The Future: Have We Been There Before?







I spent yesterday with the MOD discussing what the world might look like in 2040. There were presentations on Sub-Saharan Africa and South and Central Asia along with an interesting discussion on the role of identity and how globalisation and the internet may be changing how individuals and groups see themselves. If anyone is interested there is a public domain document on some of the work to date that I can share.

Other thoughts…

Did anyone see Channel 4 News (UK) last night? There was a somewhat alarming piece on the emergence of a movement called Golden Dawn in Greece. Essentially, the economic downturn and austerity measures have released a surge of nationalism and racist violence. Even the police seem to be drawn into this by, in the first instance, questioning anyone that doesn’t look Greek and, in the second, locking up anyone that is in the country illegally. Tolerance, it seems, has gone out of the window.

This not only links with alienation and the rightwards shift of politics in Europe (especially the emergence of far-right parties), it also seems to have parallels with the 1930s and the second emergence of the KKK, which if my political memory serves me correctly, was fundamentally linked to austerity in the US.

Links: My blog post November 2011 about parallels with the 1930s

Department of Future Crime


Two things for you folks today. First is a UK government report on South Asia out to the year 2040. It makes good reading alongside Shell’s scenarios for 2050. Second up is the Dept. of Future Crime…seriously. I wrote about this as a real thing back in late 2006 and I’ve been aware of various things coming out of LA for a few years, but when you actually see a web page like this it seems as though the future is now in the present (something Leo Robson picked up upon in the FT’s Culture page (Arts section) last weekend).

Strategic shocks: 10 game changers for 2040.









More free stuff! One of the ideas that my co-author Oliver had for the book (Future Vision) was to end with a series of strategic shocks. This was actually a book idea I had way back – ‘5 Ideas to Turn the World Upside Down’, but it works quite well in condensed (or is that expanded?) form here I think. Here are 3 of the 10…

The Second American Civil War
Don’t say we weren’t warned! Bruce (The Boss) Springsteen’s ‘Wrecking Ball’ anthem ‘we take care of our own’ and the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ movement hinted at what was coming. The nascent failure of US capitalism to deliver the American Dream has created the great divide. In the blue corner, the tea-party traditionalists and the do-what-is-good-for-me democrats and in the red corner, everyone else who have been persistently marginalized and exploited to pay for the extraordinary US global debt and the failure of ‘small’ government to protect its citizens against ‘natural’ phenomena like hurricanes, flooding, bird ‘flu and the hell-bent erosion of the country’s natural assets leads to what is effectively a ‘Balkanization’ of the US.

Bird ‘flu pandemic kills 500m worldwide
It started innocuously enough. Well, not really as nobody had been inoculated against this strain of bird ‘flu. We learned later that the fatal construct was an illegal cock-fight in the Canary Islands when of all places where local canaries were being pitched against saffron finches from the Amazon. One of the bird owners became contaminated after receiving scratches from both species. And the incubation period; well it was a lightning 48 hours. Of course, all of this needed something else. Unfortunately the owner was a big rock and roll fan and hopped on a plane immediately after the fight to join 100,000 young kids at Shay Stadium where an ageing Lady Gaga was performing on her ‘Really Ga-ga’ tour. The rest, as they say, is history.

The moon becomes a colony of China
This is a reprise of the moon landings of almost 80 years ago. Space Race 2 has been between Russia and China and burst into life when the Russian Space agency, Roskosmos, announced a manned mission to the Moon in 2035. The US had long given away any interest in Moon landings but it was the Chinese through their Agency – the CNSA – who were the challengers. Their Long March programme was more than a wish to lead the world in the science of manned space travel; it was also a push to lead the world in extra-terrestrial colonization.

Peak oil and peak everything makes the search for new sources of raw materials – and indeed new materials – a critical requirement. Get in first and the cosmos is your oyster.
On 1 April 2040 Zai Zigzag in Shenzhou 21 blasted off from Jiuquan Space Launch Center in Inner Mongolia with his crew of 11 and just 7 hours and 24 minutes later, the five yellow stars on the Chinese national flag were fluttering in the moon breeze at the top of Mons Huygens. The earth’s satellite was now a colony of the Chinese.

Future Vision














Future Vision was officially launched today in Australia. I blogged the preface a while ago, so here’s a tiny bit more (part of the forward from an early version) as promised. If you want to buy the book here’s the Amazon/Kindle link.

