A flashback of foresight

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The future has been part of mankind since its origins. Its story is an interesting interplay of arrival and survival. The urge to know more about the future took us in the last 3,400 years from Pythia, the famous Oracle of Delphi, to today’s academic Foresight PhD programs. Unlike in the past, no serious futurist today claims to be a prophet. They’ve learned that only parts of the future reality are known, and that predictions are not about certainty, but about creating a better understanding. Several hundred years passed before we arrived at this stage of maturity, where we see the future not as something divine, certain or known.

In 1763, after long wars that transformed values and national borders, Samuel Madden published the book, Reign of George VI. It was the birth of exploring the unknown, the dawn of speculative fiction[1]. He made the first structured forecast of the future. Madden introduced a new way of thinking by imagining other circumstances for mankind. As with Roger Bacon’s (1260) technological vision[2] or St. Thomas More’s (1516)[3] “imaginary voyages,” he was quite taken with the future. Madden connected new future realities with the present, exploring progress beyond mere utopian aspirations. In his book, he determined that the future is and will be different from the present. It is neither divine nor a prophecy. His work ushered in a period of “professional horizon watchers.”[4]

The future has since been a source of fascination for many writers, from Karl Marx and Friedrich Engel to Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. Those thinkers shared their ideas about the possible and imaginary.

Science fiction entered popular culture in the 1950s. Futurists such as Alvin Toffler and Daniel Bell brought this genre of the imaginable into the mainstream. Inspirations surged, new forms of entertainment exploded.

But the temporal perspective was still distant from the common businessperson. Herman Kahn, a military strategist and system theorist, filled in the blanks. He translated the future into a logical process, scenario planning. The logic represented the missing link of planning and future thinking.[5] As “the father” of prospecting, he argues that the present is more than a static extrapolation of the present. It isn’t a vision, but a discussion about conceivable alternatives.

However, the proposed process was not simple, but embraced the diversity of society. Herman Kahn’s suggested process of scenario planning asked companies to do extensive research to thoroughly understand the changes. Organizations, feeling uncomfortable executing such a complex method, simplified it and adjusted scenario planning to their current mindset, reducing society to a snapshot. The picture was static now, and a mirror of the present, simplified and linear, incremental and determined by sequential thinking.[6]

When the oil crisis in the 1970s hit, many of the self-proclaimed forward-looking organizations were insufficiently prepared. They saw the fault as Herman Kahn’s prospective process, not their own simplified application. It was the trigger point in ending the “hype” of future exploration.

[1] The first book was Memoirs of the Twentieth Century. The author destroyed most copies, and therefore the book had no major influence on the field of future thinking.

[2] Roger Bacon, medieval monk, wrote his beliefs about the future in a work titled Epicola de Secretis Operibus. Especially interesting are his visions about machines that can drive, row and fly without the help of animals.

[3] St. Thomas More describes in his book Utopia imaginary voyages inspired by the explorers and scientific investigations of the 17th century, and coined the same term.

[4] Arthur C., Clarke. 1979. p.2

[5] Mats, Lindgren and Hans, Bandhold. 2003

[6] Salim, Ismail. 2014. Kindle Location 487

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