About Strategic Foresight

Strategic foresight and future studies have had an interesting history. Emerging as a discipline after two world wars in the early 1950s, the work began as a way to anticipate patterns and trends so as to avoid war, promote peace and prosperity. It led to the work of people like Herman Khan (1962,1967) who used statistical trend modeling and historical pattern analysis to look at systematic patterns and trends that were or would soon impact the world. Writing about his work at the Hudson Institute he said:

“To a remarkable degree, the two most important and basic methods for conjecturing, forecasting, or studying the future are (1) relatively straightforward, simple extrapolations from current trends (but with the rate of innovation included in the current trend), and (2) the more or less obvious use of historical examples”. 

That is one view of the work: combine trend analysis with an understanding of what interrupts or disrupts trends using historical analysis. He gives the example of global population rises and suggests that, while the population will grow dramatically, history tells us that certain things will lead it to flatten out – urbanization, affluence, literacy, new birth- control technology, the adoption of current middle-class values and style of life, and other changes in values and priorities.

Other frameworks emerged later. The French futurists focused less on prediction and trend analysis, but more on how to be ready for a constantly changing world and how to make decisions based on a preferred future. They adapted ecological researchers understanding of resilience and ecosystem adaptability (using the work of Bud Holling and his colleagues) and applied them to the understanding of systems of a variety of kinds – social systems, economic systems, industrial systems.

As systems thinking emerged, systems modeling began to be applied to futures work, with Stafford Beer developing a systems framework for social reform in Chile working closely with President Allende. (I had the good fortune to work with Stafford Beer when, after fleeing Chile, he settled for a time in Cardiff and we shared an office; later I worked with Peter Senge, Michael Apter and other systems thinkers, and cyberneticians).

The modern view of foresight, embodied in the work of people like Riel Miller, which seeks to develop futures literacy – an idea strongly promoted by Riel Miller at UNESCO. That is, using what MILLER calls “catalytic awareness” (critical and challenging our awareness of what is the current state of things around us and what is shaping these things – e.g. community, economics, relationships), imaginative discovery using “systematic creativity” and making difficult but critical strategic choices about a preferred future we can develop a language, understanding an approach to the future.

Miller and his colleagues used this approach successfully in work looking at the future of Ireland after the major financial crash of 2008-9. Using a futures literacy framework and processes he created Futures Ireland which was a learning and Imagineering organization, bringing together public, private and social interests to imagine and then act to create a better future for Ireland. There are a variety of reports of this work – all of which give emphasis to community engagement not just in describing the future, but in making it happen. Indeed, Futures Ireland made clear that the future is too important to be left to politicians alone.

The Work of Strategic Foresight

“Neither a wise man nor a brave man lies down on the tracks of history and waits for the train of the future to run over him” Dwight D Eisenhower

The key components of foresight work, for Riel Miller at UNESCO and many others – as I outlined in my two books about strategic foresight, are these:

Step 1: Context: Examine and critically reflect on the strategic context – what is happening and why and how does what is happening in one space (e.g. technology) connect to what is happening in another (e.g. demographics, the economy). Monitor shocks, breakthroughs, innovations, set-backs, risks and use this analysis to understand how organizations, professions, sectors of society are adapting.

Step 2: Engagement: Openly engage in a challenge dialogue with people of different views so as to understand the nuances of the way people and organizations are responding to change, challenge, opportunity, and the future. Don’t be captured by a dominant view – understand the range of views so as to better understand the resilience and vulnerabilities of systems.

Step 3: Patterns and Trends: Identify possible futures and trends – using some simple foresight tools (scenarios for possible futures, causal layer analysis for making sense of the findings of stage 2, forcefield analysis and the futures wheel for this stage), start to understand some of the strategic options for the future and develop in-depth views of different futures, as we did for the future of education in Alberta or others have done for the future of healthcare in Canada.

Step 4: Strategic Foresight Links to Strategic Planning: Based on the preferred and most likely scenarios (these may be two different things), start to understand what will be needed to execute strategy and practice effectively to ensure the best possible outcomes. What policies, investments, innovations, and practices are needed to facilitate the scenario and what risks need to be mitigated? This is about connecting strategic foresight to strategic planning – something I describe in detail in my book on How To Rethink the Future.

