I am most commonly known for my work as a thinker and writer. Others took it upon themselves to label me a futurist — considered by many to be a far more legitimate profession. Apart from connecting the dots that others missed, on more than a few occasions, I am not sure what I did to deserve such a curse. Sometimes I feel like a latter-day Cassandra, accurately describing how events could unfold, should present patterns persist, but ignored by many and even mocked by a few.
A human life can be described as that “brief moment” of consciousness between birth and death. In point of fact our perceptual acuity is so captive to illusion and myth that most of us are barely awake. Perspective also counts of course. Walking in the slums of Orangi Township in Karachi is not the same as shopping on Fifth Avenue. One’s perception of reality is intensely different in both instances.
None the less, if we could prolong that “brief moment” long enough to cut through all the distractions, ambient noise, and contradictory perspectives, perhaps we would open our minds long enough to see things differently. We might even become less perceptually myopic — able to embrace new epistemes without fear.
Some scientists, like Ray Kurzweil for example, are eagerly trying to extend that “brief moment” by prolonging life itself. Yesterday I was young. Today I am just a grumpy old man. But what then? Tomorrow I may choose to upload my mind onto a digital medium, before my physical body totally decays, so that anyone who so desires can experience my personal story in vivid detail — assuming their curiosity can overcome any morbid voyeuristic concerns of course.
I wonder if the future really will be like that? At my advancing age such speculation is immaterial. In any case I believe understanding the present in terms of the past is more important than tripping out on a future we cannot be certain about until it morphs into being. I am vexed, you see, not by the fact that the future is an illusion, but that the present passes so quickly. What I said just then is now past. It’s weird isn’t it? Do you agree?
So, let us turn our attention to the present. It is a cliché that we live in an era of unprecedented disruption. Uncertainty, volatility, ambiguity and complexity prevail. But have you wondered why? I mean really considered why? I usually try to explain the pressure we are all feeling as an inevitable consequence of the transition between industrial models, treaties and practices that have stopped working, and a potentially new phase of human development.
We experience this transition as a tsunami of previously unthinkable and unpredictable events. It is tempting to point to machine intelligence, social unrest, intensifying civil disobedience, the US-China trade rivalry, religious fundamentalism of all kinds, or even Donald Trump, as the major cause for our discomfort. But it is actually more fundamental than that. For this is a crisis of consciousness — a breakdown in our appreciation of what it means to be human amidst the mindless prolongation of the cycle of desire and consumption that has become central to how modern society works.
The desires of 7.676 billion people all wanting more and more stuff puts stresses on some of our most life-critical systems. As they were not designed to cope with such sheer numbers they begin to fail. Our innate competitive behaviour responds by opening up wide cultural divisions and social rifts. We blame those who are not like us for our problems. When that only makes matters worse we grasp that as individuals we have no power to change the course of events. We succumb to increased levels of despair, depression, and a range of other mental health problems. Suicide rates climb. Feeling anxious and cynical, we resort to buying more and more stuff in the expectation this will make us happy — for that is what we have consistently been told. But materialism fails yet again. The cycle is perpetuated, but the despair just deepens.
There are at least three factors amplifying the levels of discomfort we are feeling, and they reinforce each other:
- The doctrine of assumptions and beliefs we share (our worldview) has become infused with a moral impulse based on monetizing literally anything that moves — from the forests and the oceans to the air we breathe. This manifests as a world-system driven by greed and envy.
2. Many new business models, largely the product of a surveillance capitalism, where the usual tensions between capital and labour have been replaced by frictions between the observers and the observed, are deliberately designed to generate fear, envy, division and outrage.
3. As little more than innovative apes, our cognitive capacity hovers just below the threshold needed to solve the existential problems we ourselves have created. At the same time, we have invented a machine intelligence that is fast outstripping our own ability to think and to act. This leaves us even more stranded in a vulnerable limbo.
Because of all the confusion, ambiguity, and conflicting narratives, we find ourselves caught between a plutocratic status quo — with its unhealthy and unsustainable addiction to business-as-usual — and a world of open cooperation where knowledge could potentially be used to effect generative, second-order change, at scale, ultimately resolving most of the problems those adhering to the status quo choose to ignore, or simply hope will go away.
