Are We Shaping the Future or is the Future shaping us?

Dealing with the future is both, exciting and scary, one feeling after the other or both at once. But why do we fear the future at one point when we are also part of it and may even be able to shape it? The future is built from the past, it is present in the now and leads us towards whatever comes.

As futurists, we are aware that there is more than one future and further that “the future cannot be studied because the future does not exist” which is also known as Dator’s (2005, p.5) ‘First Law of the Future’. The ‘Futures Cone’ however, guides us that there are possible, plausible and preferred futures that can be explored (Voros 2003). But how do we explore them or are we just observer while the future is bypassing us?

Whilst working in strategic foresight, I was soon fascinated by the idea of supporting decision makers to be better prepared for the future. As futurists, we are looking for weak signals that appear on the horizon and support or neglect an identified trend. We are searching for emerging technologies, social appearances, economic growth and downfalls as well as environmental issues. We are trying to find connections, interactions, and relationships between those trends. We are evaluating, shaping and clustering until we finally found several pictures of the future — so-called scenarios. The future becomes a process, a picture shaped by group-dynamics, experts, and other diverse participants. In the end, it seems to be a rational process, until someone asks you the question of how your own future will look like in five or ten years. Then, the whole rational process becomes personal and for me, this question is a very tough one to answer. But why do we differentiate between personal and non-personal futures and by which are we more touched and which are actually easier to imagine?

Linking those three observations together, this post will enlighten foresight from three different angles. The three perspectives are the business context, the social-political context and lastly the personal context.

Strategic Foresight in the Business Context

The future is in general underestimated within organizations. Managers who are acting on behalf of shareholders are executing short-term thinking rather than dealing with long-term strategic issues (Van der Duin 2008). However, the core value of strategic foresight in a business context lies in the fact of enabling decision-makers to discover market movements early and may offer the opportunity of being a first mover in the market (Vecchiato 2014). Nowadays, innovations are considered to be the best strategy to beat the competition. Thereby innovations are not only representing products and services but also how companies are operating and how they are differentiating from their competition (Van der Duin 2008). The problem is that innovation is time-consuming, which leads to the “innovator’s dilemma” defined by Christensen (2013). He describes the dilemma that companies decide to cling too long to a specific technology that has been successful for years rather than invest in new emerging technologies (Christensen 2013). Nonetheless, these emerging technologies will make the traditional technologies obsolete in the long-term. Unfortunately, companies notice this fact mainly when it is too late to switch easily to the emerging technology (Van der Duin 2008). Strategic foresight, hence, provides to organizations the ability to identify first mover opportunities in order to enhance their own capabilities and being prepared for disruptive technologies (Barney, Ketchen & Wright 2011). It develops a mechanism that supports companies in detecting weak signals, interpreting them and initiating a fast response (Rohrbeck & Schwarz 2013). The difficulty in this process is to remove expectations and beliefs that are well taught by the company’s traditional culture. Hence, companies need to learn how to doubt themselves, their processes, products, and services (Blackman & Henderson 2004).

The key success factor for doubting, consequently, lies in implementing strategic foresight within a company’s processes and values rather than doing one-term projects with a linear process and a defined end point (Sarpong, Maclean & Alexander 2013). Strategic foresight needs to become an “ongoing flexible organizational practice that comes to presence in everyday organizing” (Sarpong, Maclean & Alexander 2013, p.39). Then, foresight cannot only become a warning and immune system for the organization but rather empowers to actively shape and steer towards a preferred future.

Strategic Foresight in the Social-Political Context

In the social-political context, foresight seems much harder, as it is more difficult to acquire knowledge about the future when people are involved rather than just technology. The question in the social context is whether certain predictions or expectations of the future may affect how people behave or if they had behaved differently without knowing this certain picture of the future (Van der Duin 2008). Or in other words, to what degree has the future an impact on the present? Van der Duin (2008) mentions that the future will leave its traces in reality when people start thinking something will be real in future; then it consequently exists in the present from that moment on. For those reasons, pictures of the future or scenarios are seen as thought experiments that enable us to focus on ‘memories of the future’ (Van der Heijden 2011).

This influence also works in the opposite directions: our present thoughts and believes also affect the future (Van der Duin 2008). The relationship between the present and the future, though, makes the development of pictures of the future not easier and consequently, it leads to a shift from predicting the future towards ‘exploring the future’ (Van der Duin 2008).