The endpoint is a shift in the way an organization plans and works towards its future. As Don Simpson and I suggested in our book on Renaissance Leadership, they stop planning from today forward and start “thinking back from the future”. They also look to the present “as if” it were the past so as not to feel wedded to the “way things are” and instead look at the way things will become as they work towards a preferred future.

Different foresight methodologies employ some of the same methods but for different purposes and with different orientations toward the future. There are no academic or industry standards in foresight practice, which can lead to a lack of robust commitment to its products. Foresight as futures literacy, according to Riel Miller at UNESCO, is an approach that develops the organizational capacity to explore and extend knowledge from the present to understand and create scenarios for projecting “possible, probable, and desirable” futures. A great many of us who practice the arts and sciences of strategic foresight are engaged in surfacing assumptions and mental models, encouraging reflection, understanding complexity, and extending collective vision beyond the boundaries of organizational knowledge. It is powerful work – and it is needed more than ever right now.

Principles of Strategic Foresight

businessman hand drawing plan a plan b

Strategic foresight, as previous posts have indicated (see here and here), is a discipline which is about understanding patterns and processes which will lead to a future. I say “a future” rather than “the future”, since there are many possible futures and much will depend on context, location and personal views of the situation in which one finds oneself.

Strategic foresight is about begins with being literate about the patterns, dynamics and actions which are shaping the future – demographics, changes in technology, new patterns of work and organization, climate change and the earth’s dynamics, the flow of capital and the shift of capital from tangible goods to intangibles and so on. It also requires an understanding of these patterns, dynamics and actions from both a socio-political point of view, psychological point of view, an economic point of view and a philosophic point of view. Understanding hermeneutics is just as important, in studying the future, as understanding economics.

But what are the principles which guide and shape the work of strategic foresight?

First, there are principles about the nature of the process of doing this work. The work is undertaken on the understanding that:

  1. We each have a capacity to imagine a plausible future and to act accordingly – the challenge is to understand what shapes this understanding of the future and to “unpick” the assumptions.
  2. The basic capacity of individuals and groups to imagine a plausible future is greatly varied – just look at Brexit as an example and the different views of what is possible and different understandings of what is actually happening – and, while each view will have key driving elements, not all can articulate and explore the consequences of their understanding and actions.
  3. Through a range of processes, including community engagement and work on foresight literacy, the clarity of understanding for individuals, groups and communities can be (to use the terms of Joshua Floyd) “honed, attuned, harnessed and coordinated” to provide greater clarity of their forward views.

When this work is done, there are some principles which shape the crafting of future views, excellently captured in the work of David Bengston. David suggests that if we look at the future in systematic and rigorous ways, we discover that our understanding is: (a) that the future is plural – there are many versions; (b) almost all scenarios of the future are possible, plausible, probably and preferable for some; (c) the future is open – the dynamics are such that things can change (just look at the speed of the melting of the ice on the earths ice caps); (d) the future is also fuzzy – as estimates of the impact of AI on the future of work clearly show; (e) the future is surprising – just a handful anticipated the election of Donald Trump as President of the US; (f) the future is also not surprising – for those who did see the rise of populism and its consequences (like my friend and colleague Chris Katurna), Donald Trump’s election was no surprise; (g) the future comes both fast and slow, as Daniel Kahneman reminded us; (h) the future is archetypal – as historians will tell you – patterns keep repeating themselves, as Jared Diamond observes in his various books, but most notably in his most recent book Upheaval; and finally (i) the future is both inbound and outbound – change that happens to us (inbound) and change that comes from us (outbound).

Understanding these principles makes for better strategic foresight literacy and more useful work for individuals, organizations and community in understanding their preferred future.

Five Challenges in the Practice of Strategic Foresight

Foresight practitioners have to be careful they do not get carried away by their work and imagine a future which is unlikely to happen.

For example, various predictions were made about the impact technology would have on universities and colleges with phrases like “the transformative power of technology to reshape the entire landscape of learning beyond school” being used to  describe the likely impact of massive open online courses (MOOCs) or artificial intelligence enabled adaptive learning systems. Some saw just a few universities surviving the arrival of these innovative and disruptive technologies. These imagineers underestimated the resilience of universities and their ability to resist disruption.

