By Robert Hickson 03/03/2019

“One-way thinking on a two-way street” is a line from Ogden Nash’s poem “Oh, Stop Being Thankful All Over The Place.”

I see it as particularly apt for a lot of the futures speculation and prediction going on all over the place. There is a rapidly expanding market of “futures pundits” who confidently predict what is going to come to pass. You know the sort; “the robots are coming for our jobs”, “the singularity is near”, “blockchain will change everything”, “the death of capitalism”. Simple messages for complex times.

The historian and writer Jill Lepore has called futurists “modern-day shamans”. This probably confers on them too much status and capability. Rarely do they seem to enter an “altered state of consciousness” that characterises a shaman. They often just chant current trends and the Zeitgeist. Or beat the drum by recycling previous generations concerns about technological progress while claiming “this time it’s different”.

That’s one-way thinking. It’s understandable in times of change. People often crave certainty. But it narrows the future, leaving little space for nuance or uncertainty. It ignores that new things must often fit into existing practices, and that it’s not the things themselves but the choices people make that have more significance.

One-way thinking is aspiration (or dysphoria), not reality. A poor substitute for real understanding, it turns differences and tensions, which can often be managed, into incompatibilities that require a hard choice. This can lead to cases of what Jeremy Adelman calls “the false certainties of the abyss”.

Good futures thinking – two-way, non-shamanistic thinking – doesn’t lead to simple narratives or certainty. Instead, it illustrates the complexities of change and explores the ambiguities and alternatives. Its purpose is to open up rather than close down futures.

I’ve written previously about the focus of much futures commentary being on the “What?” and “How?” of the future, with not enough focus on the “Why?” “What?”, and sometimes “How?”, questions can keep you in the one-way lane.

“Why?” questions get you into two-way thinking. Longer and less efficient perhaps, but they create a better understanding about the forces shaping what is going on. This leads to the systemic causes, world views and myths that shape the present, and how they can be changed to influence the future – the territory of Sohail Inayatullah’s Causal layered analysis approach.

So, next time you hear or read a confident prediction about the future ask yourself “are there other directions this could go?”

Photo by Nazish Mirekar on Unsplash