Understanding the Future

A short introduction to Interdisciplinary Prognostics, written for a UBS Young Leaders conference

Since the dawn of time, people have tried to predict the future. The basic construction of the human brain forces us to look forward; this ability is our real (and maybe only) evolutionary advantage. In anticipating changes in our environment – what enemies or allies will do, how prey will act or threats develop – our species evolved to dominate this planet. In creating a model for what we will have to react to – droughts, rain, cattle herds, or just the next holiday – we create our inner worlds.

Futurism as a social factor started with the shamans of the hunter and gatherers, who claimed the ability to see, and traded it for power, or privileges. Then, in the Greek culture, a first attempt to institutionalize views of the future took place: in powerful think tanks known as the ORACLES. There are key lessons about future thinking to learn from the world’s first and most successful future prediction business, the Delphi Oracle. Since then people from many disciplines have tried to predict the future and we can learn from their methods and their mindsets. From scenarios and game theory to media scanning and Trend trekking, forecasting methods have developed and diversified over the centuries. Half a century ago, futurism split broadly into four schools, or fundamental models of thinking, which still structure (and divide) our understanding of the prediction business today:

Warning and catastrophe: From the German “father of Angst“, Robert Jungk to the Club of Rome and more recently to Al Gore’s global-warming-performances – the “warning business“ is still the biggest branch of futurism. Nothings sounds more plausible, and gets more attention than visions of doom, put down to the results of human misbehavior. This is the original and eternal function of looking forward: identifying threats and dangers. But the fact that doomsday predictions are today at the core of the construction of many Hollywood films does not mean that they are correct in either a scientific way or in terms of probability.

Technological transcendence: The other mainstream school of futurism was and is, the idea of redemption though technology, based on permanent acceleration, innovation, and sensational wonders of the “technium“ (expression from Kevin Kelly) . The most famous and radical protagonist of this tradition is Ray Kurzweil, who predicts the singularity, the coming fusion of man and machine into a kind of super-being, in the next 50 years.

Macroeconomical megatrending: John Naisbitt founded the third school of modern futurism, which focused on the outcome of globalization at the cultural-economic level. At the core: megatrends which spread around the world.

Marketing trending: The last branch of futurism is based on the logic of marketing. Faith Popcorn founded the school of social-emotional-wording, which directly influences and feeds the huge demand for trend-streaming of products and services. Her famous word creation “cocooning” shows the linguistic powers of trendspeech: our brain is craving for creating order by naming the world!

In all of these schools of thought, we can identify the prediction/prophecy-paradox. Whatever your thesis about the future is, it becomes a powerful “meme“ if it is heard and resonates with the public or certain groups of followers. The future is always a narrative, a myth, and like other powerful narratives, they can become dangerous – self-fulfilling prophecies of a bad kind, or wrong causalities, which lead to fatal misinterpretations. Therefore, what we have to know if we talk about the future is: We are always talking about ourselves – our wishes, fears, projections, self-interests. We are always creating RECURSIONS, in which, via the cognitive process, future is produced by thought.

Good and real futurism acts consciously on this effect. It has to question and challenge what we SEEM to understand about the changes in the world. It has to IRRITATE under complexity, in order to create MENTAL UPGRADING. This is the secret core of what we try to achieve in the next phase of scientific futurism. Let’s call it metacognitive or HOLISTIC futurism.

Holistic Futurism

What we call holistic futurism is an attempt to reduce errors and biases of predicting through cross referencing different new disciplines of science. The final goal is to understand NON-LINEAR LOGIC – the fundamental rules in which the world is changing.
The main pillars of holistic futurism are:

Probability Theory

The science of likelihood, odds and chances originates in the attempt to calculate risk and chance in card games in the 16th century, when gambling started to ruin a large number of European counts and princes. Today probability is a fundamental science in the context of insurance or financial risks, but also the basement of ALL serious futurism.

System Theory

The world, no matter if atomic, biological, economical or social, is a system of connections. Connective systems develop rules, and these rules evolve along certain patterns. Systems can act chaotically, orderly, responsively, self-organizing, resiliently or fragile, emergent or along thermodynamic rules (entropy). System theory allows us to understand the brinks and borders between randomness and non-randomness, or calculate the probability of tipping points.

