NEXT: Futurists Create Images of the Future, Not Predictions

David Staley David Staley NEXT: Futurists Create Images of the Future, Not Predictions
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Given the state of the world right now, it did not seem appropriate to discuss the future when the present is hanging so heavy over us. This month, I’d like to reflect on what it means to be a futurist, especially when presented with the opportunity to assess your own work.

As a futurist, I am not in the prediction business. I do not believe that precise prediction is possible, except in exceptional cases and usually when discussing simple systems. I can predict that it will be cold in Columbus next January, but that is not the kind of prediction most people are interested in hearing about. Most systems—especially systems involving human beings—are what is known as complex adaptive systems. Even if we understand every individual part of the system, in complex systems the interactions of these parts are such that we cannot predict the behavior of the system as a whole. At best, we can only posit possible behaviors (plural) the system might exhibit.

Futurists explore the possible behaviors of complex adaptive systems. We try to anticipate what’s next and to think through possibilities and implications of various scenarios, to better prepare us for what might come. This has led me to re-read one of my columns from two years ago, which is posted here

NEXT: What if There Were Another Global Pandemic?

Some aspects of the scenario seem to be unfolding as I imagined. I wrote:

It is possible that, in America, another response to the crisis would be a WWII-like, all-hands-on-deck, public “pandemic mobilization” campaign. That citizens would set aside the partisan squabbles that are causing so much dysfunction in American public life, and instead work together to combat a common, indiscriminate, external foe, something like what happened (briefly) after 9/11.

Other aspects are unfolding differently than I had originally imagined. For example, my column was about an influenza outbreak, not coronavirus. And there are some facets of the unfolding crisis that are still to be determined:

A global pandemic today would surely mean restrictions on travel, with national governments throwing up all sorts of barriers to outsiders entering a country, which could accelerate global trends toward nationalism and “Us First-ism.” Global trade would certainly be impacted, with a recession or depression a distinct possibility.

A simple overview of what I wrote two years ago might lead to a simple headline, like “Futurist gets it right.” Two years ago, I was writing about one scenario with an indeterminate probability of actually occurring. Having imagined the possibility, we can still be shocked by events, certainly, but perhaps not surprised.  

David Staley is Director of the Humanities Institute and a professor at The Ohio State University. He is host of the “Voices of Excellence” podcast and host of CreativeMornings Columbus.

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