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.

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  • Noah_Scape

    Art is allways a reflection of the present time culture, even if the artist is portraying the future or the past - the style will still be "like others of their time" or just slightly different. Even Picasso.

  • Tgieseke

    We will engage with a "smarter" economic system relative to our failing economic system as defined as containing excessive externalities.  An economic system becomes smarter as in this example of EcoCommerce and Symbiotic Demand: https://prezi.com/crgur9ihm9kh...

  • Bob Jacobson

    A beautiful essay and a candid list, Jamais, not shying away from what we as futurists must contend with.  I would only add what we might call the potential for greater human awareness of nature or spiritual awakening, depending on the depths of one's metaphysics, that produces harmony among us and with the environment.  Truly, it might not seem possible now, but as conditions bear down on us, the traditional violent reactions will only make matters worse.  We may perish.  Or we may become aware. Those will be our meta-choices in the future, which is only a moment away.

  • Nat Irvin II

    One other area that is quite hard to predict but I believe cannot be overlooked is the role terrorism may play in how we all redefine what is acceptable risk(s) not only for ourselves today but for our children...tomorrow. One major event may alter everything...

  • Rgschreib

    Why not have the United Nations create 'The Global 50/50 Lottery' so that we can harness the infinite power of human greed to fight global warming? That is, a truly global lottery could be used to raise the massive funds needed to buy the wind, solar, ocean and water clean electricity generating systems, to replace the electricity from the coal burning electric power plants that are emitting the carbon dioxide that is causing global warming.

  • Noah_Scape

     I was just thinking along those lines too!! My idea was for banks to redeem their ugly image by NOT charging interest on any renewable energy project. Renewable energy pays off over a longer time frame than most investments, and so interest rates kill projects, but that is also their advantage - that once paid for they keep producing electricity for free.

  • JD Eveland

    I would certainly agree with your point that technology isn't the only driver of the future (despite being myself a devoted technophile); all the factors you cite are also critical inputs. But occasionally there occur technological developments that are independent game-changers, dragging all the rest of the factors along and forcing significant adaptations. I would argue that the changes in communications technologies over the last dozen years constitute such a development. I would also argue that the coming deployment of 3-D printing will constitute another such development, massively dislocating almost everything else. There's no question that responsible futurism must take into account the interplay of all these factors, but at the same time recognize the wild cards that technology can sometimes deal into the mix.

  • jr schmitt

    technology and tools enable the future, but it takes behaviors to make the future happen.

  • Jennifer Jarratt

    Hi Jamais  Good stuff!
    If I may argue a couple of points? Demography is one of the few stable (changing over time, of course) and well documented set of trends. It's a base set, which is where many futures studies start.

    Artists are almost always futurists, except the few who are historians. Frequently they are as much as 50 years ahead of the general population, even the art lovers. However, as in much futures work, their long-term forecasts are not well understood either by the artists themselves, or by others.