Game Theory

Evolving from military simulations of the cold war (Hermann Kahn, John von Neumann, John Nash) game theory created the most powerful predictive systems in terms of human behavior. With cooperative and non-cooperative game theory we can understand under which circumstances and conditions groups (societies, companies, organizations) are likely to act. This allows quite reliable predictions of global conflicts, even the development of wars etc.

Socioeconomics, BIG DATA and psychonomics

Economic sciences created huge errors in prediction of economic systems during the last decades. But how can we do better? By including human psychology, cognitive psychology and BIG DATA into economic models. This allows us for example, to understand the dynamics of population/birth developments and predict the human population peak in this century.

Evolutionary theory

Variation, mutation, selection – these basic rules of evolution also shape markets, products, societies, technology. Evolution works through failure (extinction), and so do social and economic systems. Through agent-based modelling we can combine the laws of system theory with evolutionary patterns. One example is the TECHNOLUTION-system: It tries to measure the conflicting or symbiotic connections between the human culture and the “Technium“, the realm of technology.


Also, for the holistic perspective we have to know how the human brain constructs and processes different futures. The human brain is a “prediction machine”; because evolution wanted us to be prepared for dangers, but also for chances. The cooperative and the egotistical MIND – two sides of the same human brain – are in constant struggle with each other. Cognitive Psychology helps us to understand the BIASES of or prospection (See also the books Martin Seligman, HOMO PROSPECTUS, or Daniel Kahnemann, Fast Thinking, Slow Thinking)

In total

Holistic futurism is a method, or a mindset, to understand the world as a COMPLEX ADAPTIVE SYSTEM. It is also a mental technique to “look backward from forward: To see the present with the eyes of the future. This does not mean, that every event, every outcome is precisely predictable. But it means that even in complex, ambiguous, uncertain environments, even given the problems of path dependency and chaotic turbulence, there are rules, probabilities, DIRECTIONS, in which the system will very likely evolve. The trained mind can understand and decipher them.

© iStockphoto.com

And – while designing or at least influencing it – “create“ the future we prefer.

The Megatrend System

To look forward, we have to understand changes in the present. We can do this by identifying, documenting and naming trends. This is the job of trend research, which is an important part of futuristic sciences – let’s call it the »empirical department«. Trend research works more like journalism, it has (and allows) subjective, narrative techniques. But it is easily biased – by self-interest, wishful thinking, confirmation bias and other cognitive biases.

In trend research, the main methodological problem was always how to measure trends – their impact, importance, relevance and so on. Trendwording does not appear to be much of a science at all. Nevertheless, the naming and »calling« of trends has an important function for the recognition of change. Trendwords occupy and develop semantic spaces in the brain.

To handle these complexity problems, ZUKUNFTSINSTITUT invented a map system, which correlates, clusters and connects hundreds of trend-phenomena. It also creates a trend hierarchy: At the end-stations of these lines we find the MEGATRENDS. Megatrends are:
Long term: They last at least one hundred years; some of them might even be eternal (Meta-Trends).

Robust and resilient: Megatrends have no real tipping points, even if they might suffer backlashes from time to time.

Ubiquitous: megatrends are not restricted to one particular area, or branch. They change every part of the human culture (from economies to values).

Slow: Megatrends work in a gradual way, with the average speed at one percent per year. One per cent more centenarians (Megatrend Aging). One percent more female income worldwide (Megatrend Female Shift). One percent more air travel miles (Megatrend Mobility).

In working with the megatrends and the megatrend map with associative techniques, we can find a basic understanding of change and adaption in general!

© www.zukunftsinstitut.de

Some Change of Markets and Industries

Additive manufacturing: The “makers revolution“?

In his 2006 book, Makers – The New Industrial Revolution, WIRED author Chris Anderson described the 3-D-printing-technology in euphoric language. According to Anderson we are in the middle of a »desktop manufacturing revolution« that will change the world as much as the personal computer did. The tools of factory production, from digital fabrication to online factory services, are now available to everyone; garage start-ups can make products in batches as small as a single unit or as large as tens of thousands. Anyone with an idea can set assembly lines into motion with little more than a keystroke.

