“In dealing with the future, it is far more important to be imaginative than to be right.” Alvin Toffler, Future Shock
Jayar La Fontaine from Idea Couture wrote an interesting article a week or so ago - Their Future, Our Future: How strategic foresight is imperilled by ideology. It reminded us of both the importance of learning how to think about the future in deep ways, and the need to understand the ideological basis of that thinking. These are really important points.
I liked the article because this sort of challenge helps to foster a conversation about how people think about the future, whether those people be futurists, strategic foresighters, people in organisations or just anyone interested in the future. I said in my comments that I would write this post and that I'd share Jayar's article with my colleagues in the Association of Professional Futurists (APF) - who, while not directly, were roundly criticised in the article. This post however, is my view only, and in no way is intended to be a formal response by the APF. I write as an individual. Now that's clear, let's move to the areas where I think Jayar and I disagree - in the best way possible.
I have split the post into two parts because it is long. I personally hate split posts because it's distracting for m,e but I recognise that not everyone shares my view. Part 2 is here.
Forecasting and Prediction
In the first paragraph we have this comment:
...two independent research efforts have been making substantial contributions to our understanding of of how and why humans think about the future, and how we might become better at identifying and training people to more accurately forecast it.
Any work that helps us think in deeper ways about the future is welcomed and that's why I liked the article - Jayar's post introduced me to the work of Suddendorf and Mesoudi that I'd not encountered before. Connecting the need to improve thinking about the future with accurate forecasting is, for me, a mistake. Later, the term prediction enters the conversation and this conflation of the two is a familiar but again, for me, a dangerous thing to do. You can forecast certain things in the short term I will admit, but not long term.
More importantly, you can't predict the future except by luck. There are no future facts, no data that can be analysed quantitatively, nothing that can be assumed with any certainty. There are no crystal balls that work. Prediction and forecasting are underpinned by a tacit assumption that future certainty is achievable - I view this as unhelpful when thinking about the future. That assumption keeps us in our comfort zones. It's as though we believe that if we can forecast accurately, if we can predict the future and be right, if we can generate data, then we will know what's coming, we will be certain. Forecasting and prediction also start with what we know today which means we project the present into the future - and we all know, in our bones, that the future will be very different to today.
Tetlock's work on superforecasting is then discussed.
... Other than a few voices in the wilderness, Tetlock's work has been criticized, ridiculed and ignored by professional futurists. Some painted his findings as representing a return to the notion of forecasting as a form of prophesying that doesn’t take seriously the sheer complexity of the modern world. Others – especially those whose forecasts tend to stretch a decade or further into the future – blanched at Tetlock’s claim that even the abilities of highly skilled superforecasters were ineffective for timelines longer than eighteen months, and insisted that his methods drastically restricted the human imagination.
I don't believe futurists have dismissed Tetlock's work at all. Rather it's in a different space, looking for answers to inform short-term decision making, and it's valuable in that space. It's also useful in clarifying how people analyse the future and why open, curious minds are so important. Good futurists work with people to act with anticipation in the present - their focus is long term, 10+ years. Because Tetlock's work is about prediction though, the aim is to lock down the future, make it certain. When the future arrives unexpectedly, faith in predictions is undermined and we look like this.
The first is that look you get when you are heard to utter "I didn't see that coming" or "that was a surprise". The second is that look of fright when you are confronted by a sudden change that you just didn't believe would ever happen. The first is caused by thinking you can predict the future, the second is caused by our blindspots, our cognitive biases and we all have them.
The Foresight Literature
I accept that I didn't know the work of Suddendorf or Mesoudi but I'm not sure that these comment are entirely fair:
You'd assume that the futurist community would be alive with buzz about the work of researchers like Suddendorf, Mesoudi, and Tetlock. And if futurists were genuinely interested in improving their ability to think clearly about the future and help others to do the same, I suspect you'd be right.