The undetected pattern that makes most sense in this context arises from the effects of a distinctive metaphysical framework — a design ontology that enabled the industrial revolution to gain traction and brought many of us wealth beyond our wildest dreams. This framework — embracing Western cosmology, scientific realism, Cartesian logic and, more recently, neoliberal political and economic theory — has now totally subsumed most other cultural mindsets.
Dominant in today’s world it influences how we think, how we interpret events, how we shape our relationships with each other (and with the planet), how we bring a sense of orderliness to our affairs, and how we take, or avoid taking, action. But there is a problem which few people are discussing. Unseen, or brushed aside, this ontology has become a cancer. Infecting our shared worldview with its toxicity, the world-system it generates, and which we take for granted, has started to collapse. When both markets and governments fail to provide for the needs of society, it is hardly surprising we are feeling so overwhelmed by the chaos in our lives.
While disruption can certainly be distressing, it is not without value. In terms of human development, the uncertainty within disruption offers us a chance to evolve a more equitable worldview — one that serves all of humanity. But we can only take advantage of that opportunity by positioning problems in a broader evolutionary context — or what I refer to as the expanded now.
The expanded now is a simple model that allows us to examine the human condition by embracing ambient intelligence from the deep past as well as the deep future, while making sense of both in terms of the present. Permit me to give you an example.
The most profound question facing humanity is whether we are smart enough, and wise enough, to survive our own undoubted success. This question troubled me so much that I established the Centre for the Future to interrogate systems that are failing us, design a series of experiments to shed light on how best to go about reinventing those systems, or at least removing constraints that are causing them to behave in a manner no longer conducive to human health and well-being, and prototype the most feasible new designs arising from within new paradigms of thought.
Our first project was an inquiry into the exercise of political power and governance. Given that democracy is not working as it should anywhere in the world today we wanted to find out if representative democracy was even applicable in such a complex multilateral world.
In order to understand the question, we invited a range of insights from trusted sources around the world, venturing back in time to the Peace of Westphalia (1648) and analysing the hijacking of state sovereignty by Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” of industrial capitalism a little over a century later.
During our investigation we identified 17 potential flaws in the Westminster model — the source code for most so-called democracies today. We then used a proprietary algorithm to pinpoint how a more engaging form of democratic citizenship might be introduced. Finally, we envisaged how a Steve Jobs, or an Elon Musk would have gone about the task of creating a user experience that was dependable, engaging, secure, and instantly accessible to anyone with a smartphone.
The outcome was a blockchain-enabled voting platform and social movement we call MiVote. Still under development, MiVote offers voters a real-time information and educational platform — allowing them to choose from a range of policy options, thus avoiding the binary ideological trap — just one of many factors turning people off politics as it is practiced.
The basics of MiVote were tested in the recent Indian elections and will feature prominently for the first time in the next Australian federal election. This is an uncomplicated example of how foresight re-envisaged can be used to reinvent a system, even such a venerable one as democracy, when it is failing us. There is no reason to assume the same method cannot be used to revitalise or reinvent similarly revered systems. Indeed, we are attempting to do just that with our next project aimed at getting military organisations to wage peace rather than war.
From my perspective the field of foresight has failed to make a dent on the world-system. Incumbent leaders habitually make decisions, craft policies, and interpret events, without so much as an inkling regarding future consequences. We often blame them for not accessing futures methods. But the fault is ours too. We have condoned, and even encouraged, an aura of expertise around our work that is intimidating. We distrust forecasts — in spite of this being the one futures “product” most people instantly understand. The tendency to advocate foresight as exceptional is also regrettable. Outside of academia it certainly hasn’t helped our cause or won us many friends. Meanwhile we have become complacent and now find ourselves isolated in a prison of our own invention.
It doesn’t have to be that way. If we’re to become more influential in helping to effect societal change we must find pragmatic ways of engaging with one another and with our various institutions. It might actually require a clean break from our past, and from our more abstract inclinations, in order to do that.
