How to future: A good futurist focuses on the 3 time phases: past, present, future.
The best futurists I know are really keen historians and study the past to see the future. They look carefully at the past because most of what will happen tomorrow is already happening today. In addition, most of the things in the future will be things that don’t change, so they are already here. For example, most of things surrounding you right now are old technologies — wood tables, concrete blocks, water pipes, flooring, electrical wires, wool carpets, etc. They were invented centuries ago, but today they fill 90% of our lives. Maybe only 10% is new stuff. The past is the bulk of our lives, and it will be the bulk in the future. It is highly likely that in 100 years or even 500 years, the bulk of the stuff surrounding someone will be old stuff, stuff that is being invented today. All this stuff, plus our human behaviors, which are very old, will continue in the future. We will be shaped by our long past as animals, as humanoids, as people walking out of Africa. That momentum will continue. Studying the past and its behavior gives us great insight into our future.
The second phase is to study the now. It is often said that most futurists are really predicting the present. It turns out that the present is very hard to see. First the present is obscured by the noise of 8 billion lives looking for attention, and it is overwhelmed by the flashy glitter of the new. Mostly the now is obscured by our deep assumptions and prejudices which makes it very difficult to actually see what is going on. We have labels which are handy, but can often misled us. Are people on average today happy? Why is it so hard to tell? So a good futurist spends a lot of time trying to decipher the present and to try to see it through the mask of present-day biases. Most of conventional wisdom is true, but sometimes it is very wrong. I sometimes think of “seeing the present” as trying on alien eyes; looking at the world as if I were an alien from another planet. “So tell me, why do humans listen to music? Why do those air vibrations make them so emotional?” Trying to see beyond the immediate cycles of news is a challenge, because rather than being on top of things, you need to be at the bottom of things. And these days, we need to get a planetary view of things, which is incredibly difficult. All in all, perceiving the present as it really is, is perhaps the greatest challenge for seeing the future.
The third phase is looking ahead. Here I find it helpful to unleash the imagination and trying to believe in impossible things. Much of today would seem impossible to someone a century ago. The occupations of an American farmer’s descendents would not make sense. We might say to the farmer of old, “you are the last person in your family’s thousand year lineage who will ever farm the land,” and he would say: “well what will my descendents do?” And we’ll say “well, they are mortgage brokers, web designers, yoga teachers, tech support, Airbnb hosts” and he would say, “What? None of those make sense. No one could make a living doing that. It’s impossible.” As are the driving directions on the phone in your pocket.
So I have learned to try to believe in impossible things. But not everything that is impossible will happen. And while many of the things that “everyone knows” will turn out to be wrong, most of what everyone knows is true! So there is an art to believing in impossible things well. It’s more like being open to possibilities, to listening to what is possible. So it technically not about believing what is impossible as it is in expanding what we believe is possible.
That expansion requires imagination. But to be helpful futuring, your imagination should be disciplined. It can’t be too far ahead, because then so much will have changed that no one believes it and it will be ignored. The far future will seem preposterous. On the other hand, if it seems too obvious, then it probably won’t happen, because it means nothing changed. We know from past experience that the future will be surprising. How much of what is happening today would have seemed simply bizzare and outrageously improbable 20 years ago. If you were writing a sci-fi story and it had today’s events, your editor would have rejected it as implausible. So there is a degree of discipline needed in future scenarios, where they must be implausible enough to happen, but not so impossible that we dismiss them.
Ideally your imagined future would have a history. Whatever happens has to happen one-step at a time. So for every new technology or cultural innovation there needs to be versions that are economically viable one step at a time. Before the iPhone, there were cell phones and tablets. Whatever happens in the future will have intermediate steps that also have to be possible, so this line of evolution has to work every step of the way. That’s where the craft of futuring comes in. I like to use a thought exercise to help outline this progress. I imagine I meet a traveler from the future who tells me X happened in year YYYY. As an example let’s pretend we are told by the time traveler that in the future only robot soldiers are allowed to kill others. No human soldiers are allowed to kill. So the game for the futurist is to try and imagine what led to that state. What kinds of technology and laws and social expectations needed to be in place year by year in order to arrive at that state? Then going back further, what had to happen in the next five years from today to reach X by that date?
Most important, the main job is to think about the consequences of X arriving. What would we do if X was true? How do we manage it? How do we regulated it? How does it change us as humans?
This is all fiction, of course. It is highly unlikely any scenario we make today will really happen on a 50-year horizon. Almost all our predictions at that scale will be wrong. The intent of this exercise is not to predict the future but to rehearse it. To imagine many different scenarios that could happen so that when the future actually does happen, we are not surprised. We can’t predict with any confidence that we’ll see X, but if we do enough scenarious we can imagine X (plus thousands of others). So when, if X does happen in 50 years, we can say, oh, we thought about that. And here’s what we should do.