Forward: into the unknown

Several years ago, an office worker in Tokyo dropped dead at his desk and wasn’t discovered until five days later. This was despite the fact that his co-workers regularly walked past and said “hello.” In a similar incident, a fifty-one-year-old had a heart attack in an open plan office in New York on a Monday morning, but nobody noticed the fact that he was dead until the Saturday, when a cleaner attempted to wake him up to ask whether he was working over the weekend. Apparently it wasn’t unusual for the man to be there because, according his boss, without any hint of irony, “he was always the first to arrive and the last to leave.”

Is this the future? Is this how things will eventually work out for many of the so-called free agents inhabiting anonymous desks inside vast corporations or for the emerging class of digital nomads electronically tethered to virtual offices via a compote of Blackberries and Apples?

The answer is no. It is one possibility. It is one future, but there are many others.
One future might be a cross between Terry Gilliam’s film Brazil and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. This would be a dystopian future where people are forced to work longer hours for larger bureaucracies in a futile attempt to earn more money to offset rising food prices, higher energy bills, declining real wages, increasing debt and disappearing retirement. Conversely, people might willingly choose to spend more time inside lifeless cubicles at work because, while the work is mind numbing, they feel increasingly isolated and uncomfortable at home.

This could be because the family, as a building block of society, has atomised and more people are living alone, or because a relationship hasn’t turned out as planned and work offers more satisfaction and companionship. Add a pinch of ubiquitous media, autocratic data-driven governments, brain-to-machine interfaces, GPS, RFID, facial recognition, genetic prophesy, predictive modelling and CCTV and, while this future isn’t quite like Orwell’s 1984, the date could be seen by some to be getting closer not further away.

Alternatively, we might see a move in a totally different and much more utopian direction. Maybe we’ll start to see that there’s more to life than dropping dead at your desk and people will start to fight for the right to re-balance their lives in their favour. Perhaps automation – especially robotics and artificial intelligence – will finally deliver on its promise of a leisure society and people will spend more of their time re-connecting with their families and doing more of the things that really interest them. This could also be a world where the state limits freedom of choice in areas such as healthcare and pensions and provides a higher degree of security in return for higher direct or indirect taxation. A sustainable world driven as much by the heart as the head, where local forces start to push back against globalisation and where new technologies are carefully scrutinized for long-term social impact and value. An ethically driven world where physical community is rediscovered and corporations are restrained due to, amongst other things, skills shortages, the high cost of energy and limited raw materials.
A world not dissimilar, in many ways, to the one described many decades ago in Ernst Schumacher’s book Small is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered.

And there are many other possibilities, many other paths and many other futures too. How, for example, might oil costing upwards of $200 per barrel change the world? Perhaps people and products would move around less or the high price of food would lead to an unexpected decrease in obesity. What if we invented a new technology based upon photosynthesis that made energy almost free? What if a new ideology capable of challenging free-market capitalism were to appear? Or if the next Russian Empire decided to broaden its borders beyond their current limits. Or what could happen if the heavy use of mobile phones (of which there are already more than 5 billion worldwide) started to cause the death of tens of millions of young people through brain cancer after a long and largely invisible gestation period?

There are many ways in which we can think about the future and looking at the past (i.e. how we got to where we are today) is a good place to start, partly because what happens right now can influence what happens next and also because both are often related to what happened a very long time ago. And there is a third reason. By understanding the complexities of how we got where we are today we will be better served in how we think about the future. Complexity is the name of the game. Of course, history is not always the most reliable guide to the future because nobody owns the facts. The way we interpret the past can cast a long shadow that hides other important facts. Similarly the future can be buried in the fringes of the present, which essentially means that knowing precisely where to look, or who to talk to, can pay dividends and give you a head start compared to less creative and less curious thinkers. Whichever way you look at it, it’s worth remembering that the future is always present.

This is not to say that the process of thinking ahead is not fraught with difficulties, but a bigger problem is time. Thinking seriously about worlds to come takes time, which is in very short supply nowadays. As a result, many organizations focus almost exclusively on short-term issues, which means that reactions are often too immediate and management often consists of racing from one crisis to the next. More often than not, especially in commercial organizations, the focus is on the next 12 weeks (the next financial quarter) or the next 12-months (“results”), which are then compared to the last 12-months. Thinking beyond this, especially 36-months or more ahead, is almost unheard of. As a result, deep questions, along with longer-term opportunities and risks, tend to go unanswered until its too late. And this anomaly is not just a ‘business’ issue. How many of us defer thinking about pensions and superannuation until way past the ideal start date? The economic rise of China went unnoticed by many for many years. In the ‘nineties, world economic forums would get excited by China but then revert to the old concerns about NATO, Japan and the tensions in Europe. But now, while the opportunity is slowly being seen, the risk of a potential reversal, with associated bubbles and concentration risks, is not. The same could be said for fertility or the impact of social media on democracy.

