Top Introductory Foresight Books – A Starter List
These are my current most-recommended reads for Introductory Foresight, in two categories: Big Picture Vision books (where our civilization is going, and why certain kinds of change will likely run faster every year for the rest of our lives) and Foresight Process and Culture books (what foresight is, and how to do better and wiser future-oriented work in your org).
I particularly recommend these books for students at the beginning of their educational programs, workers at the start of their careers, or those thinking of a career or position change, and leaders who need to improve foresight process and culture in their organizations, and inspire their teams to create better future visions, and more effective goals and strategy.
Big Picture Vision Books:
- Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, Steven Pinker (2018). Explores how our increasingly evidence-based and cooperative societies, and science and technology themselves, are accelerating human progress around the world. In those places where it isn’t, we need better foresight, ethics, and collective action to rise to our challenges. Our next-gen web and personal AIs, as learning systems, will help us greatly in that regard. No book is perfect, and Pinker unfortunately downplays the corrosive effects of plutocracy. He also does not see the growing problem (and the solutions) for creating safe, moral artificial intelligence. Otherwise, this book is excellent.
- Factfulness: Ten Ways We’re Wrong About the World, and Why Its Better Than You Think, Hans Rosling (2018). One of the most important books of the last decade. Bill Gates personally offered a free e-copy of the book to all US college grads in 2018. Check out Rosling’s 12 question “State of the World” test. Of the 12,000 people who have taken his dozen-question test, in 14 countries, 80% score worse than random. Old information, emotional-cognitive biases and the media skew them to see civilization’s problems as much worse than they actually are, in ten classic ways. Only 10% do better, and none of the 12,000 people got all twelve questions right. Do you have any of Rosling’s ten biases? I got only 9 of the 12 questions right, and I pride myself on seeing the positive trends in the world. Take the test yourself and see how well you do! I’m curious. This book is not explicitly acceleration aware, which is one of its few shortcomings, but it is very much aware of global development, and it uses measurement, facts and evidence to chronicle the effects of accelerating scientific and technical change, and the economic and social change that sci-tech acceleration drives.
- Infinite Progress: How Tech Ends Ignorance, Disease, Poverty, and War, Byron Reese (2013) How science and technology acceleration, and human cooperation, drive progress. Better understanding and using science and technology has become the primary way to significantly improve our personal, organizational, and global futures.
- Life 3.0: Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence, Max Tegmark (2017). Great general intro, by a top physicist, to the many emerging varieties of our increasingly bio-derived AI, and the challenges using these learning systems in the most humanizing ways we can. It loses points for its naive proposal that our military should ban R&D on autonomous, AI-against-human combat systems. That would never happen, as our Department of Defense needs to be the best at employing such systems to counter rogue actors using AI. It’s major problem is that it ignores machine morality, artificial immune systems, and artificial selection. Just as our AI is increasingly borrowing from natural neural network processes to be more effective, it will borrow our natural approach to social morality, empathy, and immunity as well. We will use testing and selection to domesticate our AIs just like we domesticated our animals. We won’t let the unethical ones breed, and we’ll keep plenty of ethical and loyal AIs around to police the rogue AIs that will inevitably occasionally emerge. Otherwise, this book is excellent.
- Machine | Platform | Crowd: Harnessing Our Digital Future, McAfee and Brynjolfsson (2017) A fantastic overview of current tectonic shifts in the business technology landscape, toward a heavier reliance on machines (in the human-machine partnership), platforms (in the platform-product-service partnership) and crowds (in the crowd-hierarchy partnership). This book will give you lots of investment tips as well.
- The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, Steven Pinker (2012). Perhaps the most important book of the last decade. Certainly the most courageous. Pinker carefully makes the case over nearly 900 pages, that the average per capita violence of humans against other humans and of societies against their citizens has precipitously declined, both over the last few millennia and over the last two hundred years. Our ability to use technology to cause violence in individual cases has of course grown, but so has our self-regulation, so that the average use of violence, and its severity, has continued to decline. There are terrible exceptions to this megatrend, like World Wars I and II, the Soviet pogroms, and the Great Famine in China in the 20th century under Mao, but they haven’t been large or long enough to reverse the megatrend, when we view violence over macrohistorical timescales. We also recover from these brief instances of insanity ever more quickly, the more digital and connected human civilization becomes. The causal factors for this decline are still unclear, but Pinker explores a number of possible models. Perhaps his greatest contribution is that he got leading thinkers seeing and debating the megatrend, after many decades of denial. The trend was obvious even in the mid-20th century, we just weren’t ready to see it. Once we see the trend, we can begin to study it. Unfortunately, humans being what we are, there are still many of us that don’t want to see this trend. Almost all of us have a pervasive emotional-cognitive bias to doubt, fear, and dystopias first and to trust, hope and positive futures second. Nick Taleb is a brilliant but also pugnacious and egotistical academic who delights in critiquing others, and imagining he’s smarter than everyone else. In 2016 (here and here), he and a co-author, Pasquale Cirillo, used statistical arguments to argue against the megatrend of decreasing and increasingly regulated global violence. Taleb has written some great books I recommend, including Fooled by Randomness and The Black Swan. But don’t be fooled by his specious and self-satisfying attempt to deny the megatrend. In my read on his psychology, Taleb is using his statistical education, and his love of a fight, to try to deny a process that goes against the random, evolution-centric way Taleb wants to see the world. But as we discuss in Chapter 11, the world is not just evolutionary, it is evolutionary developmental, or “evo devo”. Fail to see the megatrends of global and civilization development and you rob yourself of the biggest picture of human and universal processes of change.
