Opinion by Thornton May

Future fetish

Long-term planning involves much more than compiling a list of cool new things

crystal ball Valerie Everett via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

Asked to think about the future, most of us turn our minds toward technology. This isn’t wrong. Technology — and information technology in particular — will be a big part of the future. As Maria Klawe, president of Harvey Mudd College, has said, “Every single problem that faces society today, whether we’re talking about healthcare, poverty or education, is going to involve computing tech as part of the solution.”

But technology isn’t the whole story about the future. The things that will populate the future are fetish objects devoid of real meaning unless we consider the people whose behaviors, opportunities and beliefs will be affected by that coming technology. Without that human element, there is no future worth thinking about. After all, what sets humans apart from every other creature on the planet is our ability to envision laboring, living, loving, learning and leisuring in a different temporal space — the future.

Planning ahead is a defining characteristic of the human condition. My former boss, futurist Alvin Toffler, in his introduction to the Encyclopedia of the Future, hypothesized that “every human carries inside her or his skull a set of assumptions about what does not yet exist.” Eco-futurists David Rejeski and Robert L. Olson argue that “What’s next?” is “the great implicit assumption of human conversation.” This may be part of our hard wiring. Neurophysiologist William Calvin (A Brief History of the Mind: From Apes to Intellect and Beyond) argues persuasively that modern human cognition, including the capacity to plan ahead, had its origins in our ability to target a moving animal with a thrown rock. This basic survival skill — seeing where things are going — has evolved into a capability for foresight and long-term planning.

The path forward

Long-term planning involves much more than compiling a list of cool new things. What is needed is not a catalog of things we will buy in the future but a description of who we will be and how we will live. This is why what tends to emerge from the allegedly future-focused Consumer Electronics Show is not a cogent articulation of next-ness but a tragically trivial list of gadgets. The real future, the one that will actually happen, will be more impacted by what we believe and how we behave (the two are linked) than by the devices we purchase.

Futuring requires crafting a narrative that depicts the intersection of technology with humans. It is not enough just to imagine a car; one must also envision the traffic jam — the implications of a technology being adopted at scale.

This means that, when you think about where personal transportation is headed, it isn’t enough to imagine the inevitable arrival of autonomous vehicles. You have to wrap your mind around what the massive adoption of self-driving automobiles would really mean. If future reality includes millions of self-driving cars, how will that change us? Will fewer of us own cars? Will homes cease to have garages? Will the massive auto after-market disappear? Will the “abandoner” cohort — the opposite of early adopters — be especially large, with hundreds of millions of people refusing to let their cars do the driving for them? Or will people who are devoted to driving have to pursue that as a hobby they can engage in only in theme parks?

Where to begin

Before painting a picture of things to come, some futurists believe, the best first step is to complete a brutally honest assessment of the situation as it stands today. For a corporation, this involves mapping the industry and the markets currently served. What do your customers think about you, your products and services, and your competitors? What do you think about those things? What do your customers know about you, your products and services, and your competitors? And finally, what do your customers think about the future — where are they headed?

Those sorts of questions can also be helpful for executives trying to revitalize an internal function, be it IT, marketing, product development or the project management office. In a recent “futures” session, we asked a group of project managers how much senior executives knew about project management. The rather scary assessment was that senior executives “knew” only 5% to 15% of what they needed to know. That enormous gap between what is actually known and what ought to be known should tell the project managers quite a bit about what’s going on right now and what needs to happen in the future — and technology has nothing to do with it.

Futurist Thornton A. May is a speaker, educator and adviser and the author of The New Know: Innovation Powered by Analytics. Visit his website at thorntonamay.com, and contact him at thornton@thorntonamay.com.

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