One of the dicta in futurology is that if you want to look forward say 10 years, then you need to look back at least that time.
Try this exercise. You wake tomorrow morning and find you are back in 1948. Much to your surprise you find that you are giving a visionary talk about 2008 to a telecommunications conference in London. Think about what you would say, given that you know that what you will say is correct. How credible would you sound to the audience with your near perfect insight into 2008?
Now imagine their questions. Why will an 8 year old child want a phone? Why do you think an obscure Pulp and Rubber company from Finland will be a major player?
Why would I want to phone Korea?
Now those in the audience who were aware of Baby, the first stored-programme computer, in Manchester switched on earlier that year would find your idea of a hand held device somewhat far fetched. That most of telecoms is not Government owned would also be a shock.
Repeat the exercise for 50, 40 years ago, and so on. At what point do you think your audience will "buy in" to your vision. For me, it’s probably around the early 1990s, around 1993.
When I have tried this exercise in the past in workshops, the Q&A sessions are really revealing. To illustrate, let me consider the call to Korea example. Actually, I phoned home from Korea, on a visit, not called the other way. When confronted my experience is that people end up having to explain globalisation of the economy, jet aircraft and other technologies to make "today" seem real to an audience of long ago.
Hold on! You were supposed to be talking about telecommunications. Here in lies the dilemma for futurologists and their personal and professional credibility. If you focus on a very narrow topic and project forward you miss out on richness of context that is central to the unfolding future. However, if you go very broad then many will reject the ideas because they seem woolly and unfocused. So your vision can seem like a modified version of the "1066 and All That" description of the civil war in which the conflict is between Roundheads (right but repulsive) and Cavaliers (wrong but romantic). Of course, what we might aspire to is to be credible and right but end up choosing between being credible and wrong against being incredible and right.
The difficulty now is that faced with IT futurists' comments these days such as "a single computer will have the same capacity as a human brain by 2025", how can we separate out the wheat from the chaff?
Future gazing is far from the perfection allowed within my earlier exercise. However, many organisations have used scenario planning as a tool for understanding plausible rich pictures of the future. The techniques have been used since the early 1960s in industry and earlier in the military work. Since 9/11, the use of scenario planning has rocketed in many parts of both the public and private sectors. Those involved believe that this growth has come about because of an acceptance among leaders that we live in "turbulent times". Notions that the future is "not computable" have emerged in behavioural economics for instance. With the popularisation of the "Black Swan" thesis by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, recognition is growing that quantitative modelling has real serious limits. The Credit Crunch is yet another example of this problem. The complex models which people in financial services assumed would enable the management of risks hit a wall of indeterminance and systemic risk.
Along side these developments, the academic study of futurology has become a respectable and flourishing field.
I have been reading a really helpful and insightful book that I can commend to all who wish to get involved in this field. It is called "Business Planning for Turbulent Times" 1.
It gives a really interesting overview of the theories and practices of futures thinking and grounds many of the practitioner tools and techniques against a set of theories from Open Systems theory, Causal Textures, Search Conferences, Complexity Theory and Soft Systems Methodologies, SSM, among others.
The book captures my sentiment which is that in turbulent times, we know that scenarios work and have value. The problem is that we really don't know why! On the other hand, seeing all the strands pulled together in this book it feels as if real progress is being made.
The book is worth getting for chapter 2 alone which outlines the Conceptual and Historical overview. Chapter 4 shows the links between SSM and scenario practice with clarity that has evaded me for years.
There are some good case studies in a variety of fields to illustrate the themes of the book.
However, the real things which have made me sit up as I have read this book are the later chapters on the implications that these ideas have on managing change, corporate social responsibility and strategic leadership in a turbulent environment.
It's one of those reads that I know will take some time to digest and to adapt for my own needs.
If you think that turbulence is a short term phenomenon, this is not for you. If, however you believe like me that this is going to be a turbulent era for decades to come, then try this book.
As Alan Kay observed years ago "the best way to predict the future is to invent it".
As technologists we have been talking about pervasive computing and convergence for many years. What is the future we wish to invent?
1. Business Planning for Turbulent Times, Editors: Rafael Ramirez, John W Selsky & Kees Van Der Heijden (Earthscan, 2008)
About the author
Chris Yapp is a technology and policy futurologist. Chris has been in the IT industry since 1980. His roles have spanned Honeywell, ICL, HP, Microsoft and Capgemini. He is a Fellow of the BCS and a Fellow of the RSA.