ENVISIONING ALTERNATIVE FUTURES
The future is uncertain, volatile, and unpredictable—but we need not throw up our hands in resignation. Dr. Banning Garrett of Singularity University describes some of the major trends influencing the future and the risks they pose. He then suggests envisioning alternative futures as a way to avoid threats, seize opportunities, and enhance foresight and strategic planning for businesses, organizations, and governments.
The future of countries, organizations, and individuals will not happen in a “vacuum”—that is, their futures will not be determined solely by a narrow set of parameters isolated from developments in the larger world around them. Nor will their destinies be simply of their own making or a result of navigating their immediate economic, political, or social ecosystem. Rather, the future will be conditioned and buffeted by larger global forces at work, and the future that these global factors shape almost certainly will not be a simple extrapolation of the present forward.
The future is uncertain and volatile. It is inherently unpredictable and subject to disruptive change, as we saw at the end of the Cold War; on September 11, 2001; during the 2008 financial crisis; and the rise of the Internet. Moreover, the future will be shaped by untold billions of human decisions and actions that cannot be predicted—after all, we do not live in a Newtonian world where human behavior follows universal laws.
But we need not throw up our hands in resignation. While we cannot predict the future, we can benefit from striving to understand the forces at work shaping the future–trends and uncertainties that present both dangers and opportunities. This foresight will enable us to better mitigate potential dangers that we cannot avert and to take steps to seize potential opportunities that may arise. Identifying factors, risks, and potential opportunities can provide the basis for analysis, strategy, planning, and foresightful decision-making.
Climate change is perhaps the poster child for this type of foresight. Warnings by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) about global warming have led the global community (international organizations, national and subnational governments, businesses, NGOs, and individuals) to recognize the potential dangers of the current path of global carbon emissions and to seek to mitigate these risks through reducing carbon emissions and adapting to current and foreseeable impacts of climate change. At the same time, these efforts have created new opportunities for accelerating the development and deployment of new low-carbon technologies and other “green” technologies and innovations that can lead to more economic as well as environmental sustainability.
Exponential technologies are also changing the world on a global scale. In less than two decades, the Internet has been a comprehensively transformative force around the world and not just a niche technology affecting a few select people. Every government, from the U.S. to North Korea, has had the way it functions transformed by the Internet, as has virtually every business, small and large, and even individual lives. Moreover, the pace of technological change and its impact on society is accelerating, promising more change in the next 20 years than the last half century.
The future will be shaped not only by many long-term trends and highly uncertain potential game changers, but also by one-off “black swans” that could happen at any time—or never. While black swans include completely unpredictable events—“unknown unknowns”—they also include known possibilities that could occur “out of the blue” and disrupt the trajectory of history. We have seen these black swans in the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, in the 9/11 terrorist attack, and we will possibly see it in future terrorist use of a nuclear weapon or a new lethal airborne bird flu leading to a global pandemic.
There are also “tipping points” that we foresee as possible but are uncertain as to if and when they might occur. This could include a sudden and massive slippage of the Greenland or West Antarctic ice sheets into the ocean, which would create a rapid and catastrophic rise in sea levels that would inundate coastal cities and force potentially hundreds of millions of people to move inland permanently. If this tipping point were reached, it would create social, political, and economic chaos on a global scale.
Failure to foresee the long-term global trends and uncertainties shaping the larger context and potential futures that might unfold could lead to serious miscalculations by governments, businesses, organizations, and individuals. Not only could dangers not be averted or prepared for, but major opportunities could be missed as well. Moreover, there is significant risk that the international community will fail to invest in scientific research and in technology development and deployment that will be necessary to change the trajectory of the most worrisome trends, whether the trends be climate change, food and water shortages, or unsustainable urbanization.
Envisioning “alternative futures” is a useful to way to provide a guide to policy and action for both avoiding bad outcomes and striving to achieve positive outcomes. Such envisioning is a way of foreseeing possible futures that are plausible. It also provides a form of “ to inform current policy decisions that would likely help avoid an undesirable future, or achieve a preferred outcome. These outcomes include both the “big picture” global futures and as well as their more micro-level implications for alternative futures of a specific region, government, business, or organization.
Such envisioning could include development of narratives on how such alternative futures might develop, including the factors and decisions that might lead to the different outcomes. Such alternative futures have been well-developed by the International Energy Agency, for example, to assess different mixes of energy sources with greenhouse gas accumulations. These studies and IPCC reports have indicated possible alternative policy decisions not only by the international community and individual governments, but also for individual businesses.
Major long-term global trends, game-changing uncertainties, and emerging technologies will shape the operating environment for society, business, and government. Understanding this bigger context will greatly enhance foresight, strategic planning, and decision-making for businesses, organizations, and governments.
Dr. Banning Garrett is a member of the PASS Advisory Board and a faculty member at Singularity University. He is on Twitter @BanningGarrett.