Drawing on a broad range of expertise, participants explored the concept from three perspectives; how different disciplines incorporate forecasting into their decision-making, how tech revolutions in the pipeline will impact society, and finally taking a view from 1913 to consider what would have been the major themes, fears and hopes of an observer 100 years ago.

To set the scene former internet entrepreneur and the current US Ambassador to the UK, Matthew Barzun, discussed his own experiences of prediction, rapid technological change and adaptation in the burgeoning internet tech scene in the early 1990s.  He stressed the difficulty of trying to map the future, even in the short-term, in today’s volatile, fast-moving world, especially in an area like technology where there is little history to guide us. To make the point the Ambassador highlighted how few of the early websites in the 1990’s have survived to this day.

The Ambassador also impressed upon the danger of ignoring small and humble beginnings, noting how Obama’s 2008 campaign started with 6 people in an Iowa cornfield. To best maximise one’s ability to benefit from a period of instability and uncertainty he used the concept of a fractal. As with Obama’s 2008 campaign, positive, incremental, repetitive actions that build towards the desired goal are the best guard against failure.


Forecasting Across Disciplines – Are We Improving?

The opening session discussed how different disciplines approach forecasting, and how science, technology and human judgement are interlinked to determine the best outcomes when making predictions and tracking behaviour.

  • Ben Page of Ipsos Mori began by saying that although we are fairly accurate in predicting the short-term, the long-term becomes much more difficult. There is a mixture of art, science and judgement in modern polling.
  • One of the main challenges of polling is guarding against personal biases - both of the person being questioned and of the person analysing the data.
  • More generally we are personally biased towards the positive and are over-optimistic; in contrast, as a collective we are more pessimistic. Page concluded that humanity is blindsided by small risks, and people and societies always ‘fight the last war’. The current obsession with uncertainty, following the crash of 2008, is one example of this.
  • People should become much more comfortable and aware of their own biases and a variety of potential scenarios. Although you can’t predict everything, you can have an idea of what future you want. 

Mikkel Rasmussen, Europe Director of ReD Associates, then gave a business perspective.

  • There are two ways company directors think about the future. The first being that through the use of ‘big data’, is that the future can be deduced, implying that management is a science and not an art. Then second stresses the importance of judgement; it’s not a lack of data that creates uncertainty it’s a lack of understanding of context in business environments.
  • Rasmussen stated that CEOs are most concerned about the growing complexity of the world, and not having the skills to close that gap and make sense of a shifting environment.
  • He stressed the importance of having a historical perspective and understanding the culture of the markets in which you operate, which is missing in most companies.

Steve Martin, a behavioural scientist and director of Influence at Work, a business consultancy, brought the session to a close.

  • Past behaviour is the best predictor of future behaviour and most people are poor at predicting their own future behaviour. Present context typically trumps cognition.
  • Behavioural scientists have found the best way to think about the future is by conducting experiments. Experiments that see how people act in certain situations, rather than relying on intuition about how people feel they will act in the future.

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Revolutions in the Pipeline

The second session looked at future innovations and potential shifts in technology and economics, which may have a disruptive impact. Diane Coyle, President of Enlightenment Economics, opened the session.

  • It is difficult to fully appreciate the impact and ramifications of new technologies. We can over-hype technology in the short-term while we often under-hype long-term technology shifts. 
  • Technology cannot only be measured by increases in productivity or output – technologies such as electrification or the railways have social impacts. For example, Coyle highlighted the connection between the washing machine and the rise of the feminist movement.
  • General purpose technology, such as electricity or the internet, have accumulative effects that mount over time. She referenced an economist who had calculated that the impact of the internet will lead to greater long-term growth than steam or electrification. This has huge implications for both society and the economy.
  • Coyle asked what investment is needed to harness the full potential of these technologies, and what are the plans for infrastructure to best harness them? Companies need to invest around 10 times as much in intangible infrastructure than they spend on new software.
  • Finally, she concluded that growth is innovation. But we can’t predict what innovations will generate growth or when their benefits will be fully disseminated across society.

Ben Hammersley, writer and futurist, discussed how technological change must be in step with prevailing cultural attitudes and evolution.

  • Hammersley gave the example of Kodak, which went bust on the same day that Instagram was sold for around $800 million. ‘Moore’s Law’-driven innovation threatens a wide range of existing professions, from photography filmmakers to lawyers.
  • While some predict rapid innovation will make many existing professions obsolete or inefficient, cultural norms and society evolve much more slowly than technology. As such, technological change is embedded within social and cultural values of the day. 
  • Digital trends are not fate. People increasingly understand that they have a choice about whether to invest, financially and culturally, in new technologies. One example is Snapchat, an instant messaging service. American teenagers have decided that Snapchat’s values – quick, private and disposable messaging - better aligns with their cultural values than the permanence inherent to the concept and design of Facebook, for example. 
  • Although we can’t predict what technology will have a transformative effect, individuals can ask if this technology maximises their own happiness. For a technology to become ubiquitous, as with mobile phones, it requires a wide uptake only possible if it connects with prevailing cultural values.

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In the final session, historians Charles Emmerson and Hywel Williams took the group back to 1913 and asked if there were any lessons learned.

  • In 1913 people didn’t imagine a world at the precipice of war; they imagined a world more interconnected, more prosperous and potentially moving towards a singularity of civilisation.
  • An astute observer might have been able to trace out the contours that would define the 20th century, but would have no concept of the scale of tragedy about to unfold.
  • What matters to some, does not matter to others - all societies and cultures have their own histories, which will always frame how they think about the present and future.
  • Although the differences between periods will always outnumber the similarities, comparisons do exist.

The historical starting point led to conversations about World War I, the nature of diplomacy, China today, the shale gas revolution and the growing tension between local and global.

In conclusion, Emmerson stated that the utility of history is in thinking historically. History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does provide a stock of events, anomalies and quirks which help us better understand how we might be forced off-course from our expected trajectory.

Further Reading
Four Keys to Thinking About the Future - By Jeffrey Gedmin, Harvard Business Review, 17 December