The future ain’t what it used to be

24th Oct, 2014

There has always been something alluring about the future (which is especially fortunate for those like us who work in the futures industry).

Ever since the Delphic Oracle in 8th century BC Greece people have been fascinated by the future. From Nostradamus (1503) and Thomas More (Utopia) and other Renaissance thinkers to Enlightenment philosophers; from inventors like Leonardo da Vinci to modern day scientists like Hans Moravec and Freeman Dyson. Then there were Victorian novelists like HG Wells (who, amongst other things, foresaw the development of eugenics (The Island of Dr Moreau) and nuclear weapons (The World Set Free) and Edward Bellamy (Looking Backward – who understood the future importance of the telephone). There have been some amazingly prescient science fiction writers like Arthur C Clarke (whose most famous prediction on the future was his proposal of geostationary satellite communications in Wireless World).

In the last 50 years the number of people in the futures ‘business’ has exploded. Here one can include the likes of Faith Popcorn, Watts Wacker (or Watts Wackier as we like to call him in the office), Alvin Toffler, Stuart Brand (and the Global Futures Network) and Peter Drucker. (One could also add, of course, many of the people associated with Trajectory!) And then there are the plethora of companies (and think tanks and the like) who are plying their wares. Brand, who thought Drucker was the ‘greatest futurist of the 20th Century’ is openly dismissive of many of today’s proponents. He draws a distinction between serious futurists and the flaky opportunists that he labels futurismists: ‘There are futurists, like Drucker, and those who pretend to be futurists: futurismists‘.

These futurismists seem to have no methodology and skill apart from an ability to generate creative and sexy sounding names for this trend or that. These ‘experts’ are creating literally hundreds of ‘trends’ every year hardly any of which seem to be based on any evidence at all.

This is not serious futures; it is a pandering to that historic and understandable desire from the Greeks onwards for an idea of what might futures years might hold. And , quite legitimately, companies and governments need some basis on which to plan for the future. What is undeniable is that there is great demand for such pseudo-futures analysis. But this could be dangerous – they say the market never lies but in this instance it certainly misleads with potentially serious financial consequences for companies and governments taken in by it.