“We should all be concerned about the future because we will have to spend the rest of our lives there.”
— Charles F. Kettering
Some people see the future as a foreign land. For them, it is terra incognita, a place we can never know until we arrive there — or rather until it arrives here. Idealists are more sanguine about the future. They imagine it as a place where today’s problems have been resolved, and maybe we all have flying cars. Pessimists, on the other hand, see the future as more like a stalking predator, one that’s always lurking just out of sight until it pounces— and then it’s too late.
That last perspective — the future as a threat— is all too alluring these days. Even before the year from hell that has been 2020, we were used to daily news of the world’s unraveling. It can be overwhelming, and it’s tempting to respond to all the upheaval by adopting a bunker mentality. But trying to find someplace to hide until things settle back down would be a terrible mistake.
The detached views of the future — whether seeing it as something good, bad, or in between, are wrong. They reduce people to mere bystanders, to either the beneficiaries or victims of the future, something that just “happens.” The truth, as usual, is more complicated. The truth is that the future doesn’t just happen, it is created. We, collectively, are responsible for the future we get, through the aggregate of our individual choices and the sum of the paths we wear through our patterns of behavior. The truth is, the future never really arrives. Rather, it is always in the state of arriving.
Once you realize the secret of how the future gets made, you’ll have unlocked a powerful framework for thinking about it more constructively. You’ll be able to apply this framework in a wide variety of fields, whether to yourself, your organization, or your country. This way of thinking is at once empowering and intimidating because it gives us both more agency and more responsibility. You’ll realize your own agency in the choices you make and the patterns you repeat today, along with the recognition that you can change them if you so desire. You’ll also begin to understand the responsibility we all have to both our future selves and to those who will come after us, since the present we’re building will be the future they inherit.
This essay is the first in a series. In the articles to come, we’ll think about how we think about the shape of things to come. We’ll look at the distinction between predictions, forecasts, and foresight, and explore some of the analytic foresight techniques I’ve found the most helpful in nearly twenty years as an intelligence officer and strategic analyst. If that sounds like fun, then like, clap, share, and subscribe!
But first things first. Below, I’ll take some time to explain some of the foundational principles we’ll use to frame the later discussions.
Grab a beverage, get comfortable, and let’s begin.
Continuity and Change
“Predictions of the future are never anything but projections of present automatic processes and procedures, that is, of occurrences that are likely to come to pass if men do not act and if nothing unexpected happens.”
— Hannah Arendt
The future is what results from the ongoing struggle between the forces of continuity and change. If you want to think more constructively about the future, you must consider both, without discounting either — a difficult proposition, to say the least.
If there were no change, the future would be easily predictable by simply extrapolating the present. But change, as they say, is the only constant. Long ago, the Greek philosopher Heraclitus coined the phrase Panta Rhei (πάντα ῥεῖ), which means “everything flows.” Heraclitus realized the fundamental truth that absolutely nothing is permanent, not even the earth itself. He saw the universe as being in a constant state of becoming, a state he called flow.
But while change may be the only constant, it’s not the only factor in play when we consider the future. The forces of continuity exert an influence just as powerful as those of change, if not even more so. It’s no exaggeration to say that the future has a strong status quo bias.
Think about it. Objects at rest tend to stay that way, and incumbents enjoy great advantages, whether in business or an election. Sunk costs weigh heavily on the decisions of families, businesses, and governments. Existing systems tend to stay in place if they are maintained and reinforced. Even when they’re upended, their patterns can remain visible for decades, if not centuries to come. There’s a reason, for example, that Google and Amazon’s data centers are being built along the same paths cut by the transcontinental railroad.
Anyone seeking to anticipate the future must keep both of these forces in mind at all times. While the rate of Heraclitus’ flow today seems to be accelerating, letting the latest “thing” cloud our judgment can be a mistake. Most changes don’t “stick,” after all, and sometimes the hype of the early adopters can appear naively premature in retrospect.
On the other hand, it’s just as detrimental to become fixated on the status quo. Viewing what exists now as somehow more permanent or stable than it really distorts our thinking just as much as swooning over the newest technology. Part of the difficulty here arises from the fact that, whether due to our relatively short lifespans or our evolutionary-endowed fixation with the here and now, we often confuse the way things are with the way things should and always will be — when the reality is quite the opposite. It’s ironic since anyone reading this will have already personally witnessed decades of dramatic social, technological, and geopolitical change — clear evidence that revolutionary change can and does happen.
The trick for strategists, intelligence officers, and futurists of all stripes is to identify the key factors of both continuity and change, factors we usually call drivers. Drivers — whether social, technical, economic, or environmental — are the specific elements that encourage or inhibit the behavioral patterns of individuals, societies, and entire ecosystems.
We’ll get into how to tease out the drivers in a forthcoming article. For now, suffice it to say that once we think we know what they are, we can move on to thinking more broadly about the patterns of behavior they induce and how those patterns might play out over time if left unchecked. We can combine them in various ways to see how they might amplify or mitigate each other, and we can develop indicators that tell us which forces are ascending or descending in relative influence.
Once you understand how the future emerges from the interplay of the forces of continuity and change, you can eschew the more conventional, linear conception of it as being like a path we’re walking along. Instead, you’ll realize that we ourselves are building the path as we go, through our collective actions.
The question then becomes, where do we want to go?
No Fate But What We Make
“The best way to predict the future is to create it.”
— Peter Drucker
Every day, each of us allies with either the forces of continuity or change. Intentionally or not, we either reinforce what is, or incubate what might yet be. Acting within existing systems and following existing processes bolsters the forces of continuity. Stretching the boundaries of those same systems, or acting outside of them altogether by creating new ones, breaks new paths that represent possible alternate futures.
The analytic foresight techniques in the futurist’s toolkit allow us to better structure and organize our thinking about the patterns we live within through the choices we make. They help us to recognize the direction of the path we’re on and give us the opportunity to make course corrections if we think we’re heading in the wrong direction.
The techniques we’ll begin discussing in the next essay force us to make our assumptions explicit and to question them every step of the way. When used correctly, they help to ensure our analytic frameworks — the scaffolding upon which we hang our projections — are as structurally sound as possible. They insert divergent, creative thinking into the normally staid analytic process, causing insights that might otherwise go unnoticed to be cast into high relief.
Let me be clear: no one can predict the future, and anyone who claims otherwise is lying. But identifying the key drivers of continuity and change allows us to catch glimpses of the future, right here in the present.
Next time, we’ll look at techniques that challenge our assumptions and help us to develop those key drivers and uncertainties. I hope you got something out of this introduction. If you did, please clap, like, share, and follow!