One of the most common questions people first ask when learning about IFTF’s work is, “How many of your forecasts did you get right?” My answer is always some variation of “That’s not the point – forecasts are provocations, not predictions.” And yet, people still want to measure a forecast’s utility based on whether it came true or not. This might be a good vetting strategy for picking someone to manage your retirement investments – but it’s not the way to evaluate a futurist. Good foresight inspires action, not “wait-and-find-out-what-happens”. Now is an important time for foresight practitioners to get better at imagining more equitable, desirable, and optimistic futures—and then rallying a network of the right people to make those futures real. Here’s how the 2020 pandemic brought these lessons into focus for me.
I started as an intern at IFTF in 2012. That summer my team wrote a set of scenarios using Jim Dator’s Alternative Futures methodology, to explore four different archetypes—growth, constraint, collapse, and transformation. Our collapse scenario included the story of a cattle rancher dealing with the fallout of a zoonotic disease pandemic. Looking back on some of IFTF’s other work from around that time, the 2011 Global Food Outlook scenarios included a zoonotic disease pandemic and our 2010 map of the decade on the Future of Science, Technology and Well-being included a forecast called “Anticipatory Quarantines” where people take pre-emptive action because contagions spread faster than ever thanks to global interconnectedness.
And here we are, almost a decade later, living through a devastating global zoonotic disease pandemic. I don’t think anyone is celebrating the fact that we got those forecasts “right.” In fact, these forecasts really weren’t huge stretches of the imagination to begin with. Given the realities of animal agriculture, illegal trade of exotic animals, and global movement of people, it was pretty likely we would find ourselves in this position at some point. Over the first few months of the pandemic, I reflected a bit on what went wrong with these forecasts.
My earliest attempts at forecasting failed one of Dator’s most basic rules that “any useful statement about the future should at first seem ridiculous.” Making transformational change that moves away from the inertia of the status quo requires ridiculous ideas. The world needs more ambitious plans and less incremental change. I can easily make lots of depressing, yet probable forecasts about the climate catastrophe, antibiotic resistance, or chronic disease (just to name a few). But what if we got better at flexing our imagination and coming up with seemingly “ridiculous” futures that avert some of these outcomes? IFTF Director of Game Research + Development Jane McGonigal shared some great thoughts on this in “During a Pandemic, We Urgently Need to Stretch Our Imagination.”
Despite my push for ridiculous optimism, I’m not advocating for ignoring true collapse scenarios. They are part of Dator’s scenario methodology for good reason and are equally important to forecast, but in order to be useful, they should also sound ridiculous. Instead of just making quantitative projections about the probability of catastrophes, collapse scenarios become much more compelling when told as “first person” futures that help you understand what it would really feel like to live in that world—celebrating your birthday in quarantine, getting married over Zoom, homeschooling your kids while still working full time, watching your favorite restaurants close and the global economy collapse. These ideas would have all sounded ridiculous even 18 months ago. If we paint a vivid enough picture of collapse, then it can compel anyone who reads it to act to prevent that from happening. Scenarios and forecasts are only as useful as the actions that they inspire.
If everyone on earth had read my intern project in 2012 and thought “global pandemic sounds bad, we should start taking action now to prevent that,” then we would be in a very different situation today. My forecast would have been “wrong” but our lives would be much better. Of course, coordinated global action like that is nearly impossible. However, our goal at IFTF is to expand foresight capacity to as many pockets of the world as possible. The more diverse people creatively imagining different futures, and then putting those visions into action, the better off we will be.
Too many visions of success are worried about the optics of failure and set goals that are easy to achieve. I’d rather see bold plans that fall a little short. Recently, Microsoft announced that by 2050 it aims to remove enough carbon from the atmosphere to account for ALL of the direct emissions the company has ever made across its history. That sounds a little ridiculous – but it’s way more inspiring than a more common refrain I hear of “we plan to cut emissions 20% by 2030.”
In my research focus area while at IFTF, the global food system, my team released Eating Our Way Out of the Climate Crisis, which attempts to do just that—forecast ways food will no longer be seen as a problem for our climate future, but instead, as a delicious and resilient solution.
So, back to the pandemic. A bolder and more inspiring forecast in 2012 would have been to imagine all of the ways that we changed the trajectory to avoid a global pandemic. Of course, we can't just write stories about what we want. What separates strategic foresight from science fiction is the process of identifying the real people, regulations, business models, technologies, social changes that could combine to actually create these preferred futures. This starts with the basic practice of horizon scanning for signals of change.
I keep coming back to this quote from Milton Friedman: “Only a crisis—actual or perceived—produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.” A foresight practitioners’ job is to increase the stock of readily available "ideas lying around" so that when we find ourselves in these moments of crisis we are ready to do something differently. A daily signal scanning practice provides more building blocks for constructing new future visions.
As a global community of foresight practitioners, we are failing if we just keep getting the most probable futures “right.” In her book Emergent Strategy, adrienne maree brown instructs that “we must make just and liberated futures irresistible.” Now, more than ever, we have a responsibility to seek out inspiring signals of change and create captivating visions of futures that move people to action.
*This essay has been updated since its original date of publishing.
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