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Futurist Forum

5 Unexpected Factors That Change How We Forecast The Future

We see the future in terms of technology, but if you actually want to do a better job guessing what will happen, it’s better to look at social, cultural, and environmental inputs.

When we think of "The Future," we have a tendency to think in terms of technologies. Whether it’s something as silly as a flying car or as banal as a new iteration of a mobile tablet, our images of what tomorrow will bring have a strong material bias. For everyday folks, this isn’t terribly surprising; our sense of what’s futuristic—whether via advertising or science fiction stories—zeroes in on stuff: robots, space ships, holograms, and so forth.

But those of us who do futures work professionally have to live up to a higher standard. When we think about what impacts the spread of (say) self-driving cars or 3-D printers will have, we have to consider more than the technical details. We need to think about people: how we live, how we use (and make) our stuff, and how we’re changing. These dynamics won’t necessarily show up in the narrative, but you should always ask how your forecast would affect—and be affected by—them:

1: Climate

No surprise here. The farther out we look, the more we have to take into account the increasingly challenging impacts on our environment. Heat waves and drought will drive migration; anything that puts out carbon will be subject to restrictions. Financial resources will be redirected to adaptation and recovery.

2: Demographics

Throughout the developed world, populations are getting (on balance) older and often more diverse. In the U.S., the Baby Boom is starting to hit retirement age in a big way, even as ethnic diversity is accelerating. How will this change your market? What kinds of interface or language changes will you need to make?

3: Changing Social Patterns

This is tricky, because a forecaster usually needs to avoid taking partisan positions in his or her work. But recognizing changing reactions to LGBT communities, for example, or the evolving role that religion plays in our lives is just being thorough. Another big one that’s too often missed: the transformation of the position of women in politics and economics.

4: Power and Wealth

Another "third rail" dynamic, this includes the impact of economic inequality (both across and within nations), the existence of marginalized (but not necessarily powerless) communities, even the change from a primarily rural to a primarily urban planet. Will the subject of your forecast change economic and political balances? Could it be used to hack the status quo, or make it stronger?

5: Art

This may be a surprise, but art—from movies to music to comic books—is a rapidly changing measure of how people react to the world around them. How would your forecast be represented in artworks? How would your forecast change people’s relationships with the art they consume?

These aren’t the only possible forecast dynamics, but they give you a sense of what futurists look for when thinking about the future: context, breadth, and a chance to make explicit our assumptions about how the world is changing. We all have implicit models of what the future (or futures) could look like, and any set of scenarios we create builds on these models. By making the assumptions explicit, we have the opportunity to challenge them, expand them, and ultimately to give greater nuance and meaning to the forecasts and scenarios we create for broader consumption. That’s the basic rule of practical futurism: Create your forecasts like the future matters.