By Robert Hickson 09/05/2019

Elephants can be an important futures symbol. The “elephant in the room” – also, unnecessarily pigmented, called a “black elephant” by some futurists – is the well known large and obvious issue that people refuse to address.

 Then there is the parable of the “blind men and the elephant”, which illustrates the misconceptions that result if we only focus on one part of a situation. A useful reminder when considering how narrow or broad you want to be when doing environmental scans or crafting scenarios.

The “elephant and the rider” analogy can be used to help decision-making. It portrays the elephant as our emotional side and the rider as our rational side. Both need to work together to bring about change, a critical factor to remember for any strategy.

I’ve found a new one to add to the pachyderm parade. I’m calling it “the elephants outside the room.”


Elephants outside the room

The artist Uli Westphal collated images of the elephant, sight unseen, in post-Roman times to depict an evolution of form in the absence of real knowledge. A game of cryptozoological whispers. Some commonalities emerge – long trunk, biggish ears, often tusks, and their use in warfare. But there are divergences – size, form, and resemblances to other animals (mythical and real).

Selection of elephant images from the middle ages (900-1500 AD). Source: Uli Westphal

Selection of elephant images from the middle ages (900-1500 AD). Source: Uli Westphal


This is illustrative of thinking about the future in three ways. Firstly, we have no real knowledge of the future. That elephant isn’t in the room. We have signs and suppositions of what it could look like, or what we want it to look like, and attempt to infer it from more familiar situations (like the blind men and the elephant). Some inferences are better than others. Sometimes it will be obvious, but not always.

Secondly, different people (or groups) will use the same base characteristics or information (long proboscis, tusks, large size; ageing population, automation, systemic economic trends) and create variations on a theme. They may have common features, but the emphasis and form will differ.

Lastly, we can try too hard to get it “right” – to have an accurate description of the future. Westphal’s compendium for me is interesting not because of how fantastically wrong most of the images are, but because of the variety.

A futures thinking approach is about exploring possibility spaces. Having a diversity of imagined futures, including ones that challenge current perceptions and expectations, is essential. More imaginative, divergent futures lets thinking take a short walk on the wild side, opening up possibilities and helping explore second, third, and higher order effects of change.

But too often I read futures reports, predictions and scenarios that are largely the same, simplistic and bland. Ponderous. They don’t surprise, or delight, or upset. Which connects back to the elephant and rider analogy that emphasises the importance of emotions as well as rationality.

In some cases we will want a non-fantastical future that we can work towards creating. But we shouldn’t try to get to these too quickly or linearly. We can’t describe the future precisely, so we shouldn’t overly constrain the possible. If the future is a metaphorical elephant it may be more astonishing than we think it is.


Featured image: detail from a folio by Guillaume le Clerc. Sourced from Wikimedia.