History, as the author and security and intelligence expert George Friedman has pointed out, “can change with stunning rapidity.” If the Chinese economic miracle were to come to an abrupt end, this would create a very different future, parts of which we can instantly imagine if we only put aside the time to do so.

Put in a slightly different way, while there are many trends and traits that at first glance look set to continue for the immediate future, nothing is ever certain – a thought, crisply echoed by the writer JG Ballard, who once said that: “If enough people predict something it won’t happen.” On the other hand we are well aware how expectations are realised in the performance of stock markets so it’s never all one thing rather than another. In fact our favourite word is ‘and’ rather than ‘or’.

The history of prediction is interesting in this context and is littered with false prophets, much as it’s strewn with false profits, and it is important to distinguish between what is probable with what is possible. The best way of doing this is, as the detective Sherlock Holmes once pointed out, is to start by removing whatever is totally impossible and then, whatever is left, no matter how improbable, must be considered as being possible. There is also a technique developed by the Strategic Trends Unit at the UK Ministry of Defence in which probabilities are assigned to specific words. “Will” is assigned a probability of “Greater than 90%” “Likely/probably” is “Between 60% and 90%”, “May/possibly” is “Between 10% and 60% “and “Unlikely/Improbable” is “Less than 10%” However, this is never easy to do. Probability is of little value when engaging with the future, even if we had the time and effort to undertake quantitative analysis. The future is not at the end of a trend line. No wonder then that so many individuals cling resolutely to the past. It’s much easier that way. Similarly, it’s hardly a surprise that so many institutions structure themselves to deal with the immediate present.  It’s much cheaper that way.

But by the time the relevant strategies are in place, the horse has bolted and we are already somewhere new. Most organizations create strategies to deal with yesterday’s problems . But thinking about the distant future is essential if we, as individuals or organizations, are to take full advantage of the myriad of opportunities that lie ahead.

Developing a situational awareness for emergent risks is absolutely essential if we do not want to end up standing on the wrong side of history on an ongoing basis. In our work with organizations world-wide, we have also come to the conclusion that workable short-term strategies have the longer-term embedded within.

All well and good, we can hear you saying, but how can one sell the idea of futures thinking to an organization run by an individual that is focused on that set of numbers that will take shape over the next 12 weeks? The honest answer is that you can’t. However, if you are fortunate to work for an organization with an incoming or outgoing head there is hope because these leaders are either concerned with creating a vision or leaving a legacy and both of these mindsets fit rather well with futures thinking.

Furthermore, dark clouds have silver linings. In our view a critical function of leadership is to embrace the plurality of opinions – of diverging worldviews – in order to have a better chance of making sense of the future. The recent history of reactions to climate change is a case in point. If an organization is facing an extinction event (i.e. new technology, government regulation or customer mindsets mean that current products, services, business models or margins appear doomed) this is precisely the time when closed minds are opened up to new possibilities.

One of the features of good leaders is that they have an understanding of past and present. They understand the historical reasons for failure and success, but also appreciate some of the challenges that lie immediately and more distantly ahead. Outstanding leaders do something else too. They have a vision for the more distant future. More often that not, they see things that others cannot, and while their visions maybe partially obscured they are often able to create and communicate compelling stories about why other people should follow them down a particular road.

This skill can work extremely well, but this too can contain a fatal flaw, which is that individuals and organizations can sometimes end up being held hostage to a particular point of view, or vision, of the future. The more dominant a leader – or organizational culture – the more that people will be drawn into agreeing with a particular point of view and the less that people will seek to challenge either it or the hidden assumptions upon which it’s built. The more credible or powerful a source the less likely we are to think that something they say maybe wrong. The more popular or widely circulated something is the more likely we are to agree with it, especially if we are busy.

Let’s get back to the two dead bodies. Both of the stories about workers dropping dead at their desks were featured in newspapers and TV channels around the world, including The BBC and The Guardian. They were widely circulated on the Internet too. But both were untrue….


Scenarios for the world in 2040

For those of you that have missed out on the free e and p copies of Future Vision here is the first bit of some more free bits.

About this book

People have always been curious about what lies over the horizon or around the next corner. Books that speculate about the shape of things to come, especially those making precise or easily understandable predictions, have been especially popular over the years. Interest has not diminished of late. Indeed, the number of books seeking to uncover or explain the future has exploded. The reason for this, which ironically no futurist appears to have foreseen, is that rapid technological change has combined with world-changing events to create a future that is characterised by uncertainty and thus anxiety.