Another example is the peak oil prediction. By observing past discoveries and production levels, and predicting future discovery trends, the geoscientist M. King Hubbert used statistical modeling in 1956 to predict that United States oil production would peak between 1965 and 1971. This prediction appeared accurate for a time and explains some policies the US government then pursued with respect to foreign oil and aid. But what Hubbert did not factor into his analysis was that the scale of new oil discoveries would significantly impact availability as would new technologies which dramatically improved levels of extraction from conventional oil wells. Nor did he predict the availability of unconventional oil from oil-sands and fracking. Various models have been built since 1956 and peak oil is now predicted sometime between 2040 and 2060 by those who accept the basic premise that a natural resource cannot be “infinite”, but many (including industry leaders) do not accept this basic premise of “peak oil” at all.

The point here is simple, as previous posts have indicated, the future is messy and contains a variety of possibilities: it is not absolute. This gives rise to some cautions for those of us who practice foresight and seek to develop foresight literacy.

1.   The Challenge of Bias – one challenge, difficult to do, is to put aside bias and judgement so as to “just see” what is in front of us. Bias can take many forms, but the key is to adopt a scientific approach to the future and look at the challenge being addressed from a variety of angles. Even with an issue like climate change, where there is a dominant view amongst climatologists, the futurist must also look at what is behind climate skepticism and what evidence sceptics are using to make their case. We need to remember that “facts do not speak for themselves” – they have all been interpreted.

2.   Focusing on Growing Trends and Not Trends that are Weakening – one specific challenge for the futurist is that they are easily drawn into growing trends (like the current fascination with digital technologies and artificial intelligence), but pay less attention to weakening trends, such as church attendance or commitment to a specific religion. Both growing and weakening trends shape our future and a trend that is weakening right now, may return stronger later. One simply has to look at trends in fashion to see this – many 1990’s trends that went away are back again in 2019 (round glasses, dungarees, denim skirts, combat boots).

3.   Having a static vision of future trends. One aspect of the future which impacts everything we are doing is demographics. Yet, this is a dynamic space. For example, it is well established that the global population is growing quickly (9.7 billion by 2050) and that this presents a variety of sustainable development challenges. Yet this view masks lots of other aspects of this same trend – dramatic declines of population. Take Japan. By 2045 in many parts of Japan seniors (the over 65s) will account for 70%+ of a great many communities and the ratio of those in work to those not in work will be 1:1. Japan already has a debt:GDP problem (the ratio is 234.18%) and has significant economic challenges supporting this older population. The foresight challenge is to look both globally at a pattern (significant population growth) but also locally (some grow, some decline, some in steep decline) and then determine the consequences for the work in hand. Canada is a good example here too. Overall, we are facing a significant demograhic challenge as a country – our work:non work ratio (known as the dependency ratio)  will drop from 4:1 to 2:1 by 2040 and this will have dramatic impact. But some parts of the country are not going to be impacted in the same way (e.g. lower mainland of BC, Alberta, Greater Toronto). Foresight practitioners therefore have to think glocally.

4.   Overestimating the impact of change. The Gartner consulting organization did the foresight world a great service by developing the Gartner Hype Cycle which explores the nature of inflated expectations about a trend and then looks at what is likely to happen to that trend over time – when will it reach a slope of enlightenment and a plateau of productivity? Their work focuses on technology. For example, when will the driverless car stop being a hype, pass the trough of disillusionment and move into real productive performance? Every trend we look at should have its own hype curve.

5.   Overestimating absorption capacity. When I worked on innovation policies and strategies for various governments or companies one key learning was that change is a function of the capacity of an organization, community or person to absorb change. Many are resistant to change (hence the Rogers adoption curve) and change takes longer than many think. More seriously, many change efforts fail. McKInsey report that some 70% of organizational change efforts either do not produce the intended results or fail altogether. Why? The organization does not have the capacity to change. So simply describing the need to change, given the foresight available, does not “make it so”. It is a hard lesson to learn.

