These are a few thoughts about how (not) to think about the future aimed at setting the scene for a short series of articles that are scheduled to appear in the next few issues of Accountancy SA.
These (and many other) proven experts in their respective fields fell into the trap of paradigm paralysis − unable to suspend disbelief; unable to think the unthinkable. Besides, they were probably guilty of simply extrapolating from the past when pondering the future.
We are also reminded of the fact that we tend to have a troubled and ambivalent relationship with the future, craving to know more about what might happen but at the same time fearing what we might discover. Our fear of change often translates into a fear of the future, which – if not properly managed – could result in a dystopian view of the future. This makes it virtually impossible to achieve a preferred future.
Paradoxically, however, we spend more time thinking about the future (what is yet to happen) than about the past (what has happened). How, then, should we think about the future? And what cognitive distortions should we overcome?
Ground rules for thinking about the future
We cannot predict the future
This is arguably the most difficult realisation for those who engage in futures thinking. The reality is that we cannot foresee what will happen as a scientific fact about the future. Put differently: knowledge of the future is not possible.
We can gain more knowledge about the future
While prediction is not possible, insight and understanding about the things and patterns shaping the future are. By contemplating all the possible and plausible consequences of the latter for the future, we are able to develop and nurture foresight − the ability to make good decisions not only now but also in the long run.
There is more than one future
The future is plural, not singular. There are alternative futures, typically categorised as possible, probable, and preferred. A preferred future can be created if we want to, we conspire to do so, and we act with purposefulness, understanding and insight.
The future never arrives
However hard we try to understand the future, look forward to the future and plan for it, we never actually experience the future. Tomorrow is today’s future, but by the time tomorrow arrives, tomorrow becomes today.
History may repeat itself, but don’t take this for granted
Past trends can be useful in trying to better understand futures. We may observe, for instance, continuity of existence. Much of the physical world survives for long periods and can be reasonably expected to continue to survive for some time to come. There is also the possibility of continuity of change. When change occurs, it may persist over a long period as opposed to happening instantaneously or revolutionary. Continuity of pattern may exist. Here, many changes conform to a certain pattern; therefore, by recognising the continuity of the pattern it is possible to anticipate future developments. Finally, we get continuity of causality whereby changes can often be anticipated based on precedence.
However, extrapolating into the future from history assumes that past relationships will endure – an increasingly unlikely assumption in a world of pervasive, persistent and rapid change.
The future is the only space in time we can influence
We can neither influence nor control whatever has happened in the past; we can, however, if we so wish, influence the way the future unfolds.
Many of the thoughts expressed above are captured in the words of futurist Kees Van der Heijden (2002):1
‘The complex nature of change means that predicting events is impossible, and is quite likely to be dangerous, as it implies inflexibility and a need to become locked into one specific prophecy …’
He then describes the true contribution that should be made by futurists:
‘Of much greater value is the ability to recognize “dots on the horizon” – the signs of change that inevitably affect every organization – and to understand their significance and how the organization should adapt.’
In essence, when we think about the future we should be constantly answering and asking three key questions:
- What? (Recognise ‘dots on the horizon’)
- So what? (Understand their significance)
- Now what? (How the organisation should adapt)
If we are able to answer these questions with insight and understanding, based on a bedrock of transdisciplinary analysis, using systems thinking as an intellectual model, and generating a variety of prognoses, we can then rehearse the future.
Suppose that scientists were to ‘predict’ that life expectancy will be 150 years in 2080. How would a futurist interpret this? The first response will be to entertain the notion as opposed to rejecting the prognosis out of hand simply because it seems to be beyond the realms of possibility. The second response will be to ask the ‘so what?’ question. What would the implications be for the world of work, the duration of a person’s working life, the duration of ‘old age’, the demand for and nature of health care, the demand for housing and transport, family relationships and dynamics, etc. The third response will be to consider strategies that should be adopted proactively to at least survive but preferably thrive from these implications.
This series of articles will focus on the future trends and their impact: on the world, on Africa, on the future of South Africa, and finally, on the future of chartered accountants. As you read and digest these articles, you are urged to suspend disbelief, to ask and answer your own ‘so what’ and ‘now what’ questions, and to remember that a preferred future can be created.
Kees van der Heijden in Kees van der Heijden, Ron Bradfield, George Burt, George Cairns and George Wright, The Sixth Sense: Accelerating Organizational Learning with Scenarios, Chichester: John Wiley and Sons, 2002.
AUTHOR | André Roux, Programme Head: Futures Studies, Stellenbosch University Business School