“I do think we’re in period of remarkable uncertainty with very different plausible outcomes” concluded renowned futurist and Chief Futures Officer of Salesforce, Peter Schwartz, pointing to three possible future outcomes beyond today: an unstable and incoherent multipolar world with high economic volatility; a rebuilding of cohesion and stability; and a semi-stable bipolar world with two blocs forming different worlds. My money is on the latter but one thing we can all agree on, and that Schwartz was clear to state, is that we’re in a world of cascading crises.
It was at last month’s Association of Professional Futurists (APF) annual conference, Exploring Next, that he made these comments and shared his forecast in a presentation entitled A Dangerous Decade.
Like all good futurists he started by looking to the past, reminding the audience of the context in which earlier scenarios had been constructed, revisiting the key forces that had driven much of the change that has delivered us to where we are today. Technology, productivity and globalization were all clearly foreseen but less so were the counter trends: the tech-lash, the possibility that these increases in technology would not necessarily lead to increases in productivity, and many of the economic consequences of globalization. It was a good reminder that for every trend there is always a counter-trend.
A whistle-stop tour of more social, technological and economic drivers of change today included that phrase ‘Tokyo feels like a retirement community’ illustrating the point that demographically the world is undergoing a huge shift. There are now more old people than young people on the planet, with population growth low in Latin America and North America, in decline in Europe, and yet due to almost double (by 2050) to 2 billion on the continent of Africa.
We’ll be spending more time at the weather extremes of hot and cold environments due to climate destabilisation he said, and he raised concerns about the effects on water systems, in particular those that originate in the Tibetan plateau, seeing this as an issue we’ll face within this decade. A period of stagflation economically, as well as a general scepticism about cryptocurrency didn’t provide much cause for optimism. And in the context of all this uncertainty, he was keen to stress that the mindset for organisations or enterprises must be one of resilience.
Coincidentally, resilience was not a word be found on urban futurist, Cindy Frewen’s lips. In fact she worried that it may suggest an unbending, a brittleness in the face of extreme change, perhaps hinting that she saw things getting stronger through times of trouble. Inspired by a recent horse-trekking trip through the Andes to Machu Picchu, she asked the audience to consider an even longer, long-term future, than any long boom. We should be planning cities with much greater vision, we should be better using the future as cultural inspiration to help determine what stories, myths and belief systems we are setting up for future generations. And she challenged our perceptions of how we compartmentalize the time horizons of past, present and future with an insight into the indigenous population of the Andes. For them, history is in front of us where we can see it whilst the future is behind us, way beyond our view.
There was a session on generation alpha and their digital future, positive and dystopian ideas, a speculative futures workshop that asked us to assume a world in which designer babies had been legalized, workshops on personal futures and a take on re-imagining afrofuturism and technology to reclaim black space in virtual reality. The education system and the future of learning, feminist visions of the future of women’s work, the future of truth, and a session from Dubai on creating future-ready government as well as one from Canada on open government. And one of my favourites which was Timothy E. Dolan’s talk on memory manipulation.
Dolan introduced the audience to optogenetics, a biological technique to control the activity of neurons or other cell types with light. More precisely, he explained how it uses a light sensitive protein which is delivered to the neural pathways of the brain. The speaker considered many recent advancements in this field which included treatments of genetic conditions to restore sight, treatments of Parkinson’s disease, and even the creation of false or suppressed memories in the brains of rodents including a case in which a mouse memory had been modified in a way to render the animal fearless. The complex ethical implications of this made for a fascinating discussion.
But it was not all theory. A large chunk of the agenda was devoted to futures practice, working with new or existing tools and frameworks that could help futurists and their clients or communities to create better, more varied, more participatory, more inspired, and perhaps more accurate, futures. Wendy Schultz gave a quick-fire masterclass on tools and mindsets for describing and analysing emergent systems. Billed as ‘much more fun than it sounds’ it added to the toolkit needed to work through the practicalities and implications of some of the larger concepts spoken of by Peter Schwartz. A further interactive session saw Andrew Curry and Tanja Hitchert share another of Schultz’s methods, aimed at generating more positive, hopeful futures. Called the ‘seeds of change’ approach, it started as a trial in a 2016 project carried out in Cape Town. Then Patricia Lustig and Gill Ringland authors of the recent book, New Shoots (that attempts to help people use foresight to better plan in uncertain times) ran a workshop for those with busy day jobs who want to create more space to engage in conversation about the future.
The final day rounded out with a session on the Future of Experience: Measuring Return on Experience, from JP Lacroix, which focused on the need to better understand the value creation around customer experiences for successful brand building. And it was in this session that Joyce Gioia called to mind the exceptional paper by René Rohrbeck and Menes Etingue Kum, whose study followed 100 companies over a seven year period to evaluate the contribution of strategic foresight to those companies and their business. The authors found that futures thinking companies outperformed the average company with 33% more profits and with 200% higher growth, proving that corporate foresight is a unique and financially rewarding skill.
And perhaps this was the biggest takeaway from the event overall. During the (for some, unforeseen) pandemic there was an explosion of interest in strategic foresight and futures studies. Now, as the world gets back to real-life engagement, the willingness and good intentions to engage with futures work is still there but the flesh is weak. Many organisations and corporations are overwhelmed with the sheer amount of change happening right now, not merely through technological innovation but due to emerging values and changing societal norms, geo-political instability and all that it brings, and with a cost of living crisis, forcing everyone to narrow their focus on the day after tomorrow, if not merely today. But we must look further ahead than that. We must discipline ourselves to think ahead, to imagine, to envision, and invest valuable time in Exploring Next. Yes, we are in turbulent times and this is indeed a dangerous decade but only if we are able to lift our gaze toward the future will we be able to re-perceive the world we are in today. And if we don’t like that world, change it.
Disclaimer: Tracey is a member of the APF and spoke at the Exploring Next conference.