6.   Black Swans are events that come as a surprise and have a major effect, yet are often rationalized afterwards as “with hindsight”, we should have seen this coming. This whole thinking was drawn to our attention by the excellent writing of Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his book about this topic. He gives a wonderful examples. Turkeys are surprised at the loss of their friends and relatives at both Thanksgiving and Christmas, but butchers and chefs are not. He advice “don’t be the turkey!”. The trick here for foresight practitioners is not to try and predict the black swan, but to better understand the robustness and resilience of the systems we are looking at and their ability to respond to a sudden and unanticipated disruption. That is, we need to ask: “what would it take for the system we are looking at to become antifragile?”.

These are six issues which strategic foresight practitioners need to be conscious of and actively engaged in exploring as they look at a specific domain or system. For example, in looking at the future of public education in a specific jurisdiction, we might ask – “what are we biased against and for?”, “what trends and patterns are strengthening and what are weakening?”, “what are the local variations in trends we should better understand?”, “how resilient and absorptive is the school system in this jurisdiction – how precarious is it?” and “how can we strengthen the antifragility of this system so that it is better prepared for a sudden shock or change?”.

Strategic foresight is about foresight literacy, not prediction. It is about engaging communities of interest to improve their practice. We need to be aware of the challenges of this work each day we practice.

Preferred Futures

digital rendering of a mainboard

“The power of creating a better future is contained in the present moment: you create a good future by creating a good present” – Eckhart Tolle 

One thing that is clear to many of us is that the conditions are emerging which will make a large, global recession more than likely in the next 2-3 years. Part of the reason for this is the significant and substantial growth of government, corporate and personal debt but also the massive growth of unfunded pension liabilities in the public and private sectors. Debt is everywhere and is sustained by the bond market, which only has so much capacity to buy debt against promises of future money (which the central banks will simply “print” through a ledger transaction).

This is all made worse by the reliance of a great many governments – several US States, the US Federal Government, several non-Euro European countries – on “trickle-down economics” – the idea that cutting taxes on corporations and wealthy people stimulates the economy, create jobs and stimulates the economy. There is no credible evidence to support this idea, yet it continues as a practice. Donald Trump’s tax cuts have had no positive impact on economic activity (and his trade wars have made the economy vulnerable to recession), but did lead to a massive transfer of wealth from public good to the very wealthy while most citizens paid more tax, not less.

At the same time, economies are transitioning from wealth based on human capital to wealth driven by intangibles; from wealth growing through profit to wealth growing through intangibles + debt (e.g. Tesla, Uber); and to economies where inequality is growing.

While many countries seek to “balance budgets”, almost none are and most can’t. Even Germany – held up as a model economy in Europe – has a debt : GDP ratio of 59%. Others are much worse – China (65%), UK (86%), France (96%), US (107%), Italy (131%) and Japan (236%) – are all in serious trouble.  Nonetheless, the policies and practices that “got us into this mess” continue to drive behaviour and the mess is getting, well “messier”. This is not a preferred future. 

A preferred economic future seems to have four components: (a) economic strategies focused not on the growth of material corporate wealth, but on personal, family and community wellbeing (New Zealand has just framed its economic strategy in this way); (b) economic strategy aimed at greater equality, not less – a description of most Scandinavian economies (and Iceland); (c) a strategy that supports life-long learning and life-long health over corporate profit; and (d) a strategy that embraces sustainable development in all of its aspects.

What is now needed is a pathway to this future, which will involve a “reset” of the capitalist frame in which GDP growth “at any cost” is seen as preferable to human development. 

One country – New Zealand – wants to see a different pathway for the future. Contrary to most national spending plans, the goal of the coming 2020 appropriations is not to boost gross domestic product or ensure economic growth, but to increase the happiness of the country’s citizens. In the next fiscal year, all of New Zealand’s noncore spending must be oriented toward five well-being goals: improving mental health, reducing child poverty, supporting indigenous people, transitioning to a low-emissions economy and thriving in a digital age. And to measure success, the government will track nontraditional indicators such as perceived environmental quality and sense of belonging.

New Zealand is a small country – less than 5 million people – but is working towards a preferred future. Many other countries are simply continuing a preferred future from the 1960’s that stopped being preferred by most of their citizens in the mid 1990’s. Time for change.

