The Best Way to Predict the Future is to Invent It

It’s Time to Work Backwards From a Future Scenario That Works for Everyone

Dr. Lisa Galarneau
Jun 4, 2018 · 5 min read
Photo by Niti K. on Unsplash

I spent several months working for Amazon.com in 2014. One of the guiding principles, or tenets, I learned about was the concept of ‘working backwards’. In a nutshell, it’s a design ethos that involves picking a starting point in the future, say life in 2025, and working backwards from there.

Why work backwards? Because working forwards usually means iterating on processes or tools that already exist, structures we have adapted to but that might not work all that well. You might be designing for a specific audience, but unless the design process involves looking at human behavior (desired or otherwise), we are essentially designing for the past and the assumptions that came with it. Working backwards means looking at our world in the future and making bold statements about the problems we wish to solve. We can then design the future we think will work best.

What inputs do we need in a creative process we call designing the future? The answers are all around us in pop culture imaginings. Growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, I was exposed to a range of futuristic visions of both the utopian and dystopian varieties. As such it was always clear to me that the future we all need is more like Star Trek and less like Mad Max.

Sociologist Wilbur Moore reminds us all that positive visions for our future drive us towards revolution when our existing governing structures are failing to secure the future for succeeding generations:

Revolutions thrive on utopian images, and without such images they will fail.

I like science fiction a lot and have been exposed to terrible dystopian narratives, including the Star Wars series and other examples of resistance against tyrannical governments and societies. Many of them address the issue of what to do when things need to change, as well as exposing us to heroes who will do anything necessary to light the way.

Our own non-violent Resistance movement is built on the work of Resistance leaders like Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We know that violence is not our way out of this, but we can still take inspiration from the heroes in our beloved sci fi fandoms:

Observers of the tech industry frequently ponder how to predict the future. I have always said that the seeds of the future are all around us today. Or as William Gibson famously quipped:

The future is already here — it’s just not evenly distributed.

So how do we take control of a future that so many of us fear? Well, first we need a plan, otherwise as Terence McKenna has said, we become part of somebody else’s plan. How do we learn to take a long view approach of society, culture, and the structures we create to support us all? First we need to be aware of the perils of short term thinking. Instead we need to take the long view and imagine powerful visions of the world of tomorrow. It’s what we owe ourselves, and it’s what we owe our kids and all future generations.

Of course we can’t predict the future with absolute certainty. But we can do the hard work, design work in fact, to ensure we are creating the future most of us want: a future that is equitable, just, and focused on ever-increasing safety and prosperity for our world’s inhabitants:

We are still the masters of our fate. Rational thinking, even assisted by any conceivable electronic computers, cannot predict the future. All it can do is to map out the probability space as it appears at the present and which will be different tomorrow when one of the infinity of possible states will have materialized. Technological and social inventions are broadening this probability space all the time; it is now incomparably larger than it was before the industrial revolution — for good or for evil.

The future cannot be predicted, but futures can be invented. It was man’s ability to invent which has made human society what it is. The mental processes of inventions are still mysterious. They are rational but not logical, that is to say, not deductive. (Dennis Gabor, Inventing the Future, 1963

Our current present time has been designed and architected by some very unsavory characters. It’s time to take our future back by envisioning different outcomes. Often my fellow humans seem defeatist in the face of tyranny, but I know we can make our way out of this quagmire.

The Venus Project, founded by Jacques Fresco, is one example of a utopian future imagined:

We might feel powerless, but collectively the choice is ours. We can invent and design our way out of this, but we need the will and determination to do so.

What are your visions for our future? Please share in the comments!

About Me: I am an anthropologist, futurist, veteran, and Mom to a transgender teen. I am also disabled and now must rely on donations to fund my work. You can support me with a small donation via PayPal or you can donate on a monthly basis via Patreon. Thank you!

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Dr. Lisa Galarneau

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Anthropologist, Futurist, Design/UX Researcher, Veteran, Lightworker, Democrat, and #TheResistance Activist

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