Insights · March 26th, 2009

At his blog (take a look) Richard Leyland provides a very good summation of Black Swan theory, narrative fallacy, and complex systems. Just a thought to add, about “futurism” and futurists. There is a popular misconception by those outside this profession that the goal of a futurist must be to make some kind of accurate prediction of the future. People do love to hear about trends. But this does not actually describe how we approach trends and future predictions.

Because “black swans” (unpredictable events) do occur, we know that the future is not perfectly or even largely predictable. But professional futurists avoid the popular logical fallacy that seems to follow – if the future is not perfectly predictable, then it is not predictable at all, and thus there is no utility to looking at the future. I hear this all the time, and Richard’s article implies that it is best to ignore the future and concentrate on being flexible and agile, steering your organization moment by moment.

However, what a good futurist does, and what I do is this: we say, look, the future is more knowable than you think, though not perfectly predictable. For example, we know that, barring a “black swan event” like an asteroid strike or pandemic, the population over age 65 is going to more than double by 2025, until up to one-third of many national populations will be that old. For many people, this is a complete surprise, even though with just a tiny effort at examining the future it is quite obvious. It surprises people because they are told, over and over again, that the future is unpredictable (meaning not perfectly predictable) and thus there is no reason to look ahead. Instead, one should just adjust minute to minute to whatever happens.

In other words, I encourage people, and organizations, to learn what we can know about the future, while increasing our flexibility and agility to respond to the inevitable surprises that will occur no matter how skilled we are at seeing ahead. In the next decade, it is more than likely that the most important thing that happens – a war, a technology invention, a natural disaster – will “surprise” everyone when it happens. That is true. But, there are many things that are very likely to characterize the future playing field, that we can know, and we ought to make an effort to see what they are.

The most knowable future of all is the future you prefer. And you can decide now on actions that will point you in that direction, so long as you remember that the destination will change as you move toward it, and that at any moment a surprising event may occur that changes your direction altogether. This is not a problem, it is just how the world works.

Really good work, Richard. Check out his blog.

Nikolas Badminton – Chief Futurist

Nikolas Badminton

Nikolas is the Chief Futurist of the Futurist Think Tank. He is world-renowned futurist speaker, a Fellow of The RSA, and has worked with over 300 of the world’s most impactful companies to establish strategic foresight capabilities, identify trends shaping our world, help anticipate unforeseen risks, and design equitable futures for all. In his new book – ‘Facing Our Futures’ – he challenges short-term thinking and provides executives and organizations with the foundations for futures design and the tools to ignite curiosity, create a framework for futures exploration, and shift their mindset from what is to WHAT IF…

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