Avoiding traps in futures thinking

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  • Opinion

Futures speculator Dr Robert Hickson says a common trap in foresight is to focus on change in only one thing, and assume everything else will stay the same.

19century school
This 1800s postcard explores the impacts of electricity, which had become available to the masses.

The cartoon above is showing knowledge, or at least information, going straight into the brain, through the wonders of this new fangled thing called electricity. But the clothes, schoolroom and the “teacher” all remain unchanged.

The same risk applies when thinking about “transformation”. We can become fixated on change in one area and don’t see what else needs to change. Or fail to see what else may be changing concurrently. This is particularly important now because of the many factors undergoing change.

Seven Drivers of Change

It is easy to name a set of key trends or drivers of change affecting a sector, or society. For example, seven forces of change shaping the future are:

  1. Demographics – the demographic changes shaping communities and society changing demographics of an aging and more ethnically diverse population
  2. Identity – the evolving nature of personal freedoms, identity and sense of community
  3. Digital – the increasing influence that digitization is having on work and leisure
  4. Automation – Digital’s sibling - the growing automation of tasks traditionally done by people
  5. Environmental and social sustainability – the increasing importance of demonstrating environmental and ethical sustainability across the value chain
  6. Climate change – responding to and anticipating effects of climate change 
  7. Governance – the changing scope and nature of governance and government to address more complex issues. This includes devolution, more collaborative decision making or partnerships, crowd sourcing, etc

But foresight isn’t just about spotting external trends and changes. It is more important to understand how they may challenge our mental models of how the world will look, and so what we may need to change (as well as retain).

The Singapore government is looking at the future of construction , so is the World Economic Forum, as well as many others, including us. But they focus on the sector and its value chains in an ideal world.

It is easy to talk about change in the abstract, but harder to visualize what the future will be like, beyond a simplistic postcard image.

In the following four posts I’ll look at several possible futures for the life in New Zealand and potential consequences for the construction sector. They are written from the perspective of someone living in that time (about 20 years from now) and place, rather than from someone with a deep knowledge of construction. These are short and simplistic, and exploratory not predictions.

I’m basing their structure loosely on the four futures archetypes developed by Jim Dator at the University of Hawaii.

The intent isn’t to describe the most desirable future, or a worst case future, but to explore a range of possible futures. It is not a question of whether you agree with one of these futures. They are used to stimulate thinking, and ultimately inform decision making. The archetypes look at a “business as usual” projection, a critical system failure, a significant constraint, and a transformational change.

We never have complete control over shaping our desired future, so we need to think and plan about how we can do well in a range of futures.

Robert Hickson

Dr Robert

Dr Robert Hickson is a futures speculator; that is, one who does not predict the future but examines trends, and history, to imagine what non-bleak futures may be possible. Author of the foresight blog Ariadne, he works with many New Zealand organisations to improve foresight thinking. He holds the view that in New Zealand, we don’t do enough looking forward.

The thoughts expressed here are the author’s alone and do not necessarily reflect those held by the Industry Transformation Agenda.