Nowhere is there more need for futures application than in the European Union referendum, which is about our future. Yet nowhere are foresight and the practical models for thinking deeply about the future more lacking.
Modern life has become short-termist – from business to the environment and town planning, from political policymaking to crafting our own personal lives – so it is no surprise that we are approaching the big question of whether to remain in the EU in an equally short-term way.
We seem not to know how to think about the long term any more. So this debate has circled around the immediate short-term effects on house prices, mortgages, even cheap flights. It’s troubling, it really is. This was supposed to be a debate that would centre on the long-range decisions affecting not just this generation but those to come.
It hasn’t. Why? Because, as a culture, for the reasons above and more, we simply don’t understand the future. First, the future isn’t one thing. The future is plural. Just like history, the future isn’t fact but rather a bunch of interpretations, a collection of stories.
The past and the future exist only in our minds and, specifically, in our imaginations. The only thing that actually exists is what is happening now. Once we accept this, we can stop thinking of the past and the future and stop looking for the one actual future.
This also means the future is uncertain. Some enlightened boardroom members understand this but others still don’t. That’s because the language of uncertainty and of ambiguity is seen as weak. Ironically, it is the people who consider the alternatives all the time – the people who aren’t certain and ideological but adaptive and agile in their views and their ideas – who will be celebrated in the future.
The only thing that actually exists is what is happening now. Once we accept this, we can stop thinking of the past and the future and stop looking for the one actual future.
Why? Because as US writer and futurist Alvin Toffler says, "The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn."
And that is what futures work is all about: less about future happenings and more about the mindsets of decision-makers. In futures work, we are not predicting the future – we are probing the future.
Each and every plausible kind of alternative future is investigated. It means going beyond the probable futures that the mainstream majority consider to be most likely, and into our own imaginations to consider a range of other possible futures.
It is then our job to investigate and interrogate the implications, the required resources, the changes in behaviour, the new assumptions that could follow. It is most commonly known as scenario planning and it helps you map out futures so you can work out where to place your bet.
Pierre Wack, who pioneered scenario planning in the 1970s while at Shell, says: "To operate in an uncertain world, people need to be able to re-perceive: to question their assumptions about the way the world works, so that they can see the world more clearly. The purpose of scenarios is to help yourself change your view of reality."
US writer and futurist Alvin Toffler: "The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn."
All models are wrong – but some are useful So there you have it. The role of the professional futurist is not to predict the future but to liberate people’s insights. And the end result is not to create an accurate picture of tomorrow but to make better decisions about the future today.
The EU campaigning on both sides is a long way from that. First, there are no facts about the future, despite the government spending £9m on a leaflet espousing them. These are, at best, unscrutinised imaginings. Economic evidence has been derived from spurious economic models with a host of biases built in.
Truth is, all models are wrong but some are useful. What would have been more useful would have been a variety of scenarios to help us question our assumptions in an uncertain world. Second, because there are no facts, both sides have just communicated threats. As a result, the claims about the future have become more and more hyperbolic.
Every kind of threat has been used to strike fear into the electorate. This is based on the idea that there is only one future outcome and that we have no influence over it. But, of course, we do. And, finally, what a wasted opportunity this has been.
We could have had an analysis rather than a debate – an analysis of the mainstream probable future that set out interesting and varied possible futures, and even designated one of those as our preferable future. More brands are adopting this more enlightened, futures-driven approach to decision-making.
What a shame Brand Britain missed its opportunity to do the same.
Tracey Follows is the chief strategy and innovation officer of The Future Laboratory