Why we need to predict the futures, plural

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It’s been a bad year for those paid to predict. This week has shown that perhaps more than any other. The pollsters and pundits have failed again to call the way in which people will vote, meaning for the second electoral shock of 2016 – after Brexit, Trump. As someone who has just stopped being paid to think about the future for a world-leading media group, I’m intrigued. As someone who is hopefully about to start helping at least one significant organisation to develop its future strategy, I’m daunted. And as someone who hopes regularly to deconstruct ideas about the future of education for investors and decision makers, I am unsurprised. (As a citizen of the world, both events sadden me greatly, but that’s in passing).

The educational technology writer Audrey Watters regularly points out how we need to recognise that some venture capital firms, corporations and others create stories about the future to further their own agendas, and often dress them up as unassailable fact. She is essential reading for anyone making thoughtful strategy in education, and her latest, characteristically acerbic piece was published last week and persuasively skewered a number of well-known and influential organisations offering such predictions.

Yet as I read Audrey’s post I felt there was more to say, with more general application. There are times when we have to predict the future, and sometimes that has to be public. If you have the responsibility of allocating resources – for example, making decisions about where to invest money or cut jobs – I would argue you have a duty to do so having thought carefully about what might happen in the next months or years. If you have public shareholders and/or accountability, you may have to justify those choices openly.

The problems come when story becomes presented as fact, and complexity is ignored for the sake of the story. For example, personalised learning technologies hold great promise theoretically, but are substantially unproven and likely to be very context-specific. They are not “a magic pill”, but that sounds a lot better and more confident to many people.

The way through, I think, is to be humble. One way to do this is to hold multiple futures as hypotheses simultaneously and to acknowledge that none of them are likely to be entirely accurate, but all may have elements of truth in them. Those hypothetical futures should be rooted in as much evidence about the trends leading to them as you can practically obtain, and perhaps by examining the motives and likely actions of key players as events unfold. This often involves looking for data which isn’t easily available. In other words, tell multiple stories and critically compare and contrast them.

If you can explore the implications of a number of possible futures for your decision, it will be better – and the next decisions as the world changes (unexpectedly) should be better too. Additionally – and importantly – you may be able to explore the unintended consequences of your possible paths of action. Sometimes the best intentions lead to the worst of outcomes, as many politicians have found in 2016.

As Audrey points out, the future is not inevitable. We make decisions which make things happen. If we acknowledge that predictions about the future are not only stories but also more or less likely possibilities, we are better placed to evaluate the probability and desirability of those possibilities. Then, we can debate and aim for the right ones. Given the times we are in, this seems more necessary than ever.

Image credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/39908901@N06/22606265795 (CC BY SA 2.0)

As ever, links and references available on request.

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