The prediction business

As delegates gather for a summit on strategic foresight, Professor Jim Dator of the Hawaii Research Center for Future Studies, explains the purpose of imagining alternative futures, how that differs from forecasting and why it’s of value.

Q. No-one in the business of horizon scanning ever claims to predict the future correctly. So what’s the point?

I wish this were true. Unfortunately, too many people who are in the futures business without any prior academic training do pretend to “predict” the future—and earn a very good living doing so since decision-makers so desperately wish someone could predict the future for them.  It is mainly people who have had some rigorous academic experience in futures studies who understand the limits to “prediction” and the value of “forecasting” and “design” sufficiently well to eschew the former and engage in the latter.

Q. Thirty years ago, no-one predicted the everyday use of the internet or the relatively peaceful collapse of the Soviet Union – two examples of world-changing magnitude. So how useful is it to imagine the future (or different futures) if we might miss something so big?

While strictly speaking, it is true that “no-one predicted” the internet and the collapse of the USSR, plenty of people forecasted the former more than 30 years ago.  The Hawaii 2000 exercise in Anticipatory Democracy in 1970 not only discussed what would become the internet, but also described a handheld interface, very much like today’s i-phone (See the section on communication futures in George Chaplin and Glenn Paige, eds., Hawaii 2000 University of Hawaii Press, 1973). In 1978, Murray Turoff and Roxanne Hiltz published Network Nation: Human communication via computer, while in 1979 Jacques Valle wrote Network Revolution: Confessions of a computer scientist. Both described the coming internet in very clear detail.

Technology is relatively easy to “predict”; social movements more difficult: The Hawaii 2000 conference completely failed to anticipate in any way the renaissance of Hawaiian language and culture that flourishes now.

Nonetheless, it is not true that no-one anticipated the collapse of the Soviet Union. I happened to be president of the World Futures Studies Federation during the 1980s, and as such was asked by very high officials in almost all communist countries to come visit them and talk about alternative futures. They could not safely complain about the present but could and did talk extravagantly about the futures. When I would return home and tell folks what I heard, no-one would believe me—they “knew” the All-Powerful Evil Empire of Godless Communism would fight Godly Capitalism to the death.  However, I do admit that I did not believe communists would just give up without a fight, and the entire system collapse relatively peacefully. Neither did I believe that wonderful multi-cultural countries like Yugoslavia would descend quickly into bloodshed. But that was my ignorance of history that blinded me to what was there to see. I learned a very important lesson from that: The futurists’ curse is “May your dreams come true”. If you are not prepared to have your dreams come true—and no-one in the former communist countries apparently was ready—then your dreams are likely to turn into nightmares, as they have in many parts of the formerly-communist world.

Q. You are known for your view of four main alternative futures – continued growth, collapse, discipline and transformation. How does it help to imagine and even ‘experience’ these?

These four images of the future are not “mine”. I did not invent them. I discovered them. They exist empirically. There are serious, intelligent, concerned people who hold one (or a combination) of these four.  Thus as a futurist I must respect them, and try to have people who believe one of them to “experience” as fully as possible the other three. By “experience” I mean come to “feel” what they are like, and not just to understand them intellectually.

Q. Why do you feel these are all equally likely in the long-run?

Because experiences, such as the sudden collapse of communist systems and many more, have taught me that they are all equally likely; that there is no such thing as “a most likely (nor a least likely) scenario.”  All must be weighted and considered equally.

Q. How fruitful is it to get small groups to imagine and experience alternative futures if such exercises are remote from policy-makers’ current priorities? How do you get any powerful group to focus on the ‘tsunamis of change’ that you see approaching?

Humans were not made for the world they live in now. We evolved so as to respond mainly to the present moment with a bit of future planning added in. Unfortunately, humans created a world that is now perpetually and unpredictably changing. To respond only to “the present” is to guarantee failure. Anticipating alternative futures does not guarantee success, but it certainly improves the odds of succeeding.  There are many parts of the world that are succeeding because they have learned to become more futures-oriented, against their better nature. There are also examples of failure where past experiences and current pressures alone have been allowed to determine future-oriented actions.

Q. To what extent is your world-view and futures-view shaped, do you think, by living on Hawaii, islands that depend on the rest of the world for their food and infrastructure and are at high risk from rises in sea-level? Are your views perhaps exaggerated because of this vulnerability?

Island thinking is indeed different from continental thinking, and I have been influenced by it (I lived for six years in Japan before coming to Hawaii. Japanese often insist they have an “island consciousness” underlying their thought and behaviour). But more importantly I have been influenced by the multicultural nature of Hawaii. There is no “majority” culture dominating one or more minorities. We are all minorities, with very different cultural preferences. While we have our conflicts and differences, we have learned to get along with and indeed to admire one another for our differences as well as our commonalities.  It is this way that Hawaii is the world in miniature, even more than our geographic isolation and vulnerability, I hope.

Q. Are you an optimist or a pessimist?

A silly question, as though I had to be one or the other. But of course I am fundamentally optimistic or I would lie on the beach and surf my life away instead of continuing to try to help people overcome their crack-pot realism and face the futures with understanding, hope, and appropriate action.

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