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What do you want from the future?

Trends, trends, everywhere trends and trend reports, but how do we use trends in a useful way, come Monday? Enter strategic foresight, the art and science of using trends and trajectories to examine, influence and prepare for the possible and probable future ahead.

One of the key tools foresight practitioners and trend analysts use to make sense of the future is the futures cone.

Essentially the further ahead we look into the future, the fuzzier the picture becomes, hence the cone-shaped visual metaphor. From our current perspective, the further ahead we try to anticipate, the less clear our vision becomes. In times of rapid change, of course, that cone of possibility becomes wider, and the future becomes more uncertain.

We can use foresight and the futures cone metaphor depicted above to understand what is more likely to occur and to consider what is most desirable to happen next.

We start with considering the most probable future trajectories, which represent the continuation of the current trends we observe, and the past data points we have at our disposal - otherwise known as the usual practice of forecasting. This base case forecast represents the most likely future we can anticipate based on what we currently know. However, as we know, form experience, the best laid plans can be all to easily derailed - and past performance is no guarantee of future results.

Which brings us to the next layer of foresight - the first tentative deviation off our carefully considered base-case trend lines we have so carefully extrapolated into the future - the plausible range of possibility – in other words, what could happen if the current trends explored accelerate or decelerate but are still broadly recognisable to us. But the plausible, three degrees or so warmer, cooler, slower, or faster than expected is still not enough. We also need to expect (or at least mentally prepare for) the unexpected.

As such, as we widen the range of our view yet again to cover the full set of possible futures, this time encompassing realistic but unlikely breaks in current trends - and including those so called black swans and wild cards that complicate our favourite strategic roadmap to the point that the map no longer bears useful resemblance to the territory at hand. At this widest view, we discount nothing within the realm of possibility. (This is the level where we should include eventualities such as another pandemic or an asteroid hitting the Earth - or even, as NASA has taken to warning us lately, the slim chance of the arrival of alien visitors to our third rock from the sun.)

Lastly, and most importantly - once we have stretched our imaginations as far as we possibly can from our base-case trend line projections, we switch mental gears one more time, and change our focus from probabilities (however likely or unlikely) towards our preferences.

This is the hardest step of all because it challenges us to define what we want - for ourselves and for our organisations - and consider our personal and professional preferable future within the realm of possibility defined above. It is also critical to note that your own personal, preferable future which may not necessarily be the most probable future destination, and that your personal, preferable future may not be - indeed is very unlikely to be! - a preferable future to someone else. Your preferable future is what is best for you, your business, and your organization. When it comes to the future - utopia does not scale. Your utopia is someone else’s dystopia. Likewise, someone else’s utopia is quite likely to be hell on earth for you. And this is why foresight is so important. It is only by engaging with the idea of a future beyond the base case scenario that we can articulate and exercise our natural agency to vote for the preferable future we want for ourselves and our personal and professional “stakeholders.” We vote for our preferable future world though our actions. Through the time, attention, and money we spend investing in the future world we want.

As such, over to you. The next time you spot a trend or read a trend report, ask yourself if this trend continued, is it likely to nudge the future towards or away from the future world you want. If the answer is the latter, again it is up to you to use your agency to bend the future away from the trends pulling us in the wrong direction. The alternative is to, through action or inaction (as indeed there are many parallels here with democracy and voter action or apathy) to tacitly or explicit endorse the path the world is on.

To put it even more plainly, the aim of trend analysis and foresight is to change the future – that is, mitigate threats and take advantage of opportunities – rather than to simply predict it. The goal is to use foresight techniques like the futures cone to broaden your perspective and develop a clearer picture of the ever-widening gyre of the future; to understand what is probable, what is possible – and then to inspire considered change towards what is preferable. But to do that, you need to believe change is possible.

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