A recent opinion-piece in Wired magazine is titled flatly: “Futurism is Dead.” The article condemns the field of futurism and the World Future Society in particular as failures because the record of predictions from professional futurists has been so bad. The great irony is that there has been no publication with as many articles over the past 10 to 15 years full of failed predictions as Wired. The most famous is their cover story seven or eight years ago that said adamantly than the Internet browsers like Netscape and Explorer were finished and that the future of the Internet was “push” technology. Couldn’t have been more wrong. And nobody did more to hype the notion of the so-called New Economy that would soar forever on constantly evolving technology than Wired.
Nevertheless, the idea of futuring is worth some discussion.
Many forms of forecasting the future have been tried going back to the augury (foretelling the future based on the flight of bird flocks) in ancient Greece. I remember 20 years ago how Strategic Planning and Long Range Planning were professions that similarly went out of favor because they couldn’t deliver accurate guidance. Economics, the most data-based of forecasting disciplines has a miserable record. We’re now recovering from the most pointed demonstration of how masses of supposedly intelligent, well-informed people (VCs, stock analysts, day-traders) can all go off the cliff together. Now the buzzword is “risk management.” Well, welcome to the club. If they have some data-driven, statistical techniques that help, more power to them.
Futuring seems to me to be like the old expression: can’t live with ‘em; can’t live without ‘em. Whether you’re an organizational leader or just the leader of your life and family it seems you have to try to anticipate the future. What’s the alternative? You have to make decisions now that will have consequences down the road, like it or not. So what are you going to base your today decisions on? As for me, when I drive at night I put my high-beams on when I have the chance.
If you don’t anticipate—that’s the word I think of as a synonym for “futuring”—it seems to me you have to adopt a couple of strategies. One is having reflexes quick as hell. Do a Zen kind of thing (pardon me if this is a stereotypical characterization of Zen Buddhism) and live in the moment; live for today. Deal with things as they come up. Some individuals and organizations count on their ability to be nimble and able to react quickly to changes. Even big organizations are constantly working on how to be “agile,” but as far as I can see, it doesn’t work well.
Another strategy—perhaps better suited to behemoth organizations—is to be resilient. That is, from time to time you’re going to miss the obvious and hit the wall. The trick is to be able to survive and come back. Many companies have big swings where they do very well for a while and then they go down, shed people and recover over the long run. (I think of IBM’s decade-long downturn and Apple’s near-death experience.)
Maybe how much future-gazing you do as an individual is a mater of personal preference and even as an organization. One of the things that never ceases to amaze me about the ACS is how little it has changed in the 30 years I’ve worked here. It has been an amazingly stable environment, sticking to traditional community public health strategies. Sure the names of things have changed and the geography has been redrawn many times, but the basics of the ACS (volunteerism, community service) are not different than when I first came here. And it’s worked in terms of sustaining the organization.
But the other thing that I have become amazed about during the last year and a half of looking around for the FI Center is how much the rest of the cancer control world has grown and developed. The managed health care industry has arisen where the private practice, fee-for-service physician once reigned supreme. Academic scientific research funded by government grants has expanded dramatically. And, above all, the biotech and pharmaceutical sector—the medical/industrial complex—has grown enormously and is set to expand even more in the next couple of decades. (I go on the record with that prediction.)
While my personal preference is to contemplate the future (I find day-to-day so boring), I do it within a perspective about the future that limits what I think can be foretold, especially in the decades ahead. My expectation of what the future will be like is best expressed in a book by Kevin Kelly (ironically, one of Wired’s founding editors) titled, Out of Control. He says, and I agree, that technology, society, and the globe are so enormous, so complex, and so characterized by nonlinear relationships that there is no predicting what’s going to happen with any certainty nor any way to control it. What we’ll see is constantly emerging global phenomena in economics, society, and human transformation that are the product of big processes. Paddling your raft successfully in this endless whitewater will be a critical skill.