Archive for the ‘futures studies’ category

Starting a futures discussion – some docs

January 8, 2013

I’m giving a talk to some masters students in London tomorrow and was asked to suggest something for them to read in advance.

I wasn’t quite sure where they were starting from, or where we might want to take the discussion in a single 90 minute session, so in the end I provided a selection. These are not samplings from the Dark Mountain, or cornucopian blatherings, more entries into some kind of conversation about how we think about the future, and why. Aside from that

The criteria were fairly simple arbitrary:

not by me

not too long


easily available

exemplifying different approaches/points of view

on my hard drive already

It occurs to me they might be of use to a few other people, so here is the list, with web links.

20 Ways the Future has Let Us Down

One of those, where’s my flying car? pieces…  LINK

A Primer on Futures Studies, Foresight and the Use of Scenarios  Dr Joseph Voros, Swinburne University of Technology LINK (pdf)

The Future of Humanity Nick Bostrom

Big picture/deep time thinking from Oxford LINK (pdf)


H. G. Wells – “The future is as fixed and determinate as the past”

(or: The Discovery of the Future) as printed in the New York Times, 1913 LINK (pdf)


The Future and How to Think About It.

(old Cabinet Office Paper – gives flavour of some government thinking in UK) LINK (pdf)


Outsights – 21 Drivers for the 21st Century

A flavour of independent consultancy in this area. LINK


Paul Saffo – Six Rules for Effective Forecasting

Harvard Business Review 2007  LINK


And I’ll add a couple of very recent documents which result from large scale, institutional foresight efforts from establishment global elite points of view –

The World Economic Forum – Global Risks 2013 LINK

US National Intelligence Council – Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds

(latest in a series dating back some years) LINK

Also very thought-provoking is this new essay in the American Historical Review on the conflicted roots of post WW2 futurology. LINK

Feel free to add others which might be better in the comments…


UK survey of expectations released

November 5, 2010

The munificent overlords at Rough Guides world HQ have paid for a survey of UK public opinion about the future ‘n’stuff…   Here’s the press release which went out yesterday, for the record. There’s more to say about the comparisons with the (larger) US survey earlier this year, I think, but I’ll save that for another time.

London, 4th November 2010
Future looks rosy to UK’s youth according to new survey

Over two-thirds (67%) of young adults between 18 and 24 are optimistic about their own future and that of their family according to the results of an online YouGov survey about expectations of life in 2050. The survey was commissioned by publisher Rough Guides to mark the publication of The Rough Guide to the Future.

18 to 24-year-olds were also the age group most optimistic about the future of the UK for the next 40 years (47%) and the most optimistic about the future of the UK economy, with 43% imagining the UK economy will be stronger in 2050 than it is today. This compares with just 28% of 45-54 year olds and 30% of 55+ year olds believing the economy will be stronger.

Imagining Life in 2050

When it comes to predicting how life will be in 2050, the survey reveals a mixed vision of some technological and scientific break-throughs, combined with fears about the environment and a resignation that we’re all going to have to work a little longer.

79% of respondents believe we will have to work beyond our 70thbirthdays before retiring. But we will perhaps be helped by medical advances with 81% believing scientists will be able to replace damaged or failed organs using stem cell treatment. This contrasts starkly with just 36% believing we will find a cure for all cancers. 53% of people believe that computers will be able to converse like humans, and 45% think ordinary people will be able to travel in space.

Further breakdown of likelihood of scenarios in table below.

The end of newspapers?

Reassuringly for some, and perhaps surprisingly for others, despite the current hype around iPads, kindles, apps and firewalls, only just over half (58%) of all UK adults with internet access believe that paper editions of newspapers will not exist by 2050, with 25-34 year olds the least likely of all to believe in the demise of print newspapers (53%).

Americans more optimistic than Brits

Comparisons with a similar telephone study carried out in the US in April 2010[1] reveal that on the whole Americans are a lot more optimistic about their own futures (64%) and that of their country (62% optimistic about future of the US) than adults in the UK where only half (50%) are optimistic about their own future, and just 35% optimistic about the future of the UK.

World war more likely for Americans

In spite of the above, when envisaging life in 2050 a significantly higher percentage of those in the US believe another world war will happen by 2050, with a majority of Americans (58%) believing there will probably or definitely be another world war, compared to just 33% of those in the UK thinking another world war is likely.

Adults in the UK and US from the two studies are in agreement over the environment, with approximately the same percentages, 77% and 72% respectively, forseeing that the world will face a major energy crisis and 65% UK adults  and 66% US believing that the Earth will get warmer due to global warming.

