process involving human muscle. We harvested things in fields and made things in factories. The faster people moved, the more work got done.

Being busy in this sense made sense. But these days, work is increasing something we do with our heads. It involves thinking, so being busy does not always equate with rapid movement let alone productivity.

Ann Burnett, a professor at North Dakota State University in the US, has studied the holiday letters of Americans going back to the 1960s, which she says serves as a proxy for the rise of busyness in America. Words that started to appear in the 70s and 80s — “hectic,” “crazy,” “consumed,” – are now increasingly common language, not only in the US, but elsewhere too.

As I said at the start, in the 1830s working six-days straight was considered perfectly normal, as were 70-hour work weeks, even for children. There were no annual holidays either. But throughout the 20th Century these hours declined significanly, so how can we account for this busyness?

The data varies slightly from survey to survey and from country to country, but overall the numbers show a clear, consistent and undeniable decline in the number of hours worked in almost every advanced economy in the world. Moreover, we no longer need to spend hours cooking our meals from scratch, washing our clothes by hand or cleaning our houses with brushes.

It’s possible, of course, that the numbers are wrong. People are notoriously bad at filling in time use surveys, but inaccuracies across every single survey?

I think not.

One explanation that I do subscribe to is that these numbers are averages and are therefore not reflective of the experience of millions of individuals.
Both work and leisure are fragmented, with some people receiving more and others receiving less. But even this explanation doesn’t ring true to me.

So, what on Earth is going on? Where is all the time going?

No matter how you slice the data, the vast majority of peoples’ time is spent doing just three things: sleeping, recreation and work. Surely, people can’t be busy sleeping, so that leaves work and recreation as the only possible culprits for contemporary busyness.

Let’s take a quick look at these starting with work.

Why might people feel so busy at work?

A 2019 study, quoted in The Times, says that the average worker in the UK spends 26 days a year in meetings, which is up from 23 days in 2018. Almost one million people claim to spend over half of every week in meetings and around a third say that this time is entirely wasted.

Pointless meetings could be one explanation for busyness at work. Another might be technology, more specifically, technology that does the exact opposite to what was intended. Email is a prime contender.

A survey quoted by the Huffington Post says that US workers spend 6.3 hours a day checking email, with 3.2 hours devoted to work emails and 3.1 hours devoted to non-work emails. This seems excessive, but as the cost of communications has rapidly fallen, the number of interactions has rapidly risen. Ease of use has led to rampant overuse. Daily work for many people now consists of nothing more than getting through their email inbox.

The wonderfully named Wasting Time at Work Survey, found that 89% of people admit they waste time at work with a small percentage claiming they waste more than half of a typical 8-hour workday doing things that have absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with work. What are these things?

Gorging on Google and flirting on Facebook top the list, but digital distractions are almost endless.

I could go on, but busyness beckons, so let’s look at recreation as the other potential culprit for why so many people feel so overwhelmed.

Again, I’m afraid the main culprit here might be technology.

Let me give you an example. I went through a spell of writing TripAdvisor reviews online. It all started innocently enough, but once you start it can be hard to stop. These companies really do know how to press our buttons, so we’ll click on theirs.

It’s called the ludic loop, a term that describes the way in which people are given tiny rewards in order to keep them coming back over and over again in a vain attempt to win larger rewards. Slot machines in Casinos are programmed to work the same way. Either way, I was being played.

TripAdvisor would send me emails saying that someone had found my review really helpful. This didn’t influence my behaviour at all, but emails saying I was in the top 1% of reviewers did. It got so bad at one point that I was going to restaurants, not because I was hungry, but because I wanted to write a review.

But it’s not just email, or social media, that’s causing a problem. As Douglas Adams once said: “Technology is anything that doesn’t work properly yet.”

I’ll give you another example.

Back in the day you put coins into individual parking meters and that was it. Then came a single machine that looked after numerous parking spaces and issued paper tickets. Recently this was upgraded so that payments could be made in advance and remotely using a phone. The latest development uses voice recognition. The idea is you say your car registration out loud and the machine recognises the number. Great when it works. Only sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes these machines don’t even recognise their own mediocrity. What should have taken 30 seconds for a friend of mine took well over 30 minutes.

Something else that’s happening is that companies are using us to do the work that was previously done by someone else. It happens at work, because companies no longer employ as many people as they should, and it happens outside of work too.

Self-check-out terminals in supermarkets are a good example. It’s hard to believe, but there was a time, not so long ago, when supermarkets employed people to do this for you and even packed your shopping into bags too.

All these things consume our time.

But I’m not sure that technology, or downsizing alone, quite explains it. I actually think most people are busy because they want to be.

By making ourselves busy, or at least by feeling busy, we shield ourselves from getting to know ourselves and other people better. A full diary is a way of hiding from people, especially ourselves. Busyness insulates us against thinking about what we’re really doing or where we’re really going.

