Insights · May 17th, 2022
The role of predictions in foresight work is a hotly debated topic, there’s no doubt. Being a futurist has become synonymous with the process of ‘prediction’ so that people can feel more comfortable accepting new possibilities.
Non-foresight folk have always gravitated towards them i.e. Badminton says that x will happen by 2025 vs. Nikolas speculates that complex situations might result in these speculative scenarios based on this lengthy, detailed, and collaborative inquiry.
Reading and believing predictions is easier I think because we want a warm, fuzzy feeling of what’s to come. A certainty. It’s almost like the trope of ‘the only way to predict the future is to create it’ – often attributed to the computer scientist Dr. Alan Kay at Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (Xerox PARC) in 1971. I guess that was more about technological colonization than prediction – widget x will revolutionize your life, people buy widget x and use it, their friends then start using their own widget x and so on. Yes, that atomic element of our ‘future’ was predicted through creation.
Me must abandon prediction if we are to embed foresight as a useful discipline in what we do. Foresight has rigor, whereas prediction shortcuts the process, finds convenient near-at-hand solutions, and is not easily defended when interrogated on grounds of fitting all our needs, equity, and equality.Dr. Wendy Schultz said it well (during one of our many chats on social media), “If you are discussing complex adaptive systems in continuous relationship to chaotic turbulence, it goes against current theoretical understanding to claim you are predicting.”
This is quite true, and I suffered at the hands of my own predictions while working in digital strategy at an ad agency, ahead of the futures work I started in 2012.
It was late-2011 and I was I was invited to speak at an event hosted by the Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC). I took to the stage to talk about digital engagement and what comes next. The London Olympics was happening the next year and there was huge buzz about digital payments and the use of smartphones to facilitate that. Part of my short – 6 minute – talk was about that and how the Olympics would be the tipping point because Samsung had created a partnership with Visa and “From the moment visitors land at Heathrow they will be immersed in a contactless payment experience with everything from taxis, to retail outlets, to the Olympic Park itself,” said the Visa press release that outlined that they expected there to be more than 140,000 contactless terminals in the UK by the time the Olympic Games start on 27 July.
Sure, some people may have used this solution but it seemed to be technological solutions going against cash and cards (a deeply ingrained cultural mechanism for payment) ahead of a want to change how people paid for things, and their ‘relationship’ with and reliance on their devices.
But, while in hindsight I was wrong about the speed, complexity of societal acceptance (of users and vendors) and triggers for solutions like this being adopted, it piqued interest at that event and people queued up to chat to me about that and other predictions.
People love predictions due to their provocative nature. People have strong opinions about predictions, mostly because they’re likely to be wrong and people can easily find counterpoints. The discussion that springs from predictions is useful and I feel not to be completely discarded.
I was drawn towards Ilkka Tuomi’s ‘Foresight in an Unpredictable World’ paper, and its conclusion, “If the future cannot be predicted before it happens, foresight requires an imaginative step that resembles the movement of a mountain climber towards the next hold. For purely ontological reasons, foresight cannot be based on reactive models. Models inspired by physics, control theory or economics are structurally unable to encompass ontological expansion and innovation. They should therefore be used with caution. Foresight efforts can probably best be organized using reflective learning and knowledge creation as their theoretical framework. If innovation is important, we probably should give relatively little weight for trend extrapolations, what-if analyses, and time-series data, and instead facilitate creativity and embrace innovation.”
So, ontologically we must embrace reflective learning and knowledge creation – that is what I work towards with clients. Sure, there are technologies and innovations to consider but there are bigger questions about their effects and what we will become as humans and society beyond their mechanistic existences.
I still write yearly predictions, and it is not a practice of foresight per se. I use ‘predictions’ as a trojan horse into conversations that evolve into those of the greater need for foresight. Sometimes we need to recognize that we need that to break into the oft-regimented minds of strategically focused executives. A way to bring people closer to the idea that inquiry can be valuable in business. And, once in engagements I say that we are not in the business of prediction thus shattering that idea up front and progressing into more serious work of foresight.