Author of the Rough Guide to the Future, Jon Turney, commented “There is a lot of food for thought here. I’m intrigued that young people are more optimistic overall, even though they are less inclined to believe in several kinds of technological advance. Maybe the older people have seen more technological change, but don’t find it an improvement. We can only speculate.”

In the next 40 years…

Probably/Definitely will happen % Probably/Definitely won’t happen % Don’t Know %
We will find a cure for all cancers 36 54 10
Scientists will replace damaged or failed organs using stem cell treatment 81 8 10
Ordinary people will travel in space 45 47 8
We will find evidence of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe 31 54 14
Paper editions of newspapers will no longer exist 58 34 8
Computers will be able to converse like humans 53 34 13
Earth will get warmer due to global warming 65 23 12
The world will face a major energy crisis 77 15 9
There will be another world war 33 49 17
Most Britons will have to work beyond their 70th birthday before retiring 79 14 6

Notes to Editors:

For further information please contact Viv Watton on 0207 010 3720 or Jon Turney, author of The Rough Guide to the Future is available for comment.

The survey was commissioned by Rough Guides to mark the publication of The Rough Guide to the Future, by Jon Turney, published 1st November 2010, £13.99.

All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc.  Total sample size was 2164 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken between 22nd – 25th October 2010.  The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all UK adults (aged 18+).

Further results and statistics from the survey are available on request.

1 Life in 2050, conducted by The PEW Research Center,

For further information please contact Viv Watton on 0207 010 3720 or 07801 665055 or

The reassuring weight of futures past

October 6, 2010

A lengthy post here earlier this year ruminated on how much old futures stuff people now have access to, and catalogued some of the sources. What does it all mean, though? Some further thoughts on that come to mind, to do with persistence and repetition.

Old visions of the future persist in two ways. One is that they are preserved and curated – most often on the web but also in books and exhibitions.

When they are displayed in this way, what usually seems to happen is that they are, if not held up to ridicule exactly, treated as more amusing than anything else. The old futures are regarded with some affection, but not really taken seriously. Jokiness is the order of the day.

The other form of persistence is that, in spite of the above, they are continually reproduced and developed – in both fiction and non-fiction. There has been a news story about a flying car being almost ready for launch every couple of months since I started noticing them, for example. And there are innumerable hopeful/fanciful visions of future cities – more ecologically benign than previous such visions, but perhaps equally unlikely.

Of course there are ways of responding to the inescapable awareness of the weakness of past predictions which avoid prediction – scenario writing is the most popular. Scenarios catch the attention as we are so saturated in story-telling so it is always a way of helping people understand what might happen.

But media are averse to caveats, probabilistic statements, and ranges. They tend to highlight the

worst case scenario as though it were a prediction – if not in the body of the story, then in the headline. Think of the discussion of climate change, flu pandemic, terrorism, food security, or the world economy.

In the media, futurists will be browbeaten into giving quotable predictions even when they are trying not to, and heard as making them even when they have refrained from anything of the kind. Otherwise, in general, there isn’t a story. This applies to the upbeat predictions as well as “apocalypse soon” stories.

And, of course, they will generally turn out to be wrong…

All of this casts discussion of futures today in an odd light, and creates a mood which I’m finding it hard to characterise.

It is partly nostalgia of a bitter-sweet kind. These are the futures we (North-Americans pre-eminently, but not them alone) were promised, and some of us believed in. The classic exhibits now represent something which we see as unattainable. In that connection I think one can ignore the commentaries which lay out how some of them can still be reached. Assume they are just tomorrow’s past futures. (see the flying car).

I think there’s at least one other thing going on, though. There is a reassuring quality to this particular brand of nostalgia. The mood is not just regret for a future which never came. There is also an element of satisfaction in reviewing all the futures which never came about. Cataloguing failed predictions makes it OK to take current predictions less seriously. To my mind, this is a problem for futures work in general. The bigger the cultural backlog of futuristic images, the less likely they seem. You can come away from a survey of such images intrigued, provoked, amused, or basically unimpressed. But it is hard not to develop a sense that the future is always impossible to pin down, and likely to be more complex, ambiguous, and protean than any attempt to imagine it.

That relates to reassurance because of the predominance of Bad Things in current visions of the future. If we do not have to believe in the old, attractive (in some ways) futures, perhaps we do not have to credit the prophets of collapse, either? Of course there are plenty of pessimistic predictions from the past which never came to pass either, which are often cited to the same effect. Though there it is worth remembering that the majority of the forecasts which descend from The Limits to Growth see collapse happening some time in the middle of this century…

What I learned in school today…

May 21, 2009

We know the past but cannot influence it: we can influence the future but cannot know it.