Four Futures

I recommend reading an excellent book by Peter Frase called Four Futures – Life After Capitalism (London: Verso Books, 2016). He begins by explaining why we should take two thing for granted: (a) that capitalism is in its final stages and will collapse; and (b) climate change is real and will continue to have an ever increasing impact on us all and, more specifically, how we spend our time and earn a living. He then looks at for possible futures based on two dimensions. Dimension 1 is the extent to which we live in a hierarchical society or one based on equality; Dimension 2 is focused on the availability of goods and services – will their be abundance or scarcity (think food, shelter, water, housing).Putting these two dimensions together in a matrix gives us this:

  • Abundance / Hierarchy gives us rentism (we rent what we need)
  • Abundance / Equity gives us communism (we share all we have)
  • Scarcity / Hierarchy gives us exterminism (the survival of the fittest)
  • Scarcity / Equity gives us socialism

The book then describes each of these four scenarios without preferring one over another. As Peter says, we need to determine which of these scenarios we prefer and then act accordingly.

As a futurist and author of books on the future, this is good stuff – clear, focused and very well written. It helps us reflect on what the “big” picture really is. I have some quibbles with Peter’s text (for example, he underestimates the potential of technology and overestimates the willingness of people to engage in meaningful change quickly), but it is an excellent book, well worth a read.

The Cassandra Syndrome

In Greek mythology, Apollo gives Cassandra the gift of prophecy: the ability to foresee the future.  He did so with the intention of seducing her but when she ultimately rejected him, he “hexed” her with a curse of never being believed.  Even though Cassandra had the power to predict the future and would warn people when something bad was about to happen, no one believed her.  She was dismissed and rejected, regarded by the townspeople as an insane liar.  The curse of never being believed became a source of pain and frustration throughout Cassandra’s life.  Despite her powers as a clairvoyant, she was all but invisible.

Many strategic foresight practitioners, who are not in the business of predicting but are in the business of drawing attention to the patterns and features which are reshaping the landscape on which we are all moving, have clients who demonstrate the Casandra syndrome. They don’t believe you.

A case in point. Many years ago, I was working with Blockbuster US. They were asking me and my team to look at their future and help them think strategically. This was in 1998-9. We advised the Board to buy a start-up called Netflix (founded in 1997 by Reed Hastings and Marc Rudolph) since we took the view that the internet was the future of viewing.  We had met with Hastings and Rudolph and understood what they were seeing. (As an aside, I had created the world’s first fully online MBA in 1994, so was also ahead of the curve). The Blockbuster team not only did not believe us (“you can’t be serious!”), they fired us as consultants.

There are several reasons why strategic foresight practitioners have this challenge. Three in particular are important:

  1. Locked In Minds – At Blockbuster, they could not imagine the internet becoming powerful enough to permit streaming of videos. They had a point. At the time, download and upload speeds were low, ownership of desktops was just beginning to grow and the habits were still focused on watching TV in real time and watching video. Our point – that Moore’s law meant that this would all change by no later than 2003-4 and that is when their game would change was met with blank stares. What this team would think of the imminent arrival of 5G I can only dare to think! But they could not open their minds to a possible different future. They were locked in.
  2. Risk and Reward – It takes a big risk maker to switch strategies. The risks are high – they have to be the future of the company. Few would do this. But this is what is sometimes takes.
  3. Thinking from Now Forward versus Back from the Future – Most management work is about planning and project management. They look at the current situation and ask “what will it take to get from where we are to where we need to be?”. Most strategic foresight work asks a different question “What do we have to change to get to where the future will be?”. The first question is thinking from now to the future, the second is thinking from the future back to now. These two questions most often have very different answers.

These are three reasons to put some emphasis in management development on futures literacy – there are many more. But by helping more people understand that the future is not a straight line from the past and often involves significant disruption, then the more likely we are to have future-focused leadership.