As a New York Times article called The Busy Trap put it: “Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously, your life cannot possibly be silly, trivial or meaningless if you are so busy.”

Another reason people might like to be busy is the belief that if you give the outward impression that you’re a busy person then other people are less likely to trouble you. I once had a t-shirt with the slogan “Jesus is Coming. Look Busy”, which sums up the situation perfectly.

Employers, seeing someone briskly walking about the office, or running purposely between meetings, will assume that they’re working. In contrast, someone looking out of a window, quietly thinking, will generally be considered a time waster. One looks like work, the other looks like loafing.

There is possibly a third reason, too, which is that by saying you are busy you are saying that time is important to you, which is to say that you are important. Saying you are busy implies you are successful or attempting to be. Busyness is currency. It’s a form of status, a certificate of indispensability.

“How are you doing?” “Double busy”. “You?” “Yeah, same.”

But what might some of the other consequences of busyness be?

The bottom line is that taking one’s time can pay dividends. You’ve all heard of Charles Darwin and his book On the Origin of the Species, but did you know that while he wrote a draft of the book in 1839, he didn’t finish it until 1858.

Darwin’s book on earthworms took even longer, an astonishing 44 years.

How so? Well it was because Darwin liked to take his time. He was a self-confessed missionary for procrastination. Procrastination is a word that’s nowadays more associated with inefficiency than rigorous thought, but great insights and ideas don’t evolve overnight.

In a study looking at significant scientific discoveries in the 20th Century, Alan Lightman, a Professor at MIT, found that not being busy – or being “separate from the rush” as he put it – played a significant role, so Darwin isn’t an anomaly.

Contrast this approach with the deadline driven, outcome orientated, multi-tasking, need it tomorrow world of today, where people seem incapable of concentrating on any one thing for any decent amount of time. Putting to one side the health consequences of frantic busyness, what’s being lost here is the ability to dream, to explore and to think, especially curiously and creatively.

Reflective thought – which takes time – is linked to things like innovation, but also to something far more important too, which is the quality of human relationships.

In 1973, a classic study looked at whether the amount of busyness induced in a subject had a major negative impact on what the authors termed “helping behaviour” in an emergency. Turns out it did. In spades. The study was based on the parable of the Good Samaritan and the researchers had three hypotheses, one of which was that people that were rushed, busy or in a hurry would be less likely to offer assistance to someone.

I won’t go into the methodology in detail, but essentially participants were asked some questions and then asked to travel to another building to continue the experiment.

What the participants did not know was that the researchers varied the amount of time the subjects had to travel from one building to the next and gave different explanations as to what the subjects would be doing once they got there. On the way to the second building all of the subjects encountered a man who was slumped in a doorway, moaning and coughing. Clearly someone that might need assistance.

The researchers created a scale to indicate whether or not the subjects noticed the man and the degree of assistance that was offered: a Zero meant they stepped over the man on their way to the second building, whereas a Five meant they refused to leave him until help arrived, or insisted that they took him somewhere to get assistance.

You’ll have guessed the results already. The amount of busyness induced in the subjects had a significant impact on empathetic behaviour, even among subjects that were told they’d hear about the parable of the Good Samaritan in the second location. In low hurry situations slightly over 60% of people noticed the man and offered assistance, whereas in high hurry situations only 10% did.

I should point out that there was noticeable anxiety among many of the subjects once they arrived at the second building, including among those who failed to stop, which I suppose offers some level of hope.

I’d love to go on, but you are probably busy people. Suffice to say that I think you should all slow down and think outside of your in-box once in a while. Allow your mind to not only rest, but to wander also.

Einstein was famous for his daily walks in the woods. and Bill Gates took the idea further by having think weeks in a disconnected cabin in the woods. Carl Jung did much of his most creative thinking in his country house well away from his busy practice in Zurich. Even Jack Welch, formerly the CEO of one of the world’s most admired companies, General Electric, spent an hour each day looking out of the window

Neurologically, downtime like this is known as undirected thought and it’s extremely valuable in the context of original thinking.

The point here, and it’s an important one, is that in many instances, being away from work, or doing something that doesn’t appear to be work, makes people more productive, not less.

So, my suggestion that we all follow suit. Starting next week, add nothing to your diary. Schedule one hour each week to do absolutely nothing, certainly nothing that remotely looks like work. No email, no typing, no phone calls and especially no meetings. Look out of a window. Go for a walk. Or embrace Slow Media and read a physical book. If any of this works up the stakes. Embrace Slow Business. Do absolutely nothing for an hour each day, and while you are at it, slow down the general pace at which you do everything from walking and talking to emailing and eating.

If you think this this is impossible, possibly because you’re busy and important, here’s a video of Bill Gates talking to Warren Buffet about his diary.