So said, Stuart Brand, or something like that. It is one of those cute comments it is tempting to quote. But Andrew Curry of the Futures Company relates that once asked to reconsider it, he immediately realised it is wrong. Not the second part, but the bit about not influencing the past.

His point is about rewriting history, not in the Orwellian or Stalinist sense, but the more obvious idea that we constantly re-narrate the past from the context of the present. And at a meeting of the Futures Analysts’ Network in London this week he showed briefly how he is using this idea to help cyrstallise thinking about possible futures. The procedure is simply to produce a rough list of key historical events – those people can recall or a more intensively researched list going back further in time. Then consider a range of future scenarios and think how what are seen as the “key” past events will change, or their significance be re-evaluated.

It seems quite an illuminating idea, though not a particularly startling one to this one-time historian.

In any case, there is an alternative quote which captures the asymmetry Brand was pointing out – from an alternative guru, Kenneth Boulding: all knowledge is about the past, but all decisions are about the future. My frequently repeated observation to the same effect is that if you are in a conversation about the future the past is usually invoked within the first 30 seconds.

Future Savvy

March 10, 2009

The title is by way of a small plug for the book of the same name by Adam Gordon, out last year but with a 2009 copyright line (future-oriented even there).

It’s a nice, user-friendly guide to forecasting, and especially to reading other people’s. The business-person-in-a-hurry style pull quotes on each page are sometimes, er, chosen a bit arbitrarily, but ignore them and read it properly and the sanity/price ratio is exceptionally high. You can read the author’s blog here to get an idea what he’s about. But read the book too,  especially for the excellent “worked example” case studies which show how to rate a forecast and evaluate what it is actually based on, if anything…

Not directly related, but to be truly future savvy, apparently, you need to keep abreast of more and  more new coinages which relate to the current economic, er situation. I imagine there is some kind of index which relates neologising to social stress, but if there isn’t there should be. This week’s words new to me are the rather exciting ECONOLYPSE, courtesy of Stowe Boyd (its a good post too) and COLLAPSITARIANS from Kevin Kelly (thanks to Peter Reiner). The latter was apparently coined by James Howard Kunstler (no surprise there). I’ve resisted the urge to google econolypse to see where it came from. But can you?

Deja vu all over again?

November 27, 2008

The future is getting repetitive…

At least, that seems a fair reaction to the 2025 report issued last week by the US National Intelligence Committee. Nothwithstanding the fuss made in much of the serious press, this prospect of a multipolar, interdependent world seemed pretty familiar.

The feeling is reinforced by the security futures report just out from a posh lot of foreign policy and military wise persons convened by Britain’s IPPR.

It is well put in a comment on the Global dashboard blog, where the writer asks:

“How many times do we need to be told that:

* Since the end of the Cold War, the international landscape has been transformed.
* During the next 30 years, every aspect of human life will change at an unprecedented rate, throwing up new features, challenges and opportunities.
* The unprecedented transfer of wealth roughly from West to East now under way will continue for the foreseeable future.
* The formidable acceleration of information exchanges, the increased trade in goods and as well as the rapid circulation of individuals, have transformed our economic, social and political environment
* New players—Brazil, Russia, India and China will bring new stakes and rules of the game to the international high table.
* Increase in global population will put pressure on resources—particularly land, energy, food, and water—raising the spectre of scarcities emerging as demand outstrips supply.
* There are a set of interconnected set of threats and risks, including international terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, conflicts and failed states, pandemics, and trans-national crime.”

Point taken. But it does pose a nice dilemma for a writer on such things. If this is all now taken for granted by folks who are paying attention to world events, it all still needs to be said, in brief. Straightforward enough. And many of these topics bear looking at in detail, to assess if they are as serious (or more serious) than all these reports suggest. I’m trying to make up my mind about biowar just now, which I tend to think is a less serious threat than has often been made out – and some agree.

That’s all fine. But if the basic list is becomong a litany, that implies a challenge to go further. To action, says Global Dashboard. At least to some more unexpected aspects of the future to writer about, say I. So I’m wondering what the key omissions might be?
(Why this blog?
– first post explains)

(even more) climate futures

October 11, 2008

They will take a while to digest, but worth noting that Forum for the Future just produced an interesting set of five climate-consequence scenarios (I suppose you could call them). I happened to hear Jonathan Porritt mention them while presiding over the Schumacher lecture and discussion day in Bristol, but I fear others may have overlooked them because of, er, you know, the end of finance capital and all that.

They apologise for the length, but hey, its a lot briefer than those IPCC reports.

I’ll say more, perhaps, when I’ve read them (sigh). The number of PDFs on the various hard drives I use these days you would not believe…