My blog posts often emerge out of a convergence of events over a few days. This time it was getting annoyed – again – with our fascination with prediction, being asked the same day to speak to a newspaper journalist about why predictions don’t come true (gladly I said!), and then today attending my last Board meeting of the Association of Professional Futurists (APF), where we talked about principles of good practice for professional futurists. The operative word here is ‘professional’.
First the prediction issue. I do believe that we should ban the word prediction – I’ve written about it here and here. When I see this year’s round of predictions for 2013, I wonder again about how we can go about reframing our brains so that we can see beyond the status quo and stop wasting time and energy on pointless predictions.
Predictions assume that you can extrapolate from today into the future with certainty – that assumption is flawed because trends are based on data about the past and present, not the future. There are no future facts and there is no guarantee any trend trajectory today will continue unchanged. We are apparently hardwired to like certainty (and comfort zones) but when it comes to the future though, there isn’t much of either, and to cope with that, we respond by trying to explain them away with predictions.
My other issue with predictions is that they are usually an extrapolation of a single trend – for example, 3D printing will continue to grow in viability. It probably will (based on my scanning and assumptions), but what trends are influencing and shaping the development of 3D printing? What other trends and changes out there might derail its progress? What would happen then, and how would you respond? That sort of thinking approach creates a very different view of the future than one where the trajectory of a single trend is assumed to be linear and unassailable. Instead of trend lists then, we should be identifying our watch lists for the next year and think about how the trends connect, collide and redrail each other – then we might be paying attention to what really matters for our futures, without the pressure to get the future right.
Second, the APF meeting. The draft document we looked at around principles of good practice was based on strong intellectural thinking and rigour. It wasn’t all that easy to read, but it was an excellent piece, and highlighted all the major issues the APF faces in trying to contextualise and define what being a professional futurist or foresight practitioner really means. A couple of comments were around making it easier to read, and while on the one hand, I do understand this, on the other hand, if we are going to be professional futurists, we need to understand the intellectual and theoretical basis of our work – and no one ever said that would be easy. Nor should it be. Furutists work with change that is complex, and understanding complexity requires new ways of thinking not predictions.
The processes a professional futurist uses have nothing to do with prediction and everything to do with moving people to new thinking spaces where they can deal with depth of change confronting their organisations and explore what’s possible. This thinking shift is often difficult and time consuming, but without it, you’ll have an interesting and fun futures workshop, and people will go back to work and do what they have always done, continuing to assume that the future will be more of today.
Without a professional futurist in the room, you risk status quo thinking, prediction of single rather than system trends that have very little value, and superficial scenario work. In other words, more of today and a surprised look on your face when the future arrives.