In my early years I was a professional composer and conductor. Music was my passion from the age of five. I was a pioneer in the use of the computer to generate sound, and one of a handful of composers known for a genre called, somewhat disparagingly, the new complexity.
Then, in 1984, I stopped writing music altogether. It was a painful decision. I had spent years fostering a career as a composer-conductor which I was now about to throw away. But I knew that as my work became more refined, and only a handful of dedicated virtuoso musicians could play my scores, fewer and fewer people were actually listening to the music. I wanted my ideas to reach a much larger audience. Reluctantly I concluded that my art, which I loved, and was so much a part of my identity, was also little more than an exercise in futility.
So, I gave it all away and wrote a book. Improbably, because I knew very little about my topic, The Management Myth was a best-seller, changing how management is practiced in large enterprises today. It had very little to do with music of course. But I had found a way of expressing corresponding ideas in a context more familiar, and therefore far more acceptable, to more people. For me this was a lesson in how to be heard and appreciated using a language that people understood.
In today’s world it is more important than ever that foresight is used, and used wisely, by decision makers. But most incumbent leaders, in both the private and public sectors, still do not comprehend the value of foresight and do not know how to access it even if they did. Our craft and tools seem to have taken us down a rabbit hole of indifference. Today I sense the same frustration I experienced as a composer whose music had become irrelevant.
It is time to face an embarrassing truth. We have found the enemy. It is us. The real world remains mostly untouched by what we know and do. I suspect many of us remain tenaciously unaware of that.
It will take integrity, courage, and determination to transcend habits that are not working in order to adopt a different, more cutting edge, foresight practice. Even more so if we are to step into the public spotlight with authority. Familiar tools must be replaced by better ones. A few of our heroes may fall by the wayside as a result. No doubt we will mourn their passing. But there is no other course if we are to avoid being mere footnotes in the story of our civilisational breakdown.
So, here’s the crunch. In order to optimize the impact we need to have where it will make a difference (in government planning departments, corporate strategy teams, peak industry bodies, Boards and investors) let us take a few steps back.
I urge us to step away from academic theories and papers that are impenetrable. They are a form of self-inflicted autism. Let’s learn to communicate simply instead.
Step away from the use of arcane language that serves no purpose other than to impress. Let’s find more unpretentious ways to engage with those who need us.
Step away from the constant litanies of a dystopian future. Let’s generate hope rather than fear.
Step away from the cult of discrete futures studies. Compartmentalisation merely distances us from decision makers. Let’s be inclusive for a change.
Step away from the tools through which we become known originally. The 2 x 2 matrix is a product of the industrial age and reached the end of its shelf-life in the 20th century. Let’s embrace up-to-the-minute methods, including AI-enabled horizon scanning, instead.
Finally let’s step away from individual idolatry. It matters not whose disciples we are. The notion of the lone genius belongs to a previous era. It no longer serves us well. Let’s use our individual talents towards a more collaborative purpose instead.
The time has come for the foresight community to step into new epistemologies. To step into a new cooperative pragmatism — curating experiences in an “expanded” now in order to prototype solutions previously regarded unthinkable, undesirable, impractical, or too costly.
By stepping into a leadership role, we might just be able to throw off the yoke of obscurity and leap boldly into relevance. If we have a mind to we can help society work out where it has gone wrong and how it still has time to design futures that are inclusive, equitable, empathic and generative.
Understanding how and why we got to where we are today, in order to fathom out which directions can steward us into better tomorrows, then helping those charged with making decisions, as well as those who invest in those decisions, to act, is surely what should guide our mission. Can there be anything more audacious or meaningful?
Who knows, perhaps we can help create a world that actually works for everyone. The alternative is to continue to loiter on the sidelines, watching the wrong game unravel in front of our very eyes, in the belief we are players waiting on the bench for the senior coach to call our name. It will never happen.
This speech was originally delivered during the APFN 2019 conference in Bangkok on Wednesday 18th September 2019. It has been slightly expanded and edited to include what I meant to say duriForesightng that address but failed to do so.