Three ways to think of the future…

Geoff Mulgan’s blog: “Here I suggest three complementary ways of thinking about the future which provide partial protection against the pitfalls.
The shape of the future
First, create your own composite future by engaging with the trends. There are many methods available for mapping the future – from Foresight to scenarios to the Delphi method.
Behind all are implicit views about the shapes of change. Indeed any quantitative exploration of the future uses a common language of patterns (shown in this table above) which summarises the fact that some things will go up, some go down, some change suddenly and some not at all.
All of us have implicit or explicit assumptions about these. But it’s rare to interrogate them systematically and test whether our assumptions about what fits in which category are right.
Let’s start with the J shaped curves. Many of the long-term trends around physical phenomena look J-curved: rising carbon emissions, water useage and energy consumption have been exponential in shape over the centuries. As we know, physical constraints mean that these simply can’t go on – the J curves have to become S shaped sooner or later, or else crash. That is the ecological challenge of the 21st century.
New revolutions
But there are other J curves, particularly the ones associated with digital technology.  Moore’s Law and Metcalfe’s Law describe the dramatically expanding processing power of chips, and the growing connectedness of the world.  Some hope that the sheer pace of technological progress will somehow solve the ecological challenges. That hope has more to do with culture than evidence. But these J curves are much faster than the physical ones – any factor that doubles every 18 months achieves stupendous rates of change over decades.
That’s why we can be pretty confident that digital technologies will continue to throw up new revolutions – whether around the Internet of Things, the quantified self, machine learning, robots, mass surveillance or new kinds of social movement. But what form these will take is much harder to predict, and most digital prediction has been unreliable – we have Youtube but not the Interactive TV many predicted (when did you last vote on how a drama should end?); relatively simple SMS and twitter spread much more than ISDN or fibre to the home.  And plausible ideas like the long tail theory turned out to be largely wrong.
If the J curves are dramatic but unusual, much more of the world is shaped by straight line trends – like ageing or the rising price of disease that some predict will take costs of healthcare up towards 40 or 50% of GDP by late in the century, or incremental advances in fuel efficiency, or the likely relative growth of the Chinese economy.
Also important are the flat straight lines – the things that probably won’t change in the next decade or two:  the continued existence of nation states not unlike those of the 19th century? Air travel making use of fifty year old technologies?
Great imponderables
If the Js are the most challenging trends, the most interesting ones are the ‘U’s’- the examples of trends bending:  like crime which went up for a century and then started going down, or world population that has been going up but could start going down in the later part of this century, or divorce rates which seem to have plateaued, or Chinese labour supply which is forecast to turn down in the 2020s.
No one knows if the apparently remorseless upward trends of obesity and depression will turn downwards. No one knows if the next generation in the West will be poorer than their parents. And no one knows if democratic politics will reinvent itself and restore trust. In every case, much depends on what we do. None of these trends is a fact of nature or an act of God.
That’s one reason why it’s good to immerse yourself in these trends and interrogate what shape they really are. Out of that interrogation we can build a rough mental model and generate our own hypotheses – ones not based on the latest fashion or bestseller but hopefully on a sense of what the data shows and in particular what’s happening to the deltas – the current rates of change of different phenomena.”