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We are approaching that time of year where journals, magazines and pundits look back on the biggest stories and issues of the past year, as well as some looking forward (see New Scientist and Nature) to what may be in store for the coming year. In my next post I’ll also indulge in some forward prognostication, but before that it is useful to consider what role, if any, prediction has in the futures field.

It is easy to point out predictions that got it badly wrong, but harder to find examples of what was on, or close to, the money, particularly when considering complex issues with high levels of uncertainty. When I started this Blog I noted that I’m interested in foresight (looking at trends and potential implications) rather than prediction. But foresight too often doesn’t get it right or provide actionable intelligence. So what’s the point of looking to the future?

A great report by Richard Danzig — Driving in the Dark — examines foresight and prediction in relation to US national security. He notes that the likelihood of failure is usually not admitted, or if admitted is not adequately taken account of, when predicting future military and security threats. This applies to other fields as well.

Danzig suggests that humans are predisposed to make predictions, but that our ability to make good predictions usually falls short. No surprises there. But rather than throw prediction and foresight out he suggests that they still have value, so long as the likelihood of getting it wrong is acknowledged. The benefits of foresight are not necessarily about getting things right but about helping break out of thinking that the future will be similar to the present, and for developing policies and strategies to help cope with change.

Hence the title of this post — futurists need to both predict as well as to plan and prepare for failure of their predictions.

Lack of certainty though, isn’t what government departments, politicians or many businesses want to hear, particularly when things get turbulent and less predictable. Tough. But it is part of the futurist’s roles to make the organisation more comfortable in dealing with uncertainty.

Policymakers will always drive in the dark. However, they must stop pretending that they can see the road. A much better course is to adopt techniques to compensate for unpredictable conditions and, in so doing, better prepare us for perils that we will not have foreseen.

Danzig offers five propositions to prepare for predictive failure (his focus is on military and security issues, but they also apply more generally):

Make some decisions quicker, and put off others until things look more certain. When things are unpredictable, dragging out decisions isn’t always helpful. Having a shorter time between decision and execution helps reduce your predictive time frame, and so can reduce uncertainty. However, procrastination and then knee jerk reaction also isn’t usually a good tactic.

Create more agile processes so that they are better able to quickly respond to changing needs. This can apply not only to designing and building tanks and software systems but to, say, a science funding system.

Prioritize equipment that is most adaptable. The New Zealand Defence Force has done that to some extent with its new offshore vessels. But what about other critical infrastructure? What transport infrastructure are going to be the most adaptable to changing technological, societal and environmental conditions?

Build more for the short term. That is, don’t invest in the most expensive and long lasting options if you think that you’ll need to change or adapt them in the short to medium term. The rebuild of Christchurch, as well as new subdivisions in other major centres, need to think more about this as a way of managing uncertainties associated with the forces of nature (and population growth or decline).

Nurture diversity; create competition. This does happen even in the armed forces — both between and within the different services. The trick is to ensure that you have fruitful competition that can operate across the different groups rather than fostering redundancy, rivalry and inefficiency. Schemes like Whanau ora could work in this way. Charter schools may not be the best means to improve the education of disadvantaged children, but some new ways of lifting school performance need to be considered.

Danzig concludes:

Policymakers will always drive in the dark. However, they must stop pretending that they can see the road. A much better course is to adopt techniques to compensate for unpredictable conditions and, in so doing, better prepare us for perils that we will not have foreseen.