Future Shock 3.0

Peter JonesStrategic Foresight, Strategic Innovation, Transformation Design

(Or is it just in the spirit of Global Future Day, March 1st? Not the best day to have chosen IMO.) Future Shock 1.0 foresaw the 1970’s oil and geo-political shocks, and let’s say 2.0 was pre-millennial fear. Future Shock 3.0 rains down upon our culture – as hopeful optimism. Over-optimism is what they call a “top signal” in long-wave investing (such as the Home Sweet Home Time cover at the top of the housing bubble).  I’m not saying optimism is misplaced, its actually a positive social force. But in today’s scenarios triumphal techno-optimism is the white steed that saves us from ourselves. That has never worked out well.

In just the last week we have seen the launch and promotion of several new future scenario presentations for the purposes of inspiring imaginative alternatives for socially relevant innovation. Today’s future scenarios are often collaboratively generated, generally reflecting positive visions of possibility and emotional hope.

From a socionomic perspective, the arrival of these several planned “positive future” deliberations all at once instead indicates that there’s a strong “Fear of the Future” mood being addressed by these narratives. The lack of political and structural alternatives may now be so apparent, that even non-futurists (see below) are now compelled to create scenarios and hope for the best. A recent post on FutureJacked refers to the contrary indicators that accompany a peak:

… cultural signs continue to abound that we are topping out in terms of optimism.  Grasping at icons that bring back the fond memories of earlier positive mood eras, people have flocked to Whitney Houston, after her death, Madonna got scheduled for the SuperBowl and the Material Girl, along with the Beach Boys, are going back on tour:

Not to mention the Dow Jones hitting the psychologically important level of 13,000 last week. (OK, not so much today).  So what’s in the futures portfolio?

  • The Future We Deserve was just launched, curated by two spot-on UK foresight / strategists, Vinay Gupta and Noah Raford. Many of the 100 stories here are informal and some sketchy, but they co-created this awesome collection in 100 days!  Given the themes and interests, it seems more European than North American (as the editors are), and many of the essays are intellectual, cited, and some mystical or deeply abstract.  These were curated via Twitter largely, and my experience with social media suggests that people avoid the hard edges of reality in favor of optimistic declarations. Its a dizzying collection and it will take some time to review and really read it. What’s missing is How To. There’s an avoidance of pathways TO the futures we deserve.
  • TED has gone so futuristic that today’s TED’s aren’t enough anymore. TED of the Future includes the now-famous Prometheus video from TED 2032 (spoiler alert, Technology Saved Us!). Be sure to see the just-released TED award for the City of the Future project.
  • And there was Imagining the Internet, a project between Pew Trust and undergraduates from Elon in North Carolina (“Predictions!”).
  •  And the last Wharton newsletter presented a decent banking foresight piece: Global Banking 2020: Foresight & Insights. In this new eBook, Wharton faculty, members of Ernst & Young’s Global Banking and Capital Markets practice, and global bankers explore scenarios for the future of banking and what strategies global bank executives should adopt now to prosper over the next 10 years.  http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/weblink/966.cfm

What I am seeing in these launches are creative responses to our manifold uncertainties, risks, and social fears by creating visions that orient people toward hope and positive alternatives. While these are all attempts to harness attention toward the positive, what I do not see (anywhere) are plans for political action, implementation, or execution. As with any participatory envisioning, generation is the easy part. I wouldn’t be such a curmudgeon but I’ve been around for a while, and I’ve not seen a global crisis like we’re facing today before. We need short-term vision and pathways to action more than ever before. How do people want to act toward achieving these visions?

Or is the purpose always to inspire people (often those in the same audience) to consider the many possibilities other than those extrapolated by the obvious mess the developed nations have created for themselves?

Where does foresight end? Recall that in the 1960’s Buckminster Fuller saw worlds far beyond any of these listed projects. And he built things, he built nearly anything he could get funded (although he never did finish Old Man River City, the East St Louis city of the future.)

Insufficient vision, or foresight narrative is not our weak hand. We are all creating compelling visions for better futures. Foresight management is our blind spot. We are uniquely lacking in innovative planning and implementation strategy given the challenges of our time. In my view, our reliance on social media has encouraged this strategy of lightweight participation by expressive points of view, and the inability to lead locally beyond the stage of vision. All of our popular participatory techniques these days are generative, visionary, and divergent (e.g., more brainstorming than action planning).

As a society at large, we seem to be mired in conventional organizational perspectives that prevent our reaching escape velocity with comprehensive scenarios. The social and political organizing required to move beyond vision appears beyond our crowdsourcing and socially-mediated grasp. It seems to me the truly positive, ethical, radical and – improbable – horizon of possibility is generating commitment, not just vision.

We have experience and world-class methods that reliably achieve consensus in social systems to organize stakeholder commitment. The next missing step then is the courage and ambition to reach through the benign neglect, the cynical stalling, the aligned interests in current economies, and to help stakeholders move forward on a chosen strategic path that best reaches our societal, human, and developmental visions.