The world offers more promise than ever before, but there are also more threats to our continued existence. During the preparation of this book we have seen the sudden collapse of Egypt’s Mubarek regime and the domino affect it has had on the Middle East; the emergent recession in parts of the United Kingdom; the economic plight of Italy, Greece & Spain; the medieval atrocities being perpetrated in Syria; the continuing demise of Barack Obama and the introduction of the iPad which is selling over one million units every month – not to mention 911-style attacks on confidential government and commercial data and John Galliano being caught on a phonecam making racist remarks in Paris.

In short, the future is not what it used to be and needs rescuing. There is now a high degree of volatility in everything from politics and financial markets to food prices, sport and weather and this is creating ubiquitous unease – especially among generations that grew up in eras that were characterised, with 20/20 hindsight, by relative stability and simplicity. A world more like Downton Abbey than Cowboys Meet Aliens!

Thus the interest in books that explain what is going on right now, where things are likely to go next and what we should do about it. But there’s a problem with all these books about the future. Indeed, there’s a fatal flaw with almost all of our thinking about what will happen next. Regardless of our deep desires, a singular future doesn’t exist and there is no heavenly salvation in sight. The present, let alone the future, is highly uncertain and we are even starting to question what happened in the past. At a recent futures summit in Provence, Grigori Yavlinsky, the ex-presidential candidate, admitted to us that the most uncertain thing about Russia was its past. Logically, if the future is uncertain there must be more than one future.

There are, of course, different ways in which the future might unfold and suggesting, as many futurists and technologists do, that one particular future is inevitable is not only inaccurate, but is dangerously misleading. What is worse is when we are asked to assign probability to this future emerging rather than that one. Linear analysis and the extrapolation of current events is a very straight road that promotes directly unforeseen shocks coming from all sides.

As the historian Niall Ferguson has observed: “It is an axiom among those who study science fiction and other literature concerned with the future that those who write it are, consciously or unconsciously, reflecting on the present.” Or as we like to say – all futures are contemporary futures in the same way that all prediction is based upon past experience. This is one reason why so many predictions about the future go so horribly and hilariously wrong.

For example, in 1884, an article in The Times newspaper suggested that every street in London would eventually be buried under nine feet of horse manure. Why would this be so? Because London was rapidly expanding and so too was the amount of horse-drawn transport. Londoners would, it seemed at the time, soon be up horse manure creek without a paddle.

What the writer didn’t foresee, of course, was that at exactly this time the horseless carriage was being developed in Germany by Daimler and Benz and their new invention would change everything. But four years later, in 1898, Karl Benz made exactly the same mistake by extrapolating from the present. He predicted that the global demand for automobiles would not surpass one million. Why? Because of a lack of chauffeurs! The automobile had been invented but the idea of driving one oneself had not. Thus it was inevitable, he thought, that the world would eventually run out of highly skilled chauffeurs and the development of the automobile would come to the end of the road.

The preoccupation with trends analysis is doubly misleading. Not only must trends be lined up with ‘discontinuities’, counter-trends, anomalies and wild cards, which have a nasty habit of jumping into view from left field, they are also retrospective and not ‘futuristic’ at all. A trend is an unfolding event or disposition, which we trace back to its initiation, and trends tells us nothing about the direction of velocity of future events. It is true that occasionally an idea or event occurs that is so significant that history is divided into periods of before and after. The steam engine, the automobile, the microprocessor, the mobile phone, the world wide web, the collapse of the Berlin Wall, 9/11, Google, Facebook and Amazon are all, arguably, examples.

But even here there is confusion. We all have a particular lens through which we see the world and no two individuals ever experience the present in the same way. Moreover, our memory can play tricks. As a result, there is always more than one reality or worldview as we like to call it.

Equally, it is not a binary world. It is a systemic one in which influences making for change interact with each other in complex and surprising ways. It is also a world where it is rare for a new idea to totally extinguish an old idea, especially one that has been in common usage for a very long time. For instance, despite the facility with which mobile technology can deliver ‘media content’, there’s still something reassuring about the daily newspaper dropping with a thud on to the hall mat as we begin another day. Moreover, while means of delivery, business models, materials, competitors, profit margins and even companies may change radically the deep human needs (e.g. the desire to tell or listen to stories) often remain relatively constant.

Change happens rapidly, but in most instances it takes decades, often generations, for something new to result in a linked extinction event. The slow pace of fast change is observable. We all witness this. Like the destroyer in Sydney Harbour’s Maritime Museum at Darling Harbour – built in 1943 – which has in its ops room a fax machine. More often than not different individuals and institutions will experience present and future in slightly different ways depending on where they live, what they do and how they have grown up (i.e. more than one reality again). There is more than one present let alone more than one future.

