“The future is now.” I have read that statement perhaps 40 times in the last 30 days within documents and editorials. Not only is it untrue, obviously – it is confusing, and I would suggest downright irresponsible. It suggests that we are a generation living in such special times; that the usual laws of physics don’t apply to us; and that technological change, exponential as it is, has brought us advances before we are ready.
Of course, that is codswallop – but it doesn’t stop people regurgitating the phrase without thinking about its implications. In fact, I would argue that there has never been a more important time to think about the future as something we still have time and opportunity to influence now. In some ways, we have started to live in a world where consequence is not treated with the same importance as action. It’s surely time to oppose that.
In 1991, Peter Schwartz published a book called The Art of the Long View. It is a tour de force in the art of scenario-creation; an education in the nature and importance of thinking seriously about the future. In the book, he offers up three possible scenarios for the future in the year 2005. One of the driving forces that influence these scenarios is population growth and migration. He anticipates the waves of migration, the inability of most industrialised nations to properly deal with cultural diversity, and the rise of demagoguery.
We can imagine different futures and plan for them
We have of course, seen some of this come to fruition in the wake of the migration crisis that escalated over the summer, and one wonders if a man who had worked at Shell (albeit a pioneer of scenario-planning) could have foreseen this possibility in 1991, why not national and international governments? Or perhaps they could, but like most people, they viewed the future as something mysterious, unknowable, or not a priority until it becomes the present.
Of course, I’m not suggesting that we can predict the future. But I am suggesting we can imagine different futures and plan for them; that we can rehearse these in our minds, personally and collectively. In a way, the purpose of this isn’t so much the need to be right, as the need to avoid being wrong. Being wrong about the future is a costly business, emotionally and commercially.
We are living in a world of immediacy and impatience and have a mindset of short-termism
The problem is that, as the phrase “the future is now” suggests, we are living in a world of immediacy and impatience and have a mindset of short-sightedness and short-termism. Especially in the world of brand building, advertising and communications, one comes across brief after brief asking for something “new and different” every quarter, rather than something that builds continuity, familiarity or evolves over time. Everything must be “radical”, “disruptive” and “revolutionary”. It’s enough to make one’s head spin. Perhaps this is why there is a new term entering our discourse signalling this mindset: “postalgia”. It means to obsess about the present. But more than that, as the futurist Jason Silva suggests, it is almost a phobia of the impending passing of the present. He describes it as: “You’re in the here and now but you are simultaneously anxious about its transience, about its finite nature.” Selfies are a symptom of this.
One of the driving forces of change and future scenario-building right now is technology, and in particular exponential change. The millennial generation is so in thrall to technology that it thinks the internet is the future. Some of this generation can’t imagine a world in which either it doesn’t exist or it exists in a way that is interconnected with political, economic, environmental conditions. Don’t get me wrong: I love technology, but there are lots of other influences on humanity, that make us what we are. Humanity is bigger – much bigger – than technology.
The danger is that millennials see every problem through the lens of a technological solution
And the danger is that the millennials who will soon dominate the workforce see every problem through the lens of a technological solution. They have never lived in an unconnected world, or in a world in which things are not immediate. In a sense, when they look at problems, they see them as instantly solvable through technology; they can’t imagine or understand them taking many generations to solve due to ingrained social behaviour, values or other impediments to deep cultural change. In the Middle Ages, men embarked on building cathedrals that would never be completed in their lifetime, but it didn’t prevent them from having a vision and actioning it on the understanding that subsequent generations would continue the work and bring it to fruition. We are a long way from Cathedral Thinking today.
But never the dystopian, merely the “anxious optimist”, I see some signs that things are starting to change. While in San Francisco earlier this year I picked up an emerging trend in strategy. John Hagel of Deloitte & Touche who heads up Center for the Edge, describes it as: “zoom out zoom in”. What he was calling attention to is the fact that venture capitalists and new tech companies are thinking hard, almost on a daily basis, about the long-term view. In fact, they are asking themselves two key questions:
- What is the world, and our market/industry going to look like in 10–20 years time?
- What two to three initiatives can we do in the next 6–12 months that will accelerate us towards that?
This heralds an emerging alternative approach to strategy, one that integrates two time horizons rather than separates them, demanding that one thinks hard about both at the same time. That is the only sense in which the “future is now”, for it forces us to realise that the mindsets we adopt now, the decisions we make today, the choices we make in the very next moment, all impact and influence future outcomes. It forces us to see the future and the present not as one and the same thing, but as interdependent. This “long and near” strategic approach spells the death of the five-year plan but it reclaims the lost art of the long view. And for that, I believe, future generations will be very grateful.
This article was originally published on the Guardian Media & Tech Network. To get weekly news analysis, job alerts and event notifications direct to your inbox, sign up free for Media & Tech Network membership.
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