By Robert Hickson 15/07/2017

A few weeks ago I gave a conference talk about using stories to look at the future. I focused on the need to pay more attention to creating stronger story lines and characters. That’s because it is more important to stimulate the audience to explore a range of possible futures than to try and predict what you think may happen. I got a very good reaction to that.

However, since it was an information technology-focused conference one of the questions afterwards was “what are the technologies to keep an eye on?” That, and the “What next” series on TV, got me thinking again about our level of sophistication in thinking about the future.

I’ve written before about the less asked “why?” futures questions. “What?” type questions can be too deterministic, or narrowly focused.

It is easy to pick a list of “technologies” that are going to “change everything” – artificial intelligence, robots, the internet of things, autonomous vehicles, blockchain, 3D printing, virtual reality, synthetic biology, etc. But we generally don’t really know whether they will, or how. Or give enough thought to how to integrate them with other technologies and systems, and the second-order consequences of their adoption.

As Cory Doctorow has noted:

“The future is never so normal as we think it will be. The only sure thing about self-driving cars, for instance, is that whether or not they deliver fortunes to oligarchic transport barons, that’s not where it will end.”


We also tend to view problems as technical or engineering challenges, rather than social ones, and so may not address the real underlying issues. As Tom Burton noted in The Mandarin, we aren’t very good at solving our inability to organize ourselves differently. He illustrated this through the building of roads to try to reduce traffic congestion at peak travel times, and trying to manage daily and seasonal peaks in energy demands through more power plants.

There is often also a presumption that we are at the mercy of “technology”

These miraculous machines!
Do we shape them
Or do they shape us?
Or reshape us from our decent, far designs?

Russell Lord 1948.


But technology is more than just things, or machines. Standards, regulations, laws, institutions, and values shape how they are used. And we are often able to change our minds, as with the re-design of cities to create car-less city centres.

So, rather than thinking simplistically about the future, we need more complex narratives where assumptions don’t go unchallenged. I like Cory Doctorow’s term “hopeful futures

“Hopeful futures aren’t places where nothing goes wrong; they’re places where, when things go wrong, people can put them back to rights.”