A Foresight Renaissance Ahead
We appear to have recently entered a Foresight Spring, a time of rapidly rising public and professional interest in futures thinking and foresight practice. There is now so much good work happening in organizational foresight specialties like forecasting, analytics, risk management, innovation management, planning, entrepreneurship, design, and intelligence, that we can predict a Foresight Renaissance ahead.
Reddit’s r/Futurology, one of the best communities for posting and commenting on foresight material, has grown from 160K to 3.5M subscribers from April 2014 to June 2015. Futures thinking in the US, among the general public, may finally have become even more popular now, both as a percentage of the public and in absolute numbers, than it was in its last Apollo-era heyday. Magical things are beginning to happen around us due to accelerating science and tech, and today’s youth expect them to continue. When sections III and IV of the JOBS Act become law in late 2015, as they are widely expected to do, Equity Crowdfunding (Crowdfounding), seems likely to catalyze a new surge of future-oriented startups as well. For the first time, average, nonaccredited investors will be able to invest in small companies via online platforms. Small businesses will finally gain a more level access to credit, and entrepeneurship-style foresight (driven by visions to create particular futures) will accelerate.
Just as the European Renaissance (literally, “rebirth”) laid the groundwork for our modern sciences, a Foresight Renaissance must exceed our previous best era of Peak Foresight, eventually culminating in a new Enlightenment. Among many fruits of that Enlightenment, this time we can hope it will produce a set of true social sciences of foresight, an old vision of many scholars in our field. History tells us the scientific method isn’t one method, but a collection of methods and models, the first of which emerged in the 17th century, and which eventually matured into the set of enterprises we now call science.
Likewise, foresight isn’t one method, but a collection of useful methods and models that will also mature, perhaps mid-21st century, into a set of grounded qualitative and quantitative social sciences, disciplines that can be creative, anticipatory, and managerial as appropriate. Society can be analyzed from a wide range of disciplines, anthropology, biology, chemistry, cognitive science, development, economics, engineering, evolution, complexity, computation, cybernetics, information theory, linguistics, physical sciences, psychology, semantics, statistics, and systems theory, to name a few. These and other sciences are improving their methods and models, inevitably leading us to better understanding and anticipation of social systems.
As we have just seen, as our models and evidence gathering proceed, foresight can split into competing schools, each with their own conflicting views of the future. Such disagreements are healthy, and they generate pressure for each school to clarify its assumptions, theory, and predictions, and seek experiments and evidence that would resolve their disagreements. In this way, step by step, our field advances.
Many developments are taking us in in a more scientific and quantitative direction. Most obvious are the accelerating changes in information technology since the mid-1990s, including the rise of the web, simulations, maps, sensors, mobile and wearable tech, social networks, enterprise software, cloud computing, and many others. These permanent new developments in our computational and collaboration abilities are creating an environment where far more of the world is quantified, visualized, evidence-based, and statistically predictable. We are even seeing promising developments in economics, a social science that may become much more predictive as it finally begins to understand and model accelerating technical productivity. See Brynjolfsson and McAfee’s excellent The Second Machine Age (2014) for more on that exciting story.