In Outliers Malcolm Gladwell writes that it takes about 10,000 hours to master something-- computer programming, classical violin, tennis, what have you. I've been working as a futurist for almost a decade; I don't know if I've done 10,000 hours of decent work, but I have some feel for how the field works, and what we're good at.
About a year ago-- okay, more like two years ago-- Angela Wilkinson, a friend who runs the scenario planning master classes at the Saïd Business School, invited me to write a think-piece about the field. I took it as an occasion to run a thought experiment: if you were to start with a clean sheet of paper-- if there was no Global Business Network, no IFTF, no organized or professionalized efforts to forecast the future-- what would the field look like? What kinds of problems would it tackle? What kinds of science would it draw on? And how would it try to make its impact felt?
As I got into it, I concluded that a new field would look very different from the one I've worked in for the last decade. This essay (it's a PDF, about 260kb) is a first draft at an effort to explain where I think we could go. Lots of what I talk about will be familiar to my colleagues, and indeed to anyone reasonably well-read; but I think there's utility in synthesis and summary, if only to see connections between literatures and chart one's next steps.
All the usual caveats apply: it's unpublished, it's unfinished, it doesn't reflect the thinking of any of the various institutions I'm associated with, all the errors are mine, there are plenty of things I could have talked about but didn't. But so does the usual invitation to comment on it. I could keep tinkering with it, but at this stage I think it's more useful for me to take a step back, work on some other things, and return to it with fresh eyes.
Angela had in mind something quick, short, and provocative. I definitely missed the first two. Angela, I'm sorry to have kept you waiting.
Update, 22 July 2009: I've posted a slightly updated version of the essay, and also reproduced the introduction below the jump.
What is the future of futures?This essay is a thought experiment. It asks, if the field of futures were invented today, what would it look like? What would be its intellectual foundations? Who would it serve and influence? And how would its ideas and insights be put into practice? A brand-new field that concerned itself with the future—call it Future 2.0 for simplicity's sake—would have four notable features. It would be designed to deal with problems characterized by great complexity, contingency, uncertainty and urgency—properties shared by the critical problems of the 21st century. It would draw on experimental psychology and neuroscience to counter the systematic biases that affect our ability to think about and act upon the future. It would incorporate tools like social software, prediction markets, and choice architecture into its research methods. Finally, it would seek to lengthen "the shadow of the future" of everyday choices, and influence the future by encouraging small cumulative changes in the behaviors of very large numbers of people over the course of years or decades.
To be clear, my purpose here is not to create a scorecard for evaluating current experiments with new methods or technologies, or to provide a roadmap for the field based on current work. Nor am I arguing that scenarios, forecasts, and other familiar tools—or decades of craft knowledge and experience with creating and using them—should be abandoned. It may seem odd (or even unfair) to omit references to current futures work. But my approach is inspired by engineers "clean slate" exercises that look for radical implications of new science and innovative new technologies by imagining how they would build new systems like the Internet from scratch. By thinking about the potential utility of behavioral economics, neuroscience, and new technologies to futures work without regard to current practices, I hope to spot opportunities or questions that might be overlooked in a more incremental or evolutionary exercise. My approach is further inspired by James Martin's Meaning of the 21st Century, which argued that if we could learn to deal with global problems ranging from climate change to terrorism to food shortages, mankind would develop tools that would allow us to thrive for centuries to come. The tools of Future 2.0 could be central to creating Martin's future; but conceiving and designing them will require a radical, clean-slate approach.
As a result, the proposals outlined probably may not seem completely unfamiliar or implausible; readers are likely to see pieces of them in the form of exploratory essays, prototype projects, and emerging practices at various consultancies, research centers, and think-tanks. Since the behavioral economics and neuroeconomics literatures are outside the normal range of most futurists' readings, the essay may well provide additional rationale or justification for these efforts; I trust my readers to make those connections. But my hope is that these ad hoc experiments can be drawn together in a single program that provides a theoretical grounding for their integration, explains how they can be extended in the future, and how they might bring otherwise-unexpected benefits to the field. This essay attempts to provide that grounding.
Future 2.0 would be based on four premises. First, the most pressing problems confronting us in the 21st century are quite different than those we faced in the 20th. Second, the range of actors who shape the future has grown dramatically. Third, humans are ill-equipped to think rationally about long-term futures. Finally, expert knowledge is a less reliable guide to understanding the future than we realize.