By Robert Hickson 18/02/2020

Nobody thinks about the next century anymore. That at least is Sci-Fi writer William Gibson’s observation (in this BBC 4 short interview, starting at 1:43:50 ). He calls it “Futures Fatigue”, but isn’t judgemental about it.

Gibson notes that in the 20th century speculation about the 21st (and beyond) was common. Now the focus is much more on the present, or the next few decades. And thoughts about the future trend toward the pessimistic. A range of other commentators have also noted, with sadness or frustration, that uplifting speculations about the future aren’t what they used to be. A riposte to that could be OK, boomer, there are more important issues in the here and now to deal with.


New Zealand has futures inertia not fatigue

New Zealand doesn’t suffer from futures fatigue because we have never really had much future focussed energy or inclination to begin with. We have a case of “Futures Inertia”. That’s not something to be sanguine about. As a country we tend to look backwards, rather than forwards. Sure, there are causes and projects, like getting to carbon neutral Aotearoa and becoming Predator Free.  But these tend to be more in the way of “missions” – problems to be solved or overcome. A focus on the technocratic. Or we have vague symbolic hand waving, like “clean, green” and “smart cities”, which are often means to unexplored ends.

Futures thinking in Aotearoa is often lacking in sophistication, as I’ve discussed previously here and here. There is some good futures work going on, and increasing interest, it’s just not evenly distributed yet.

Rarely do Kiwis get into details of defining what life and society could be like 50, 75 or 100 years out. We are a practical and pragmatic country (so we like to think), so what’s the point of wasting time defining a future that is unlikely to arrive? We’ll deal with it when the future arrives. She’ll be right. Yeah, nah.

 That may work if change is gradual or simple, or totally unexpected. But that’s not how the current period of change is looking.

Doing nothing risks drift or descent into dystopia. Not necessarily the Orwellian autocratic state, or a dystopic Armageddon. But a Huxleyian-like dystopia of passive contentment with what the state provides.


Getting past the inertia

So, how do we get over futures Inertia?

A first step is raising awareness – both about the changes going on, and about the value of thinking long term. Most people are aware that we are entering turbulent times. But they don’t get the benefits of long-term thinking. Often this is because a lot of futures activities are poor or pathetic. Time and effort isn’t given to getting past conventional and reactionary thinking, and there is an absence of real insights and effective actions.

Examples of success are rarely publicised (or are difficult to attribute), although that is changing, and I’ve discussed examples in earlier posts. There are good illustrations too of where short-term thinking has obviously failed.


Step two is developing a “culture of curiosity.”

 It is fine to have a suite of tools and methods available to examine possible futures, but they are of little use if there is not a curiosity about the future, and belief that it can be influenced. Less emphasis on conventional thinking and more encouragement for the quirky and expansive. “Encourage “What if?” questions and challenge “This is how it is” statements. More Taika Waititi and Rose Matafeo. Less conservative white male thinking.


Step three is building momentum. This can be through institutional arrangements and practices that support longer term thinking and acting, such as in Singapore, or Wales,  and opening up processes so they can collect and enable ideas from beyond the usual suspects. At the pointy-ends of town our government is (still) thinking about supporting futures thinking capability in Departments. And the Centre for Informed Futures, a university think tank lead by Sir Peter Gluckman, is being opened next month at the University of Auckland.

But institutionalising futures thinking is a start not an end. Cat Tully emphasises a holistic approach. Everyone can and should do it. Thinking about and shaping the future is too important to leave to government or the private sector.


So, to release some of that inertial futures energy start by asking yourself:

  1. In 25, 50, 100  years from now, when I think of “New Zealand/Aotearoa”, or “the Pacific”, what do I want to see? 

  2. How can I help this come about, starting now? 


Featured image: Chris Crowe / Smithsonian National Zoo