Crowdfunding and social financing at companies like Kickstarter and Quirky make entrepreneurs independent of venture capitalists, stock market or investment banks to finance their ideas. Anderson:
“Just as the Web ended the monopoly of mass media, so it is now ending the monopoly of mass manufacturing.“

Indeed: the technological progress in additional producing (that means constructing an item layer by layer, not with molding or carving out or pressing) is fast. 3D-printers are now available for less than 1000$. It started with plastic toys, which might not be the core market of 3D-produced items, but they can be different from mass produced toys, if INDIVIDUALIZED and CUSTOMIZED (your face, your figure, toys in context of books/stories/ films). Today, printers for metal and other materials are coming on the market. Fast growing fields of 3-D-printing are:
FASHION: producing shapes you can´t create with fabric or garments are taking off.
PROTOTYPING: High-end units for research/ prototyping, which have a huge price advantage.
BIONIC DESIGN: Additional manufacturing always beats traditional industrial methods if shapes and structure are highly complex – the trend towards bionic structures could push it forwards.

If we want to understand the future of manufacturing, we have to counterbalance the advantages of both mass production and 3-D-printing. While traditional mass production has the advantage of price, scale, speed (things per minute) and convenience (a lot of people don’t want to think about »own« products!), this atomic production has other evolutionary spaces to fill:
It RE-LOCATES production chains: Smaller numbers of items can now be produced locally, in small new urban industries. 3-D-printing becomes part of the new GLOCALISM.
It EMPOWERS designers, who can now avoid the value chain of mass producing and connect more directly with the customer.
It SPEEDS UP the development process. The core of production might not be so much in the physical aspect, but in the new COLLABORATION it allows: Sharing construction plans, faster prototyping: faster results. What is processed faster is not things, but KNOWLEDGE!

Cradle-to-Cradle: How we can re-organize the material world?

At the center of the ecological narrative lies the idea of LIMITATION: raw materials are scarce, and at some point, they will be used up. This could lead, so the common fear, to catastrophe: No materials, no economy, no humans.The Limits to Growth, the Ur-book of the ecological movement, published in 1973 by the Club of Rome, turned this thinking into a widespread belief.

In holistic futurism, this idea is un-systemic, even un-ecological. Because no molecule or atom ever vanishes. The universe we live in is not a zero-sum-game. Recycling could in fact, make many raw materials MORE common than before (while 70 percent of copper is recycled, there are still productive copper mines). New technologies lead to more and more alternatives – rare molecules are replaced by others, production processes are made much more efficient.

But the »Zeitgeist« is fundamentally based on the iron paradigm of limitation. The HUMAN FOOTPRINT meme tells us that we are living on feet which are too big. At the same time, it poisons the debate about the future with guilt and threats. Mankind, as the Club of Rome endlessly repeats, will not survive because we act as »predators on nature«.

Michael Braungart has tried to challenge this mechanical, linear view for over 20 years. His main idea is a vision of »created and creative abundance«. We can, and we will, says Braungart, produce more and more cycles of non-scarcity, in which products lead to more, instead of less raw materials. He says:

“If we manage carbon in a way that it is useful, then we can be quite generous with it. Under these circumstances, a big footprint is better than a small one!“

Cradle-to-Cradle is described on Wikipedia:

Cradle-to-cradle… is a biomimetic approach to the design of products and systems. It models human industry on nature’s processes viewing materials as nutrients circulating in healthy, safe metabolisms. It suggests that industry must protect and enrich ecosystems and nature’s biological metabolism while also maintaining a safe, productive technical metabolism for the high-quality use and circulation of organic and technical nutrients.

With his company Braungart is an active activist in changing material and energy cycles in different industries and production segments. The goal is “sustainability of the second order“. That means, that waste is not waste, but new material. Energy is not lost, but used in intelligent ways for other purposes. ZERO is not our goal. Herein lies probably the most important future paradigm shift of the coming age.

Shareconomy: Will we share everything – instead of possessing?

