In an article called The Future of Futurology by Robert Cottrell (Deputy Editor, economist.com) the term 'futurology' gets used a lot. Cottrell provides the following set of rules for futurists.
- Think small.
- Think short-term
- Say you don’t know. Uncertainty looks smarter than ever before.
- Get embedded in a particular industry, preferably something to do with computing or national security or global warming. All are fast-growing industries fascinated by uncertainty and with little use for generalists.
- Talk less, listen more. Thanks to the internet, every intelligent person can amass the sort of information that used to need travel, networking, research assistants, access to power.
These rules emerge from a blinding flash of the obvious for Cottrell - that you can't predict the future and so you should stop trying. Totally and absolutely agree.
But what Cottrell is talking about is trends, and extrapolating trends out into the future. Any good futurist worth their money will point out that trends are not future facts. That trends are actually extrapolations of the present, and if you don't challenge the assumptions underpinning the trends, you are assuming that the future will be just like today.
So, why oh why do we claim surprise then a trend prediction beyond next year is proven to be invalid? Except by luck, trend predictions are always going to be invalid. And if you are only prediciting a year or two out, you are really not predicting anything at all. So stop focusing on predictions, which are all about how decisions today will affect us today, and reverse it - start thinking about how our decisions today are going to affect the future.
Because I think Cottrell's rules are based on the flawed assumption that futures work is only about trend prediction, I would amend those rules just a tad:
1. Think small - think really, really, big, but always make sure you think at all in the context of a strategic decision you need to make today.
2. Think short-term - think long term, because it helps you deal better with the cult of busyness that is burying us today - honestly. And it helps you challenge that conventional wisdom that is sending us around in circles today.
3. Say you don’t know. Uncertainty looks smarter than ever before. Absolutely agree. But don't just say you don't know, explore that uncertainty to see what might happen - use that information provided by the internet (see rule 5) to interpret for your context and your decisions. Be prepared.
4. Get embedded in a particular industry, preferably something to do with computing or national security or global warming. All are fast-growing industries fascinated by uncertainty and with little use for generalists. Just a tad cynical I think, particularly since good futurists are focused not on industries but on people.
5. Talk less, listen more. Thanks to the internet, every intelligent person can amass the sort of information that used to need travel, networking, research assistants, access to power. Agree, but what do you do with that information - you can't just amass it and look at it, can you? Futurists can help you to challenge your assumptions that lead you to look where you do for that information, and to help you make sense of it in that uncertain future (rule 3). If you don't that wealth of information will just bury you.
But, my biggest gripe, and the sign that shows that Cottrell is actually out of touch with the futures field, is his use of the term 'futurology'.
Am I the only one who hears that term and thinks of cyrstal balls? I'm not surprised that people are sceptical about the value of futures thinking when they interpret that thinking through the lens of 'futurology'. It somehow suggests that there is a certainty about the activity that can never be there when you are talking about the future. It suggest that there is an easy way out of the challenges we humans have created for today. And, when futurology fails us, we throw a tantrum and blame the futrologists for providing bad predictions that didn't solve all those challenges for us - we still look for the easy fix.
I really dislike that term and all its variants. Let's just agree to stop using it right now.
Let's agree to use words like 'futures', 'futures thinking', 'futurists', 'foresight' and 'strategic foresight'. Let's move on from a superficial focus on trends as facts (because they aren't), and think about what impact our decisions today are having on the future.
Start decision making processes with exploring the possible outcomes of those decisions in the future, rather than trying to be certain about the impact of those decisions today, and we will have moved beyond 'futurology' and trend prediction.