Why it’s difficult to think about the future

Last year, we explored the future of insurance with a large finance client. This project unearthed the limitations of design techniques in helping our clients think beyond a two-year horizon. At that point, we started to explore additional methods such as foresight to expand how we work. Our exploration showed us that it’s not easy to think about the future — and we wondered why?
Neil Collman

Neil Collman

Neil is a design leader, speaker and foresight practitioner, who cares about making an impact for people and profit through insight and design.

Have you ever thought, ‘Why is it so hard to come up with new things?’ Or ‘Why do I never see opportunities before they become mainstream?’ You’re not alone and there’s a reason why.

Even if you know your habits and beliefs aren’t optimal, changing them isn’t easy. This is particularly true if you are constantly bombarded with information that reinforces those beliefs. Psychologists call it Cognitive Bias and it’s a problem if you want to innovate successfully. As Nile’s Dr. Alexa Haynes puts it, “over the years of evolution we have developed lazy ways of thinking and we are influenced by a whole series of bias’ which can hinder our ability to look further into the future.”

This article introduces foresight as a practical application in business, aimed to overcome our inherent cognitive bias and to think beyond the NOW, in preparation for the future. If you think about it, we’ve had a long-long-long history of devising plans, mostly war-related, to develop strategies in order to influence our futures. A strategy is, in essence, a short-term solution inspired by future thinking. For the majority strategic planning is as far as the mind would allow us to reach.

Our psychological limitations mixed with today’s sensory overload challenges our ability to innovate. The sheer noise and volume of now such as society’s obsession with acronyms: AI, AR, ML, BD, VR, UX … the list goes on and continues to grow. How can we find a way to avoid desperately playing catch-up? Normally by the time you’ve read about it in Wired, it’s probably too late. The ‘certainty’ of what we are told is the ‘Next Big Thing’ has a huge impact on how we think. For innovators, this is how it has always been yet some people have managed to see past all that. These people changed the world.

Predicting futures and prophetic thinking has, since earliest times, been part of all existing cultures. Futures thinking is not new to humanity but we continue to be incapable of effectively harness its potential so we remain stuck in the short-term necessities of today. Charlie Edwards says in his report ‘Futures thinking (and how to do it)’:

“From the Bible to Marx, people have always sought to predict the future, but usually their efforts meet with little success. The sheer number of factors that shape the future, and the complex way they interact, makes prediction impossible.”
Charlie Edwards

The first business introduction to effective foresight thinking was in the late 1960s when Pierre Wack (named the man who saw the future) transformed Shell’s use of scenarios for business strategy. Wack’s revolutionary approach was to highlight the ways in which the future would not resemble the past. Wack used scenarios to promote “the gentle art of reperceiving”, without which the team reverted to assuming that tomorrow would bring “more of the same”. Shell’s growth following this methodology hit the Oil and Gas industry with a lucrative wack.

Fast forward forty years and we begin to see more frequent applications of foresight methodologies and practices. We could, it’s argued, pin this growth on the rapid behavioural changes and insatiable advances in technology. Change always evokes feelings of uncertainty, and when experienced at pace, ideas about the future can grow into an unmanageable beast. Methods that recognise complexity and the need to change, as well as plan for it, are increasingly sought. Traditional predictive models are proving to be ineffective for the intricacy of today’s society. Can we look to foresight to help us tidy the dirty stack of environmental, societal, behavioural and political mess we’ve been piling in the kitchen sink?

Foresight is not a cure, it’s a way of making positive change. In fact, on a basic level, we do it each day but in an unstructured way. Strategic methods for thinking about the future will only be effective if action is taken today. Prepare the umbrella before it rains.

‘Foresight’ and ‘futures’ are terms that can be used interchangeably to describe the discipline of thinking about the future and the corresponding methodology and tools used within the practice. Foresight University describes foresight as:

“Foresight is simply the act of looking to and thinking about the future. This activity can be amateur or professional, trained or untrained. As we’ll see, foresight is a critical activity we all need to get better at, in order to make a better world.”
Foresight University

Foresight strategists create mechanisms to assess the frequency of change, alongside signals, to put today’s reality in the context of tomorrow’s opportunities. These tools have been designed to help overcome our psychological barriers that stop us from thinking past the short-term future, such as forecasting. Foresight methods are used in combination with the traditional practices of forecasting and trend analysis. These techniques use past metrics and current trends in order to calculate the most probable outcome. Foresight, on the other hand, adds to this method by using tools such as cross-impact analysis and scenario methodology. Foresight is proactive but it does not predict. In a recent Forbes article about leveraging foresight for business, it urges us not to predict.

“Don’t try to predict what will happen. We typically expect the future to be an extrapolation of the present. A review of history confirms that given enough time this is not the case. If it were, we’d today be riding faster horses. Little appears to change over a year, but change can be dramatic over a decade.”

To draw this article to a close, we must mention the inspiration and world-renowned body for Futures Thinking, Institute For The Future. The experts dedicated to Foresight at IFTF have been developing their methods for over fifty years and have a comprehensive toolkit and offer a wealth of information that will help you to design the future you want. We continue to be inspired by IFTF’s projects and regularly reference them to help broaden our design thinking.