Natalie Dian recently made an interesting comment to my recent blog post about increasing interest in the future. She referred to one of her own observations from last year where a guy at OECD were commenting on that
the role of traditional planning with its dream of predictability is declining
And Natalie concluded that
New futures thinking, which is a more narrative, anti-planning approach which calls into question the current assumptions about the potential for change is on the rise
To me who never have been involved in making predictions or other forecast activities this narrative and anti-planning approach have been the name of the game for a long time. But this comment gave me a reason to try to understand why I usually feel that predictions are irrelevant and why I prefer e g the scenario planning approach.
That planning is declining is not strange. The uncertainty under which we live today and which probably will last a couple of decades or more, is making our traditional approach to planning obsolete. This in itself is a huge problem since more than we think is based on the presumption that we can plan ahead.
The meaning creating structures are horizontal
Maybe there is a more subtle problem connected to this new world than just plain uncertainty. When we look e g at how we are relating to our politicians around the globe – we seem to ignore them more for every election since 1990. It could be because they stand for a traditional long term planning logic in manageing our society when we all know that that approach is futile. But I think there is a more important factor. They don’t provide us with the meaning and context we expect them to. The reason could be the ongoing deconstruction of the story of our times. The old story which was so valuable to the earlier generations up until the end of the cold war and the end of the industrial era (1990) was built upon freedom, democracy, industrialization, materialism and national wealth. Now it seems that we have climbed the hill we were heading for, but well up there the ground started to shake and we suddenly found ourselves in a completely different landscape. Our structures and leaders doesn’t seem to provide guidance or meaning anymore.
When I started to think along these lines I recognised that it isn’t just the case with politicians. We can see the same pattern between students and teachers, as well as between doctors and patients. That teenagers don’t listen to their parents of course isn’t new, but that employees increasingly don’t buy in to their manager’s world view is more interesting. More and more we hear the demand from young employees that they require a vision and a strategy from the management and not only irrelevant goals like increasing revenue with 5%. There is definitely a decline in our belief in the media perspective, and especially when we can get information directly from the source.
Of course we haven’t stopped listening, but we have changed who we are listening to. Today we increasingly seem to be listening to those who provide meaning and structure in the chaos we see. This is more often people who can understand our specific situation. In many cases it is people with similar education, similar job positions, similar experiences and who are at almost the same mental age. It is people who have similar thought patterns and levels of abstractions as ourselves. This is why engineers understand other engineers and politicians understand other politicians (and not across professions). The communication technology together with the relatively low transportation cost and increased awareness of the rest of the world has helped us to create the horizontal society. Or should I say horizontal societies since the structure is not homogenous but horizontally multi-layered and kept together with network logic. It is a society where people who already think alike communicate with each other and reinforces their own thinking rather than challenge it by breaking it to new ideas. This reinforcement is also habit-creating which makes it increasingly difficult to transfer meaning between layers.
No political leaders, business leaders, spiritual leaders or thought leaders can anymore gain respect and authority based on their vertical position. If their statements doesn’t make sense or create meaning in our horizontal worlds the individuals will simply ignore them. In a world of continuous change and where the meaning creating structures are horizontal, vertically defined leaders will all the time be challenged by the truths existing in one or several horizontal layers. The power of attributing new leaders will then be moved to the relevant horizontal structures.
The schools and the teachers situation provide us with an example of this. When I hear my friends who are teachers explaining their situation they always come back to the authority problem of having long meaningless arguements with the students in order to have them following rules or just listen up. It think it is evident that the young people today don’t listen to another person because he or she is older or an educated teacher. They are only listening to those persons who have earned the authority in that specific situation. The power of attributing authority has moved from the vertical stable hierarchical structure to the new horizontal ad hoc structures in this case consisting of the students and their peers.
What about futurism in an unpredictable and horizontal world?
Today there is, instead of a need for predictions that we can rely on, a more fundamental need for structuring patterns and stories to make sense of what is happening around us. To futurists this has been the fundamental drive for futurists for ages. The problem have been that that people have been requiring forecasts and predictions to make their own planning easier. Futurism in this narrative, non-predictive, situated and horizontal form will therefore be an important part in our task to identify or redefine the meaning of our society.
Since the ground is shaking and nobody can anymore guarantee that the floor your are standing on will exist in five years, it becomes necessary to start from where we are and not from a irrelevant perspective from an obsolete top perspective. Futurism will therefore only have an impact if it is following he horizontal structures. This will probably be self regulating because the horizontal structures will not anymore allow a guru entrance if he or she doesn’t create meaning in their sphere. Many traditional futurists will then be forced to change their focus and pick a horizontal in which they can gain authority.
Greg Burton asked in his blog recently if WFS – World Future Society will survive or not. I would say that WFS as a vertical structure providing status for futurists will probably crumble. But on the other hand if you regard WFS as a community of futurists who are learning from each other it will definitively have a role. This is of course dependant on if WFS will be able to throw away the old predictive thinking and instead support this new flavour of situated and horizontally defined futurism with more narrative and interpreting methods.
I also agree with Andy Hines’ point in the wired article that the quality of futurism need to be better. When looking at all the blogs providing insight into the future, most of them just provide scattered observations and very few of them connect the dots and try to make the required painting which is needed for creating the meaning.