A similar effect can be monitored in the political context of strategic foresight. Does the government shape the future by setting laws and regulations such as the government in Germany tries to push e-mobility through tax-deductions or is the government nowadays only an actor and the society decides which future they accept and want? It depends on the persuasion power of the politics. If the society follows the governmental advice, their future will turn out to be right and the confirmed predicting power will validate themselves (Van der Duin 2008). However, according to Slaughter (1995), the center of future visions should rather be human consciousness. Therefore, a shift from a technological focus to a human growth and development approach is needed (Slaughter 1995).

Strategic Foresight in the Personal Context

As stated in the introduction, it seems that we are assessing personal and non-personal futures differently and our brain seems to differentiate how we process those future images. An evidence of this statement was undertaken by a brain study of D’Argembeau et al. (2010). The study revealed that several regions of the brain are activated when the participants imagined personal future events compared to events that are non-personal (D’Argembeau et al. 2010); no brain region was selectively activated for non-personal futures. A similar study of Abraham, Schubotz and von Cramon (2008) came to the result that participants took longer to imagine a non-personal future rather than a future containing personal information. This leads to the result that imagining a personal future is easier than relate to a non-personal future. Furthermore, on allowing us in general to foresee certain events, we are traveling mentally in time (Jemala 2010). It helps us to prepare and adapt to the future and is open-ended and generative so we can create a high number of potential future scenarios (Jemala 2010). Nevertheless, although we are able to foresee or imagine our future, we still have a low tolerance for boredom (Ainslie 2007). Four-year-old children are already able to imagine their future-selves, but still have difficulties to wait a few minutes to get a second marshmallow, although they could predict what will happen otherwise quite easily (Mischel & Mischel 1987). Consequently, mental time travel describes the fact of imagining a picture of the future in the present but is also significant depending on our present emotional impact as current impatience and boredom can influence the future (Ainslie 2007). Thus, we need to consider that the picture of the future can influence our behavior in the present, but also our present emotions can push us towards or prevent us from reaching future goals (Atance & Meltzoff 2007).

According to the results of the brain studies, imagining our own future is easier than imagining, for example, the future of television. Yet, due to my personal experience, there are more factors that need to be taken into consideration. My thesis is that the more stable the past and the current present the easier it is to imagine the future. For example, a person who has lived his whole life in the same city and works for several years for the same company is more likely to imagine that he will buy a house in this city and starts a family within the next five years. Is this picture the only possible future for him? — Certainly not. All other futures are also possible. However, due to his past experience, he will feel quite comfortable with his picture of the future. Myself, on the other hand, I have never lived longer than five years at the same place, studied worked and lived already in over five countries on three continents. From my past experience, my pictures of the future would be quite vague, as I had experienced a very unstable past. Patients with amnesia have seen a similar effect; whilst they are not able to retrieve specific memories from their past they cannot imagine their future easily (Schacter & Addis 2007). Furthermore, brain imaging has shown that both remembering the past and picturing the future are associated with the same selected brain activity (Okuda et al. 2003). Therefore, it can be discussed that people rely on their past experiences in order to picture their personal future (Schacter & Addis 2007). The more stable those experience are, the easier or more comfortable they feel in picturing their future.

Lastly, although it becomes harder to imagine a personal future when the past was unstable, foresight practice has shown that by imagining multiple personal futures anyways a long-term desired future can be reached more easily (Slaughter 1995). In the end, it is important to overcome our fear of imagining personal futures by simply being open to explore various alternatives. Hence, it is always worth trying to make one step further into the future.

Conclusion

Strategic foresight cannot be compared with looking into a crystal ball. It is a systematic approach of “opening to the future with every means at our disposal, developing views of future options, and then choosing between them” (Slaughter 1995, p.1). Therefore, not imagine the future could only be a disadvantage. Businesses gain competitive advantages if they invest in a long-term future-oriented thinking. Implementing a flexible foresight process, that monitors weak signals and emerging trends constantly can create innovation. And by mapping alternative futures, organizations are even able to shape the future to their own benefits. Additionally, the social context has shown that we are able to shape the future in the same way that the future is shaping us. There is a permanent relationship between the past, the present, and the future, which is also represented in the ‘Futures Triangle’ (Inayatullah 2008).

And whilst we are using the past experience as a source to anticipate the future, in exactly that moment of imagining the future in the present, we are already heading towards this future. Finally, the personal context has shown that we are more affected and faster in imagining personal futures rather than non-personal. However, depending on our past, the picture of the future seems to be easier or harder to draw. Thus, the key learning from this reflection is that no matter how hard it is to imagine the future, exploring the future has several advantages. And of course, whilst the past may have been changing a lot, thinking about multiple alternative futures reduces uncertainty and complexity. The past is gone and the future can be totally different and this should be seen as an opportunity worth exploring rather than as a paralyzing threat.

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