All eyes on the future

New Labour invests a lot in cloudy crystal balls - a professor of forecasting explains why.

James Woudhuysen

Topics Science & Tech

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Because the UK assumes the presidency of the European Union (EU) on 1 July, prime minister Tony Blair had counted on being able to set the terms of European debate: around the future of Africa, and the future of global warming. But in a hectic round of meetings in mid-June, Blair found himself discussing neither of these two grandiose futures – nor the productivity goals the EU has set itself for 2010, nor even the whole future of the EU after the French ‘non’ and the Dutch ‘nee’. Rather, debate swirled around the mundane matter of the EU’s budget, and Britain’s budget rebate.

Blair isn’t the only one with trouble predicting the future. It is 35 years since the US futurologist Alvin Toffler worried, in his famous book Future Shock, that mankind would be taken aback by the speed of developments. Toffler was wrong. Yet attempts to predict the future are in vogue in Whitehall as never before. In the Thatcher era, there was political investment in what was called the Medium Term Financial Strategy – as well as in the Iron Lady’s very own Central Policy Review Staff. Today the government is overrun by consultancies that specialise in anticipating the years ahead. Even a state body as modest as the Teacher Training Agency, for instance, held a conference last year on education…in the year 2020 (1).

It is true that über-wonk Geoff Mulgan no longer heads the prime minister’s Strategy Unit, and the New Labour policy of Windmill Britain, 2020, which Mulgan introduced as one of many visions, is now being revised. But in his long march from writing for the Communist Party’s Marxism Today, through running the think-tank Demos in the basement of the building that housed the Henley Centre for Forecasting, to preparing perspectives for Number 10, Mulgan has done much to make future forecasts the bread-and-butter business of New Labour. In March 2005, for instance, the Treasury published a report Long-Term Global Economic Challenges and Opportunities for Europe, looking at prospects over the next 10 years (2). Such a vista might not appear so long term – but for the Treasury, it is an attempt at foresight that has few precedents.

The Treasury document mentions that, by 2015 five million jobs could be relocated from America and Europe to third world destinations. Over a combined population of more than 500million, this seems, if anything, an underestimate. At the same time, the perception of future traumas, in the domain of employment as elsewhere, is much bigger than the Treasury’s numbers suggest.

This test of numbers brings out the important difference between the reality of the future and popular perceptions of it. It also highlights how forecasting has come into fashion at the same time as its claims rarely appear legitimate. How can we account for this?

The answer is that the fad for holding forth about the future has itself arrived because of increased uncertainty about what is in store. As a sense of risk and foreboding has spread through the West, so new Cassandras are hauled in to make prophecies. At the same time, the febrile atmosphere that establishes a demand for multiplying prophecies holds the prophets themselves to be somewhat suspect. Like Cassandra herself, they can be right about the future – but that doesn’t mean that they will be believed.

Ironically, the obsession with the future has emerged at a time when mankind faces a profound loss of historical thinking. Generations are growing up for whom history means the music and clothes of the 1970s or the 1980s. There is also a loss of any sense of human agency – of mankind’s ability to build the future. Alan Kay, the inventor of the computer interface that eventually emerged on the screens of Apple machines, famously remarked that the best way to predict the future is to invent it. In today’s culture, however, most people imagine that the future is already out there, and will simply happen to them.

If we are going to think profoundly about the future, we need to ask the right kind of questions. For instance: why is it that, for all society’s fixations on the body, health and mobile phones, very few devices exist to give health diagnosis on the move? A monitor from Boots will help you measure your blood pressure on the move, but that’s about it. Why, when 800million mobile phones are sold each year around the world, are none engineered to provide their users with personal readings of their physical condition? If we ask these kinds of questions, we can also take an active lead in delivering a practical, working and inspiring future that’s different from the tired versions currently on offer.

Part of today’s interest in the future comes from the fact that we are beginning a new century. While most thinking is as short-term in nature as the world’s stock markets require, the perspective of a new century encourages people to devise prognostications about the state of UK pensions in 2050, or the temperature of the ocean in 2100.

It’s clear that the Western imagination sees much of the twenty-first century revolving purely around China. That is too one-sided. And indeed one-sided interpretations characterise most accounts of China’s prospects. On the one hand, mass unemployment in the Chinese interior is held to threaten complete social turmoil – a Middle Kingdom where things fall apart, and quickly, too. On the other hand, China is felt to be capable of achieving anything it sets its mind to. In recent weeks, for instance, the Pentagon has again concluded that China will one day have a technological capacity that poses a threat to the USA.

The example of China shows how, once we’ve lost a sense of human agency, prognostications about the future tend to veer to wild extremes. After all, if we have no control of events, anything could happen – literally.

The subjective character of today’s thinking about the future is evidenced in the revival of scenario planning. The ‘What if?’ approach to the future is back – despite the failure of its advocates, such as Shell or the US Central Intelligence Agency, to forecast things like oil reserves or 9-11. Here, experts adduce any amount of ‘drivers’ of future trends to predict futures in the plural. In effect, doubt rules.

There has been some progress in studies of the future. For example, a new project started by the Future Foundation, ‘The Assault on Pleasure’ (subtitled: how the marketing/communications community should review and respond to modern attempts to regulate or restrict consumer enjoyment of brands and products), addresses many of the authoritarian trends identified by spiked in recent years (3). However, for each step forward, there are usually several steps back.

Many outlooks on the future are mired in the past – demonstrated by Jared Diamond’s new book, Collapse: How societies choose to fail or succeed (4). In his fears of third world population growth, the University of California at Los Angeles geography professor merely recycles the forebodings of the English parson, the Reverend Thomas Malthus, and his 1898 Essay on Population.

For all his anxieties, Diamond nods in the direction of optimism from time to time, hinting that human beings can avert the ecological catastrophe he foretells. Today’s forecasters are suffused by fatalism. But in joining environmentalists and invoking the Precautionary Principle, they like to claim the mantle of agency, portraying themselves as activists out Saving the Future from the inertia of corporations.

Many of today’s forecasts are recipes, in fact, for never taking a risk, and indeed for never leaving home again. In 2005, therefore, exposing forecasters’ pretensions must the starting point for comprehensive assessments of the future – and for the genuine activism that should accompany such assessments.

James Woudhuysen is professor of forecasting and innovation at De Montfort University, Leicester, and an Associate of the Future Foundation. He is coauthor of Why Is Construction So Backward? (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)), See his website.

(1) For the debate, see the Teaching Training Agency website

(2) See the government report Long-term global economic challenges and opportunities for Europe

(3) For a brief overview of the themes, and of poll results among 1000 UK residents, see The Assault On Pleasure on the Future Foundation website

(4) Collapse: how societies choose to fail or succeed, Jared Diamond, Viking, 2005

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Topics Science & Tech


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