The Future of Work

The Royal Society of Arts has been exploring the future of work, which links nicely to me own work on strategic foresight (see here) and they have used a simple scenarios of the future model to look at four futures:

  • The Big Tech Economy describes a world where most technologies develop at a rapid pace, from self-driving cars to additive manufacturing. A new machine age delivers significant improvements in the quality of products and public services, while the cost of everyday goods including transport and energy plummets. However, unemployment and economic insecurity creep upwards, and the spoils of growth are offshored and concentrated in a handful of US and Chinese tech behemoths. The dizzying pace of change takes workers and unions by surprise, leaving them largely incapable of responding.
  • The Precision Economy portrays a future of hyper surveillance. Technological progress is moderate, but a proliferation of sensors allows firms to create value by capturing and analyzing more information on objects, people and the environment. Gig platforms take on more prominence and rating systems become pervasive in the workplace. While some lament these trends as invasive, removing agency from workers and creating overly competitive workplace cultures, others believe they have ushered in a more meritocratic society where effort is more generously rewarded. A hyper connected society also leads to wider positive spill overs, with less waste as fewer resources are left idle.
  • The Exodus Economy is characterized by an economic slowdown. A crash on the scale of 2008 dries up funding for innovation and keeps the UK trapped in a low skilled, low productivity and low pay paradigm. Faced with another bout of austerity, workers lose faith in the ability of capitalism to improve their lives, and alternative economic models gather interest. Cooperatives and mutual society’s emerge in large numbers to serve people’s core economic needs in food, energy and banking. While some workers struggle on poverty wages, others discover ways to live more self-sufficiently, including by moving away from urban areas.
  • The Empathy Economy envisages a future of responsible stewardship. Technology advances at a clip, but so too does public awareness of its dangers. Tech companies self-regulate to stem concerns and work hand in hand with external stakeholders to create new products that work on everyone’s terms. Automation takes places at a modest scale but is carefully managed in partnership with workers and unions. Disposable income, kept aloft by high employment, flows into ‘empathy sectors’ like 8 The Four Futures of Work education, care and entertainment. This trend is broadly welcomed but brings with it a new challenge of emotional labour, defined as managing one’s emotions, even suppressing them, to meet the needs of others.

The RSA, of which I am a Fellow, does interesting work and this long report about the future of work is an example of this. Well worth the read.

The Human Implant and the Future

Yuval Noah Harari is one of the great thinkers of our age. His books – Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century – have been very influential. He is a historian both of the past and the future.

In a recent presentation Harari talked about the coming fusion of the human body and technology. Implants of a variety of kinds will make a great difference to how we see ourselves. Thought-based computing, voice and movement driven technologies (already present) will advance to the point at which the internet of things becomes more than an idea, but a part of how we live our lives.

One of the ways in which these emerging approaches to the human : technology interface come together is through the development of implants – devices that can be inserted into the human body. For example, there is considerable work taking place enabling the development of the artificial pancreas –  a man-made device that is designed to release insulin in response to changing blood glucose levels in a similar way to a human pancreas. Clinical trials are underway for a number of devices, which will replace the existing systems for delivering insulin to those with Type 1 diabetes. Such current systems include an implant, supported by external technologies (e.g. the Minimed 670G which includes an implant, an external monitoring device which adjusts insulin delivery every five minutes automatically, using an insulin “reservoir” attached to the body).

But this kind of development is just the beginning. Work is ongoing to develop brain implants which can stimulate areas of the brain controlling motor functions. Using small electrical charges managed externally through a device similar to a Smartphone, patients experiencing mobility issues can receive electronic brain stimulation which enables and encourages movement. It has been used successfully with patients experiencing Parkinson’s disease. Cochlear implants now help more than 200,000 deaf people annually in the US hear by converting sound into electrical signals and sending them to the auditory nerve.

Meanwhile, early experiments have shown that implanted electrodes can allow paralyzed people to move robotic arms with their thoughts. Other researchers have had preliminary success with artificial retinas in blind people.

Such work is leading others to explore the idea of cognitive implants – brain augmentation devices that support cognitive functions. One such device is an implant that supports and enables memory – a kind of neural prostheses. Developed initially for those in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, the device seeks to supplement memory functions through electrical stimulation of neural pathways – memory functioning improved by up to 15% in a sample of patients.