This is a good thing, as is the level of uncertainty that surrounds the future. Indeed, in many respects this is one of the most interesting times ever to be alive, because almost everything that we think we know, or take for granted, is capable of being challenged or changed, often at a fundamental level. Even human nature if Joel Garreau the author of Radical Evolution is to be believed.

It is the view of the authors of this book that the only rigorous way that one can deal with a future that is so uneven and disjointed is to create a framework that reveals a set of alternative futures covering a number of different possibilities.

This technique, called scenario planning or more properly scenario thinking, originated as a form of war-gaming or battle planning in military circles and was then picked up by, amongst others, Royal Dutch Shell, the oil company, as a way of dealing with ambiguity and uncertainty. In Shell’s case, scenarios correctly anticipated both the 1973 oil crisis, which hiked prices dramatically, and the corresponding price falls almost a decade later.

Other incidences where scenarios have foreseen what few others could include Adam Kahane’s Mont Fleur Scenarios in South Africa in 1992, which foresaw a peaceful transition to democratic rule, and two sets of scenarios created by the authors of this book for a major bank in 2005 and the future of the Teaching Profession in 2006/7, both of which identified futures around the global financial collapse that occurred in 2008/9

This, then, is a book about the future that offers readers a number of alternatives for dissection and discussion. It is not a book about trends, although key trends within demographics, technology, energy, the economy, environment, food, water and geopolitics are commented upon in depth. Equally, it is not a ‘how to’ book about scenario planning, although in the second half of the book the authors explain how scenario planning works and outline how each of the four different scenarios presented in the book were developed. Rather it is a book that considers a number of critical questions and then uses a robust and resilient process to unleash four detailed scenarios about what it might be like to live in the world in 2040 from a variety of different perspectives. It is not simply about where today’s trends might take us but about what the world in 2040 might be like.

It is not our intention to predict the future. We are not seeking, as it were, to get the future totally right. This is impossible. Our aim is rather to prevent people from getting the future seriously wrong. This is achievable, but only if we give ourselves the chance to think bravely and creatively. The book is intended to form part of a deep conversation. It is designed to open peoples’ minds to what is going on right now and create a meaningful debate about some of the choices we face and where some of the things that we are choosing to do – or allowing to happen – right now may go next. It is intended to alert individuals and organizations to a broad range of longer-term issues, assumptions and decisions and to firmly place a few of them on the long-range radar for careful monitoring and further analysis. It is about challenging fundamental assumptions and re-framing viewpoints, including whether or not people are asking the right questions. And in this context disagreement is a valuable tool.

Most of all, perhaps, we would like liberate peoples’ attitude towards the future. In all our work we discover that people from all kinds of professions and backgrounds want to make a difference – to generate change as well as adapt to it. As Peter Senge once remarked: “Vision becomes a living thing only when most people believe they can shape their future.” So, yes, people need to understand the opportunities and threats that lie ahead but also consider in which direction they would like to travel. For example, is mankind on the cusp of another creative renaissance, one characterised by radical new ideas, scientific and technological breakthroughs, material abundance and extraordinary opportunities for a greater proportion of the world’s people, or are we in a sense at the end of civilisation, a new world characterised by high levels of volatility, anxiety and uncertainty?

Are we entering a peaceful period where serious poverty, infant mortality, adult literacy, physical security and basic human rights are all addressed by collective action or are we moving more towards an increasingly individualistic and selfish era in which urban overcrowding, the high cost of energy and food, water shortages, social inequality, unemployment, nationalism and increasingly authoritarian government combine to create a new age of misery and rage?

Some urban economists and sociologists are predicting a future in which between one and two billion people will be squatters in ‘edge cities’ attached to major conurbations – Mexico, Mumbai, Beijing and more – while others believe in the concept of a smart planet in which our expertise delivers a triumphal response to the drivers of change and we create local self-managed inclusive communities which resonate with traditional democratic value.

Just what does the future have in store for us? This is what this book aims to find out.

4 Alternative Scenarios for the World in 2040


Future Vision is published…

I’m happy to report that Future Vision: Alternative Scenarios for the World in 2040 (published by Scribe in Melbourne) is now out and increasing about. If you would like a free copy I am giving away 6 e-copies and 4 hard copies to the first people to say that they want one (please say whether you would prefer ‘e’ or ‘p’ format).

You can either post contact details on the comments form below or email me with your name and email or postal address to richardat(deletethisbit)

UPDATE! All free e-copies now taken, but we have 2 more hard copies to give away.

NEW UPDATE!!! All gone I’m afraid but I’m seeing what we can do for people…