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Four ways to see the future

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Strategy

I recently spoke at a forum in Mexico City called Pasa Usted, which focused on the future citizen. Pasa Usted brings together specialists, opinion leaders and change agents to share and encourage the exchange of ideas. While there, I got the opportunity to meet with a number of social entrepreneurs and advocates. They were a passionate group, and considering they recently celebrated the bicentennial of Mexico’s independence movement, the debate raged back and forth, covering their history, immediate social unrest and future aspirations.

So I began to wonder if their future will ultimately be constrained by their past. And why is this, when surely the future is uncharted and there for us to reinvent? Perhaps it has more to do with how we choose to consider it.

Someone recently told me there are four ways to think about the future. The first is to see it as a voyage with a destination; that with planning we can determine where we arrive. The second has the future racing towards us in a never-ending cascade of events that we must somehow dodge or contend with. Third is a future of ramifications. Decisions from our past may have known or unknown consequences in our future. And finally, and most importantly, there is the way in which we see it.

The future is more determined by our world-view and decisions than the events that shape them. So we need to build better understanding of how we make decisions to manage it. We have to stop stopping and start starting

Let’s consider ways of thinking about the future, using the All Black campaign to win the World Cup next year.

Graham Henry, the team coach, has a plan to achieve greatness in 2011, but between now and then there will be any number of things charging at the All Blacks—the Springbok back row, for one. On top of that there are past decisions that we may all live to regret. (Will Robbie Dean rise up and empower his team to steal the show?) And finally, what is the team’s view, what is the collective boogieman that may determine their ultimate fate ... will their future be determined by the fact they are known chokers?

So planning, competition and history exist, but it’s their outlook and the decisions they make around them that really determine whether they win or lose on the field. And the same can be said off the field; where we want to go, current and future uncertainies and our past decisions merely exist. It’s us that decide the future. And there is always more than one decision that we can make.

So if this is the case, why do we spend so much time debating issues like climate change and economic growth and so little time considering the range of potential decisions people may make to address them? Is it because we spend so much time considering the meta nature of the issues that we forget the day-to-day reality of the impact of the decisions we make around them?

It’s human nature to try to make the best of every challenge, and if we start considering the everyday decisions we could make, perhaps the challenges we face may not appear so insurmountable.

And if we begin to thread the decisions together, perhaps we may find patterns of plausible and positive futures that can act as roadmaps, or at least be hedged to give us options.

The future is more determined by our world-view and decisions than the events that shape them. So we need to build better understanding of how we make decisions to manage it. We have to stop stopping and start starting.

Peter Salmon is a director of Fische Consulting