First, is there a futurist community that can be assumed or defined when anyone can call themselves a futurist? Jayar says he is 'familiar with the professional milieu of futurists' and the only professional group that uses that term that I know is the Association of Professional Futurists. I don't doubt that Jayar is a deep thinker, a good thinker and is committed to thinking about the future in serious ways, but he's not a member of the APF and my view is that no one should assume they know a community to which they don't belong.
Second, long term forecasting is at best crossing your fingers and hoping what you want comes true, unless it's underpinned by some serious use of macrohistory. Here Tetlock is right though about the time limits of forecasting and its impact how on we think about the future.
Third, I asked for but haven't received the specific references Jayar used to back up these statements, because there is a whole world of foresight literature out there that can demonstrate very clearly how futurists are serious about improving their ability to think clearly about the future and help others do the same. Professional futurists aren't trend watchers who produce an annual list of this years 10 trends to watch for example, or make those grand statements like "64gb of RAM should be enough for anybody" (attributed to Bill Gates) because when those statements meet the future, the person who said them is shown to be very short sighted. People who are professional futurists aim not to predict the future but help people prepare for it, however it emerges.
That Suddendorf didn't know there was quite a substantial body of foresight literature was posited as somehow being the fault of professional futurists is understandable, but just as Jayar asks us why we didn't know about Suddendorf's work, I can ask why doesn't Suddendorf know about the foresight literature? Here are a few of the journals that publish work on futures and foresight: Foresight, Futures, Journal of Futures Studies, On the Horizon. There's a global foresight wiki that integrates a lot of information about the field and hundreds of blogs. This literature isn't hidden but there's so much literature about so many topics that sometimes we all do miss things.
We then move on to a distinction made between classical and critical futurists. I use integral futures in my work which seeks to respect all futures work and to draw on what makes sense for my work so this distinction made no sense to me. I try not to categorise anyone, rather I acknowledge that everyone who works in the futures/foresight field has some sort of valuable focus that I might need one day. Mine is on using foresight in practice, and because of my background, I focus too on the future of universities. That there is this diversity is a good thing, and it's why pitting different types of futurists against each other is not helpful. Jayar writes about:
two broad groups of futurists: what I’ll call classical futurists, who tend to be older, whiter, and more male, and whose view of the future tends to turn on supra-personal domains like technology, economics, and geopolitics, and critical futurists, who tend to be younger, hipper, artier, and more diverse, and whose view of the future tends to turn on human-centric domains like culture, values, and social movements.
I actually can't see why these two approaches can't exist side by side. We need to know about global change shifts, the supra-personal domains, because they shape meso and micro change. And we also need new views of the world, the younger person who challenges existing ways of seeing change and bringing it back to the human centre. I write often about the need for strategy to become more human centred, so I can't but agree that we need this approach if we are to create sustainable futures. Anyone who is seriously interested in preparing for the future is or should be looking for a new paradigm, beyond what we have today. That's our job.
If we must, I'd type people who call themselves futurists as amateur and professional. The former are people who choose the title or its how clients describe them and the accept the title. They write about the future of something. They believe that "To be a futurist, all you have to do is make a prediction."* They care about what they are doing but they start from today and project out. They use the visible trends they see and craft a livelihood out of talking about them. I can see why people like this work. Professionals fore me are people who do futures/foresight work for a living, who may or may not have a formal qualification, who talk/present/teach about futures to other people, who do some form of research to be able to write in an informed way about the future, who think deeply about what is possible, who understand the need to challenge their assumptions and cognitive biases. They may or may not use the term 'futurist'.
The most important characteristic of professional futurists is that they have an open, curious mind and seek to integrate not reject different ways of thinking about the future. Challenging deeply held and unquestioned assumptions and ideologies is part of the field if you seek to integrate rather than dismiss - and that includes our own. We start from our individual views of the field and seek feedback. We are all trapped by our ideologies to some degree, being aware of that is what's important.
*I won't embarrass the person who said this by putting in his name - he is a leading speaker and author about the future of work and the work he does is usually pretty good. But he's not a futurist in my book.