In the United States, The Defense Advanced Research Agency (DARA) is ready to run trials with closed-loop mood control chips linked to AI that can deliver an electrical impulse intended to regulate a soldier’s mood. In the private sector, Elon Musk has announced Neuralink — a neurotechnology venture that will focus on fighting diseases and also on augmenting humans so they can better compete with machines. Musk aims to change how we interact with devices by linking our brains to the machines we interact with most often: cars, mobile devices, and even smart items in our smart home. For now, the company’s first products will probably be advanced implants designed to treat brain disorders like epilepsy or depression.

Many other similar developments are taking place – implants aimed at improving our ability to learn, hear, translate, see and move are all in development, many aided by artificial intelligence systems. In education, teams are working on AI supported implants that can boost intelligence – over US$100million has been pledged to a company called Kernel which aims to bring such a product to market by 2020.  Students struggling to understand and remember may soon be able to augment their brains with implants.

Just ten years ago, many of these developments would be thought of as science fiction, yet they are starting to appear, and investors are emerging who believe that market share for implants will grow. Indeed, the global market size for brain implants is anticipated to reach USD$8.29 billion by 2025, according to a report by Grand View Research, Inc., rising at a CAGR of 11.9% during the forecast period. Companies like Boston Scientific, Medtronic, St. Jude Medical, Nevro Corporation, NeuroPace Inc., and NDI Medical LLC are seen to be market leaders in this work. Most are focused on health, but education is now beginning to attract their attention.

Harari explores these developments but also issues a caution. Many of those engaged in technology development are technologists. They are disconnected to the world they are trying to change. For example, few of those offering technological “solutions” for education have ever taught in schools or managed school systems, yet they have “solutions” to the problems they imagine schools, teachers and students to have. Until there is more genuine engagement with the day to day world of students, patients, citizens by those “offering” solutions, we are in danger of technology led change as opposed to change based on authentic need. This is a major challenge.

We should also be conscious of “hype” here. The consulting group Gartner developed what is known as the “hype” curve, which looks like this:

When we hear of a technology which sound exciting, we need to place it somewhere on this curve. Many great sounding technologies never get past the peak of inflated expectations – BetaMax, Google Glass, Dreamcast, TiVo. So as to understand the future, we need to learn from the past. Which is why Harari is so helpful. Being a historian, he is looking at historical patterns and the shape of history in thinking about the future (the hype-curve is a historical shape made clear).

The In-Between Time – The Transition from Old to New

It is clear to a great many that late stage capitalism is becoming unsustainable for four big reasons.

The first is that it has led the creation of environmental unsustainability. All scientists agree that climate change is happening and that humans are a contributor to the changes in the patterns of weather and that these changes are impacting species, soils, watersheds, oceans and air. Changing what we do and how we do it, especially our use of fossil fuels, is a key response to this challenge. Investments are quickly shifting from old forms of energy to new and from old models of manufacturing to new. As the world population rises to between 9.5 and 10 billion people, our use of natural resources (especially water) will place continuing strain on the planet.

The second big reason is debt. Global debts from all sources – governments, corporations and individuals – is now in excess of $250 trillion. In addition, global unfunded pension liabilities are growing very quickly and, if unchecked, will add $400 trillion to the global debt mountain by 2050 and this from just eight countries (US, UK, Japan, Netherlands, Canada, Australia, China and India. In the US alone, unfunded pension liabilities are already $28 trillion and will rise to $137 trillion by 2050 if no action is taken. The world already has $17 trillion in negative equity bonds. The market cannot absorb the growing debt and the world will periodically experience significant recessions as the debt-cycles replace growth.

The third big reason is inequality, especially income inequality. The top 1% now own 44% of the world’s wealth, with the rich taking ever increasing share of wealth created by workers. This has many significant impacts on the world’s economy – not least of which is that wealth holders distort the political process. The richest people in the US now pay less income tax than the middle class as a result of their political lobbying. The neo-liberal adoption of “trickle-down” economics, widely shown not to work at all (even by the IMF), has been encouraged and enabled by those who benefit – the rich and the super-rich.

