Jennifer Jarratt is a founding member of the APF and one of our most prominent members. This post is a collection of 3 answers she posted to Quora with links in the headings. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily of the APF or its members.
Thanks for asking your question, because it’s a classic one for us professional futurists to answer. We can get all huffy and say “we DON’T predict the future!” What that means really is that there isn’t one future, there are many. As you move out ahead, the level of uncertainty increases and so do the number of possible futures. You can say that there are a group of futures that are relatively probable and then on either side are a widening group of possibilities that are less and less likely. Even so, the one you decide on as the most likely is almost certainly wrong.
Being a futurist means bringing people’s attention to the (possible, alternative) futures ahead of them and encouraging them to create strategies that will be robust in most of the possibilities.
What we try to do is to create a workspace among the possible futures that people can walk around in (mentally) and begin to rethink the decisions they are making today. Scenarios are good for this.
In this process you have to keep in mind a few things, for example, most technology forecasts are overly optimistic in their assessment of time to widespread use. Social change moves relatively slowly, sometimes over generations–even in our era of social media. Also, you may need to adjust your futures work to the language people speak–some people and organizations “see” their future in numbers, some prefer stories and images.
So no, we don’t find predicting the future to be useful.
My answer may disappoint you, whoever you are. It’s not a brilliant new technology, the discovery of life on other planets, or the development of a drive fast enough to get us there. Although those are exciting, I must admit
As a professional futurist, the most futurist thing I can, and must, think about are the implications of change. Not just the ordinary ones, either, such as the new convenience mobile phones brought us. I think about the long-term, unanticipated consequences of change. As no doubt you can see, the mobility we gain from our mobile phones is changing our lives in small and large ways. We can’t quite see yet how this technology and associated technologies such as the Internet are changing our institutions, our political structure, the way we think, how our families function, relationships, risks in the world, and so on. To me, that’s what you need futurists for, to remind you that you ain’t seen nothing yet!
Long term, can you say we’ll still have countries and nations in the future? Or will we be virtual collections of shared, and temporary, interests? What will overcome us when or if the Internet collapses, or falters? That’s a wildcard thought, which is another aspect of the future that futurists spend time on.
You may want to ask yourself, what’s next? And will it be totally different from everything you’ve seen before?
Futurists have been wrong about lots of things, no question. A couple of things you learn when studying to be a professional futurist, however, is that you don’t make predictions and that everything you say about the future is likely to be wrong.
Your usefulness as a futurist tends to be your ability to scope out the possibilities of the future and to help people figure out the best strategic approach to the opportunities or challenges ahead of them.
As we know there are lots of people out there who make predictions about the future that turn out to be wrong. You perhaps, or they themselves, call them futurists. I wouldn’t.
Have said all that in defense of the futures studies field, I note some areas where, if you are a futurist, it is good to be careful. One is technology forecasting. It’s our experience that predictions, or forecasts of a technology’s likelihood of widespread adoption, are often overly optimistic. One example might be flying cars, which were often predicted—and indeed some have been built. But the problems of widespread adoption and popular appeal have been too big.
So timing is often a problem. Gerard K. O’Neill’s beliefs about colonizing space are years ahead of our actually being able to do it. Yet his long-term views are among those visions helping to drive people’s hopes, imagination, and discovery towards new space ventures.
You can find lots of lists online of future predictions that were wrong, mostly because those people making the predictions didn’t want to see these happen.
Sadly, we warned back in the 1980s (and based on the work of reputable scientists) that climate change was happening and was a big issue that would require new governmental, business and social macro strategies to either slow or manage its effects. We believed there would be some substantial work done on the problem and some effective global strategies in effect by today, which hasn’t really happened. We were wrong about that.