Postulating Possible, Probable, and Preferable Futures

With regards to futurology and future studies, I’ve recently posted on the principles of forecasting as well as the origins of opportunity – two distant yet related topics that exemplify the breadth and depth of the field.

As my own futures research has progressed, I’ve found various sources that have proven to be quite valuable in guiding my curiosity and conjecturing. I think some of these are worth passing along:

  • Acceleration Studies Foundation (ASF) – ASF is an educational 501(c)(3) nonprofit engaged in outreach, education, research, and selective advocacy with respect to issues of accelerating change.
  • Futurology (Wikipedia)
  • Institute for Alternative Futures – The Institute for Alternative Futures (IAF) is a nonprofit research and educational organization founded in 1977. IAF and its for-profit subsidiary, Alternative Futures Associates (AFA), specialize in aiding organizations and individuals to more wisely choose and create their preferred futures. IAF works with clients to create forecasts, scenarios, goals and strategies that are the essential tools for transforming organizations to succeed in times of rapid change.
  • Institute For The Future (IFTF)
  • Principles of Forecasting (ForPrin)
  • Shaping Tomorrow – Online community of futurists and futures research
  • Shaping Tomorrow (Ning Network)
  • “The Time Lords” (Financial Times, 1/30/2007)
  • World Future Society (WFS) – The World Future Society is a nonprofit, nonpartisan scientific and educational association of people interested in how social and technological developments are shaping the future. The Society was founded in 1966 and is chartered as a nonprofit educational and scientific organization in Washington, D.C.
  • World Futures Studies Federation (WFSF) – The World Futures Studies Federation (WFSF) is a global NGO that was founded in the 1960s to encourage and promote the development of futures studies as a transdisciplinary academic and professional field in all parts of the world. WFSF operates as a global network of practicing futurists – researchers, teachers, scholars, policy analysts, activists and others from approximately 60 countries.

In a nutshell, futures studies is exactly that – studies of the future. It’s about the determining the total set of possibilities for tomorrow, finding the most probable of outcomes for tomorrow, and leveraging advanced knowledge to even shape the future.

Wikipedia, as spread across the spectrum of credibility as it may be, provides a pretty decent explanation of the mindset needed to be truly forward-looking. What qualities are required of a futurist, within any organization or for any requirement or need, to fully anticipate the unknown using the set of resources at his/her disposal (data, intuition, logic, technology, vision, science, etc.)?

  • Trend Assessment – The competency to understand trend directions, weak signals and wildcards, assess their likely impact and effect on one another and respond in a timely and appropriate manner
  • Pattern Recognition – The ability to see patterns rather than individual factors
  • System Perspective: The capability to envision the entire system rather than the isolated components
  • Anticipation: To anticipate short and long term consequences over time, novel situations and geography
  • Instinct & Logic: To rely on a combination of instincts and logic rather than purely rational analysis

Yes, there is a plethora of philosophical, political, religious, scientific, and even incomprehensible factors that may give shape to the future (or take that shape away). But that should not deter us from facing it head on. We all need to work smarter not harder, avoid surprises, exploit new opportunities, plug weaknesses, and (where possible) influence the future.

The Power of Anticipation

In today’s society, gaining an inch can be like gaining a mile.

Soccer takes a lot of skill and athleticism. You need to be able to dribble, pass, shoot, tackle, communicate, see, sprint, etc. But as I’ve stated before (“mind bend it like beckham” – 2/11/2009) it’s just as much a mental game as it is a physical one. You need to think like your opponent and play somewhat of a guessing game, connecting dots before there’s any visible relationship between them. You need to forecast outcomes, intellectually seeing into the future guided by the data that’s available.

This sort of anticipation is an imperative ability for success in the future – within any endeavor. In business, anticipation means a gaining a leading edge on the competition. For defense, it means preparation and contingency plans for what might be likely to occur. In decision-making its gaining threshold confidence in your decision – using as much relevant information to guide a range of actions, opinion,s and ultimately, outcomes. And not to mention, it helps us grab our umbrella when running out the door.

Predictive analytics, although a seemingly new, hot topic today, has been around forever. Prophets, Mayans, Nostradamus, Pythia, lunar calendars, and the Akashwani – in a historical sense the predictions were informed by a variety of sensory stimuli coupled with intuition and a variety of other external factors. Nowadays, it’s really not that different. Today, we have data and semi-sophisticated mathematical processes that parallel conscious perception and intuition. We can quantify much of what could not have been quantified in the past.

“Predictive analytics encompasses a variety of techniques from statistics, data mining and game theory that analyze current and historical facts to make predictions about future events.

In business, predictive models exploit patterns found in historical and transactional data to identify risks and opportunities. Models capture relationships among many factors to allow assessment of risk or potential associated with a particular set of conditions, guiding decision making for candidate transactions.” (Wikipedia)

It’s imperative that people embrace predictive analytics to inform decision-making. Math doesn’t have to make the decision – that’s mostly for humans – but the math can give a comprehensive picture that outlines components of the decision and also tells us what the decision may lead to (or may have led to in the past) in terms of primary, secondary, and tertiary outcomes. Bruce Bueno de Mesquita is a great example of this, using computer algorithms to predict world events of the future – war, proliferation, conflict, etc. Decisions are not made by computer models, but humans are briefed of probable scenarios in order to make better-informed decisions.

I’ve said this before – math can be simple when it’s made to be simple. It’s a toolbox of problem-solving techniques and thought processes to help guide real-world decisions and understanding. It’s important to not be afraid of the math – start small and grow your mathematical toolbox over time. Take it head on and don’t be overwhelmed. We all have something to learn and we all have something to gain by embracing prediction and anticipation.

So whether it’s sport, meteorology, national security, or adding garlic to the pan, find a way to anticipate. In doing so, my prediction is that you’ll be better off…

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