We have always been good at sharing – public space, our skills, and most gladly, power drills. The necessary infrastructure was proudly provided by the local authorities in the form of parking meters, and by supermarkets around the corner in the form of bulletin boards. Sometimes, we even took the easy route and went straight to our neighbors. In the age of the internet that connects us beyond most boundaries and is available anytime and anywhere on mobile devices, we have discovered new ways to share. Increasingly successful business models are emerging around the concept of »sharing«. And it would be a mistake to think this is a bubble that is going to burst soon. The trend is based on ancient mechanisms of social interaction that won’t change anytime soon.

The implosion of large, well-established systems worldwide has created a vacuum in the markets, which is now increasingly occupied by the agile, the flexible and the dynamic – mainly startups that grow within a few months from an idea in the minds of entrepreneurial mavericks to young companies. They test new methods of production, involve potential customers in the product development process, and blur the lines between suppliers, producers and consumers. What they all have in common is that they not only fundamentally innovate business models and close gaps in the markets, but also change the rules in their favor to make a difference far beyond the product, to create meaning and to sustainably change the world for the better.

A little journey through various collaborative business models shows what this implies for us as consumers but also for our companies – and the economic changes of the future in general.

Also, here, we have to compare the advantages of property with the benefits of sharing: while property creates a clear responsibility, and in this way solves a lot of problems (the “taking care problem“, the “tragedy of the commons“), shared items and resources have other advantages – if they have an added SOCIAL value which a material product can´t have. The success of AIRBNB shows, why certain sectors have more sharing potential than others. Using someone’s flat not only gives you a roof and four walls in a holiday place, you might also meet interesting people who live there. It gives you access to a place you could not otherwise buy. Weighing up these additional benefits and the effort-costs of sharing, we come to an evolutionary picture of the “post-possess-“ or “access economy“. As Jeremy Rifkin in his book Age of Access calls it, this represents a “New Culture of Hypercapitalism“.

The Future of Love

No, we can’t tell you exactly, how love will be in the future. Love might well be the MOST COMPLEX system in the world. You can look at it from a subjective perspective, a social, a romantic, an economic, a systemic perspective….

Love means VERY different things: passion, relationship, connection, even friendship. And talking about love in the future brings us into a middle of a paradox:
LOVE IS CHANGING FAST: What we call love today, in modern, urban societies, is completely different than love in agrarian, traditional societies. The culture of love changes indeed with circumstances, but….

LOVE WILL ALWAYS STAY THE SAME. Because it is, at its core, something eternal. When we love, we overcome the distance between two souls, two beings, two entities. We create something new, a synthesis. Love is, in a metaphorical sense, the core of evolution AND the future.

But we can tell you some tales about love in the future:

The tale of the sultan and his consultant.

Once upon a time there was a sultan, and he had a consultant. The consultant was expensive and a bit lazy, and gave huge parties all the time. One day the sultan called the consultant into his palace and told him: “I heard, you are going to marry, and I want to help you with it!“
Oh dear, thought the consultant, what does he really want?
The sultan said, “I will present you with the 100 richest maidens of my whole kingdom, and you have to choose the one with the highest dowry. But you have only one chance. You will call one maiden after the other into your tent, she will tell you her dowry, and then you have to decide if she is the one. If you send her away, she can never come back…“

“But“, said the consultant, who realized that the sultan was operating a kind of test on him, “if I don´t manage to find the one with the highest dowry, what happens then?“

“Then“, grumbled the sultan, “I will chop off your head. Because you will have proven yourself as a useless consultant”.

So the sultan brought in 100 maidens, and let them live in tents on the lawn of the palace. He erected a big red tent for the consultant, with two grim looking watchmen with huge axes in front. And the consultant sat on silk cushions and sweated quite heavily, as he called one beautiful maiden after the other into his tent…

What does this tale tell us about the future of love? Think. Let’s discuss it. Let’s guess. Let’s listen to the message and do the maths.
How likely is it that the consultant loses his head?
What does dowry mean in a metaphorical sense?
What does the story mean for partner choice in the modern world – and for the future of love?

Further tales might include:
The tale of marriage prediction.
The tale of the eternal „Mingle“
The tale of the Reproductive Restaurant
Be prepared. And let yourself be surprised!

Literature for further reading:

The Classics


The Future of Mankind

Industrial Change