The fourth big reason for late stage capitalism to be “in trouble” is the emergence of technology. Technology has always disrupted economies – machinery disrupted the agrarian economy, global supply chains enabled by rapid transport systems disrupted national and regional economies, the internet has disrupted a great many sectors of the economy. But the emerging technologies such as AI, robots, 3D printing, stem-cell enabled bio-parts, augmented and virtual reality will reduce the demand for certain kinds of labour, change the relationship between labour and profitability and dramatically change the skills required to enter the labour market. As Pierre Trudeau said in his 2019 speech at Davos, referring to the impact of these emerging technologies on business models, “the pace of change has never been this fast, yet will never be this slow again”.  In particular, some 30-40% of all jobs will require employees to adapt to and work with technology in ways not seen before. While some new jobs will be created, profit will no longer lead to more employment. We already see this in the energy sector where profits remain high, but employment is lowered because of the adoption of “smart” technologies.

These four factors (along with several others, such as demographics, changes in the structure of organizations, the growth of the gig economy, the growth of the intangible economy) are all changing our world quickly – too fast for a great many people. Indeed, a theme of a great deal of foresight work is that we are living in “an in-between time” – a time between our current way of working and a new way of working – a time between labour intensive capitalism and capitalism that is intangible and requires less labour. It will impact us all.

Experience of Loss of The Future

The future world will require more from those who work in terms of creativity, curiosity and commitment. It will not be a place where a great many of those with low levels of cognitive skills, low levels of literacy and a disrespect for life-long learning will do well. Indeed, much of the anger and anxiety about our society which can be seen in political discourse and social transactions relates to the inner anxiety about how “we fit” into the new world that is emerging.

We can usefully look at Kubler-Ross’s work on how people cope with death and dying as a way of understanding what is happening now.

As people lose the sense that they understand how the world works and what the near and medium term future will look like for them, their thinking and experience shifts through a number of stages:

  • Shock that their understanding of the world and how it works (especially for them) no longer holds true.
  • Denial that the world they know and understand will not return as it was.
  • Anger and Frustration with all, most especially those who they see as representing the different future – the one they are resisting in the hope that the “old and familiar” future will return.

  • Bargaining about how they can “live” in the new world while retaining some semblance of the old.
  • Depression when they release that the bargaining they were engaged in will not lead to what it was they had hoped for. This often leads to a return to anger and frustration and a new attempt at bargaining – this can be a repeated cycle for some time.
  • Decision to accept that the world has changed and that they need to move on.
  • Integration of the new understanding of the world into the way in which they live their lives.

It should be clear that not everyone who experiences the sense of loss of the future as they had understood it will successfully move through these stages. Many get stuck at anger and frustration or are locked into the anger-bargaining-depression cycle and repeat it many times.

One consequence of this experience are challenges around mental health and wellness. It is no surprise that, in all sectors of society and at all ages, we see a mental health pandemic. Whether it is rates of anxiety, depression, addiction or suicide – the numbers are rising as quickly as society and our economy is changing.

The In Between Time

We can see what is happening as an in-between time – a time between the old and a the new economy, between an old form of capitalism and a new form of capitalism, a time between a stable planet and an unstable one.

For individuals and families, the in-between time is full of uncertainties, risk and cost. Trying to make decisions now which will produce outcomes 2-3 years from now produces a great deal of anxiety. Is a college or university education worth the growing cost and debt and if it is, what should I study that will give me some surety about future work? Is this a good time to marry and, if it is, where is the best place for us to live and work? What about having children – given the state of the planet and the uncertainty about the future, what world will be leaving them? Shall I try for this job – if so, how long might it last?

To make this very real, look at the decision someone made four years ago to study petroleum engineering in an oil rich place like Alberta. Four years ago, companies were hit by a major downturn with a great many lay-offs. While the big companies that account for 80% of production continue to be highly profitable, they leveraged the downturn to focus on innovative technologies that enable them to produce a growing volume of oil and gas with much less labour. Now the sector in Alberta employs fewer than 20,000 people and is no longer an engine of employment, though continues to have undue influence over our economy and politics. That petroleum engineer is now most likely to find work in some other part of the world or in another sector that can use his technical and thinking skills – a sector not connected with petroleum.

The in-between time is messy, painful and difficult and, for some, can last a long time. It is a necessary phrase in a transitional economy. We all need to understand that this is happening and, more importantly, we cannot go back to the past since the future is pulling whether we like it or not.