- The Fourth Age: Smart Robots, Conscious Computers, and the Future of Humanity, Byron Reese (2018) A truly excellent Big Picture overview of the single most important outcome of accelerating change: artificial intelligences will keep emerging, at an ever faster pace, over the remainder of the 21st century. In the long run, this emergence is very highly likely to be good, in my and Reese’s view. But unless we cultivate foresight, we can take some pretty bad paths to a much more intelligent and antifragile future. The choice is ours.
- The Guardian of All Things: The Epic Story of Human Memory, Michael Malone (2012). One of the great unrecognized purposes of life is that it accumulates, communicates, and selects ever more useful and hierarchical forms of information and intelligence. As information and intelligence evolve and develop, they increasingly change our local environment. All of humanity’s great advances have been driven by information revolutions, and this book tells that megastory well. We are engaged in many kinds of information revolutions today. If you want to make the world a better place, figure out how to better record, share, compete, select, and improve all the information we have, of every type. We don’t yet have an Einstein of information theory that can tell us this in mathematical terms, but I think we can already argue that improving our intelligence, interdependence (ethics and empathy), and immunity, and all the freedoms, options, and abilities that come as those values grow, is humanity’s central purpose, in my view.
- The Inevitable: Understanding the Twelve Technological Forces that Will Shape Our Future, Kevin Kelly (2016) A great guide to technological megatrends that will shape our world for the next twenty years, from a master big picture futurist. I would argue that megatrend two, cognifying, is even more central and important to our future than Kelly presently recognizes and describes.
- The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet, Ramez Naam (2013) A sober account of the environmental cost of economic growth to date, and an intro to the dematerialized, sustainable world of the coming information age. Only human ideas, tech, and collaboration are powerful enough to solve the problems we’ve created with tech.
- The Second Machine Age, Brynjolfsson and McAfee (2014) Great intro to accelerating technical productivity, some social and political implications of that productivity, and why most economists still don’t know how to model our exponential future.
- The Step to Man: On the Evolving Social and Intellectual Nature of Humanity, John R. Platt (1965) This luminous book is an heir to the developmental societal foresight of folks like Antoine de Condorcet, Herbert Spencer, Henry Adams, H.G. Wells, Teilhard de Chardin, Norbert Elias, and others who recognized there is an arc of history that is civilizing us, and integrating us ever more tightly in to one global supersociety, with both breathtaking new levels of specialization and diversity and simultaneous new levels of interdependence and common purpose, an interdependence that increasingly mimics that seen in any living organism. Platt also recognized our universe appears tuned for both the growth of science (the emergence of mind) and for life and intelligence fecundity and protection. Perhaps only thing Platt misses in his deep analysis is the universal nature of accelerating change (and thus, the acceleration of mind). One of the best societal foresight books in my collection.
- The Tomorrow Makers: The Brave New World of Living-Brain Machines, Grant Fjermedal (1986) Written thirty-five years before the deep learning revolution circa 2010, this book paints a deeply prescient look at the future of AI as it increasingly simulates the thinking and feeling processes used by biological brains and bodies. Fjermedal interviews three of the four then-50ish founding fathers of AI: Alan Newell, Marvin Minsky, and John McCarthy (Herbert Simon is the fourth). He also interviews a young Hans Moravec, Danny Hillis, Rodney Brooks, AI skeptics including Hubert Dreyfus, and many students and hackers then passionately pursuing the dream of building software and robotic simulations of human beings, and “downloading” the contents of human minds into robotically-embodied computers, what we now more commonly call mind uploading. He explores the personal, social, economic, political, military, and spiritual implications of this fantastical idea, touring CMU, MIT, Stanford, Berkeley, DC, New York, Minneapolis, and Japan, and he comes to believe this Great Transition of Mind from biology to technology is inevitable in coming generations. The important questions, as he recognized then, are how will we choose to do it. Will we empower individuals as we build AI, or continue to erode their freedoms, intelligence, and wealth relative to corporations, the rich, and the state? Will do AI development selfishly and recklessly, prioritizing commercial, ownership, and power interests, while minimizing issues of safety, privacy, and user control, and not stressing AI visibility, explainability, trustability, and transparency? Or will we prioritize those latter values at every step, even as this additional regulation and oversight, and thus slows down the process and increases its expense? See my series on Personal AIs for some better and worse paths for how this coming intelligence transition may occur in various countries in coming decades.
