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The Future is a Virus (my Swedish Twitter University "talk")

Not literally, of course. But if we think about the future as something that infects us, we gain a new perspective on our world.

Human civilization has a weak immune system when it comes to futures. We can sometimes recognize when something big is imminent, and act. We rely on clumsy, inefficient tools like finance, religion, even "look before you leap" to make us look forward and consider our choices. So more often than not, we're taken by surprise, shocked when something big happens "out of the blue." We haven't prepared for big changes. Our immune system needs to be strengthened. But how do we do something like that? (I suspect you know the answer.)

First, a digression: a biological immune system works by encountering a pathogen, then generating antibodies to fight that pathogen. The body now recognizes that pathogen, so if it's encountered again, the body is ready to fight it off. That's roughly how it all works. Now, some pathogens can be deadly, and getting infected the first time doesn't help the immune system if you're dead! But there's a trick. We figured out that infecting the body with a weakened form of a pathogen still triggers the body's immune response, generating antibodies. A vaccination makes the body sensitive to the appearance of a pathogen, and ready to fight--even if you never actually encounter that bug!

In my view, futurism ("strategic foresight," "scenario planning") is a vaccination for our civilization's immune system. It strengthens us. By introducing us to different possible futures, we become sensitive to those potential outcomes, and able to recognize their early signs. We can think about how we would respond to different futures, and argue about what would be desirable *before* it happens... if it happens. That "if" is important. Most of the forecast futures *won't* happen, and even the "real" future won't look exactly like our scenarios. It will have bits and pieces from multiple forecast futures, and some items that we didn't catch. We'll still be surprised by some things.

But it turns out that planning for a set of different possible futures is a good way to prepare, even if the real future is different. There's usually enough overlap, enough "economies of scope" allowing plans and solutions built for one issue to be effective for another. And even when reality takes us by surprise, the very act of thinking about, preparing for different futures gives us a better perspective. We're more attuned to how seemingly unrelated factors can combine, leading to novel outcomes. We're sensitive to the power of contingency. Diversity of ideas strengthens us; we're more flexible and adaptive. We can't let ourselves get trapped by thinking about just one future.

Sadly, many of our world's business, government, and cultural leaders see thinking about the future as silly, or unprofitable, or dangerous. Forecasts that violate dogma or ideology are ignored. Scenarios that demand big changes to head off disaster are rejected as "impossible." Our civilization's body is rejecting its own immune system. We're making ourselves vulnerable because we don't like what we see. But as Bruce Sterling said, "The future is a process, not a destination." We can change this. We have to act to build the future that we want.


I read Alvin Toffler's book "Future Shock" years ago and it caused me to sit up and take notice. I have to admit that I haven't done much in the realm of reshaping the future; although, I am in awe of it's unfolding before me each day! I thank you and others that pull back the curtain and allow me to peek at the posibilities!

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