- The Truth Machine: The Blockchain and the Future of Everything, Vigna and Casey (2018) A great intro to today’s blockchain and bitcoin startups and platforms. These are not yet a tectonic shift at the level of those described in Machine | Platform | Crowd, but they they are an important new move in the direction of a more transparent, accountable, democratic, and abundance-based economy. Most of these startups will fail, but some will succeed, and a few will become new unicorns. The most promising of these startups and platforms deserve your subsidization (your risky but potentially creative investment) today. Look particularly for crowd-benefiting content platforms, which pay the crowd for their input, and consider investing in their ICOs. You owe it to your organization to follow the slowly converging space of blockchain, smart contracts, and AI, and look for the signal under all the hype and noise.
- Who Can You Trust: How Technology Brought Us Together and Why it Might Drive Us Apart, Rachel Botsman (2017) An intro to a critically future-important topic–our need to greatly improve trust, reputation, and value creation on the web. Botsman covers distributed rating systems and the promise of blockchain-based platforms to improve transparency and accountability, and shift more power and wealth back to individual actors.
- WTF?: What’s the Future and Why It’s Up to Us, Tim O’Reilly (2017) Excellent history of our digital economy, from a Silicon Valley insider, and practical prescriptions for revising the political and economic algorithms in our ever more wealthy and AI-infused economy, to focus them on improving triple bottom line social benefits, over maximizing profits.
Foresight Process and Culture Books:
- Bold, Diamandis & Kotler (2015) A global, acceleration-aware, innovation and entrepreneurial approach to foresight. Great for visioning, goalsetting, and motivation. Excellent advice on using crowd platforms. Bold is also a great, short, single word to describe how we should live our lives, to maximize our chances for collective foresight and progress.
- Future Savvy: Quality in Foresight, Adam Gordon (2008) Good intro to trend identification, forecasting. Also very helpful for recognizing and mitigating bias.
- Learning from the Future: Competitive Foresight Scenarios, Fahey & Randall (1998) Still the best guide to using scenarios to reduce uncertainty, find opportunities and manage risk. An inspiring blend of managing the unpredictable (evo) and uncovering the predictable (devo).
- Predictive Analytics, Eric Siegel (2013) Great overview of a new foresight frontier: data science, data mining, probabilistic prediction, and machine learning. As the web gets smarter and the world gets instrumented, this fields will continue to rapidly advance. We’ll see our near-term probable future, and the preferences currently expressed, with ever greater clarity.
- Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction, Philip E. Tetlock and Dan Gardner (2015) A tour-de-force intro to how cognitively diverse teams, using evidence from a variety of sources, thinking probabilistically, keeping score, and learning from error, can radically improve our ability to predict.
- The Fortune Sellers: The Big Business of Buying & Selling Predictions, William Sherden (1999) Sherden holds an indefensible perspective that many aspects of our future are not increasingly predictable. But there is a high threshold for doing good prediction, and many ways to fail, oversell, and overclaim. Sherden’s work brilliantly highlights the challenges and hazards of prediction, and is a great complement to Superforecasting.
- The Future: A Very Short Introduction, Jennifer Gidley (2018) Gidley is past-president of the World Futures Studies Federation, an academic community that has long been promoting the advance of foresight thinking and education. A concise, and historically-informed introduction to our emerging field. The only drawback to this book, and it is a major one, is that Gidley misunderstands complexity science to promote a random, accidental, purposeless perspective on the universe, and thus the essential “unpredictability” of the future. This is a huge mistake that is common with many of today’s foresight professionals. A particular class of foresighter prefers to see only unpredictable evolutionary randomness in the world, not predictable universal and global development. That means she doesn’t recognize Evo Devo Foresight and the Three Ps (probable, possible, and preferable futures) as central responsibilities of our field. As a result, she also doesn’t see accelerating change as a developmental process, but treats it only as a potentially transient social phenomenon. Devaluing probability, trends and prediction, this book sits on two of the three legs of the foresight tripod. See Chapter 1 for evidence that prediction is actually built into our neural networks, and Chapter 11 (Evo Devo Foresight) for my attempt to better ground the Three Ps in biological theory and complexity philosophy. Both creating evolutionary possibility and seeing developmental probability is what our brains are self-organized, by life in the universe, to do.
- The Rough Guide to the Future, Jon Turney (2010) Great popular intro to the long history and practice of foresight. Not very development-aware however.
- The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail, But Some Don’t, Nate Silver (2012) Conversational intro to the emerging practice of statistical foresight. One way our field will be legitimated.
- Think Like a Futurist, Cecily Sommers (2012) Inspiring and very accessible intro to the strategic benefits and thinking processes of foresight.
- Thinking about the Future: Guidelines for Strategic Foresight, Bishop and Hines (2007) Great overview of six key strategic foresight activities, with concise practitioner examples. The examples give a nice applied look at the current state of our field.
If you want to read these books actively, with maximum benefit per time spent, please look over my Interval Reading tips in Chapter 6 (Methods and Frameworks). They can greatly increase the number of great books you read every year, and really improve the quality and effectiveness of your foresight thinking.
Did I miss any of your favorites above? Let me know. Much longer lists of personal, professional, and global foresight books can be found on the following pages. Enjoy!