By Robert Hickson 21/09/2021

The nature, scale, and pace of change is central to futures work. But usually more attention is given to identifying what’s happening rather than what needs to happen.


Are we living in fast times?

Many futures studies focus on how fast the world is changing now. Partly that seems to be a marketing strategy – who’s going to pay attention (and fees) if there isn’t a sense of urgency?

It’s often based on poor analysis. The criteria for declaring “unprecedented change” are typically vague, subjective, or just non-existent. And ignores the fact that not all change is equal.

There’s often a lot of presentism to overcome in futures. We tend to over-emphasise the changes we are experiencing now, so can easily overlook or under-estimate the scale of change from earlier times.

Kavanagh et al. do a good job of exposing this, with their analysis of social changes. They examine the question “Are we living in a period of particularly rapid social change?” Their conclusion is no.

“… there is no doubt that we are living in a period of change, but so does every generation.” Kavanagh et al.

They note that many changes are just current manifestations of long-term trends. Based on the data they use they propose that there was more social change in the first half of the 20th Century than between 1970 and now.


The future abhors a smooth curve

Social change doesn’t occur in long waves. Fitting social and other changes to nice orderly curves is common practice in futures work. This is used, consciously or subconsciously, to bring order to a messy situation. But not necessarily objectively. Yes, there can be general cycles, but particulars matter.

Kavanagh et al. find that their data set suggests a model of long periods of relative stability followed by radical or punctuated change. I’ve also previously described the long and winding rivers of social change.

They end their paper by rhetorically asking why, and to whose benefit, is there so much talk about living in a period of rapid and unprecedented change.


Being lulled by transitions

While current social and technological changes may not be unprecedented, the pace and scale of some other changes definitely are. And, we are usually pretty tardy at changing quickly ourselves when the real need arises. That’s the message in an article by Alex Steffen.

The word “transition” can be a dangerous futures term. It is used often and is meant to signify a major change or set of changes. I’ve covered some of these previously.

However, it can also be used, or interpreted as, a “don’t scare the horses” expression. A relatively smooth change where challenges can be addressed in an orderly manner. Just the message Ministers, Chief Executives, and senior management teams want to hear.

It is also easy to focus on the end point of the transition, rather than all the messy stuff that happens during the transitional stages – competing world views, disagreements about decisions and the real nature, scale and pace of changes required.

That’s where methods such as the Three Horizons Framework are useful. They help people engage in the “horizon two”, the period of transition where consequential decisions need to be made. An example is one I used in BRANZ’s issue paper Environmental Challenges, Opportunities & Transitions for Construction in NZ.

It is a very useful method, but the smooth schematic curves can sooth the managerial mind, rather than stimulate urgency.


Beware the discontinuities

Alex Steffen makes the point, in relation to climate change and other environmental crises, that the time has passed for an orderly transition. We aren’t in a period, he contends, of managing “issues” but are already in a change in era. He refers to this as a “discontinuity”, where slight improvements to old things and systems aren’t sufficient.

What is required is new things done in new ways, and at a faster pace and bigger scale. That is what many futures people point out too. However, it is easy to say but hard to do.

Groups can agree about the need to change, but not about the nature and pace of required changes. Promises of bold actions combined with the continuation of current practices and systems amounts, in his view, to magical thinking.

We see that in discussions about climate change. Steffen argues that declaring big but distant goals (such as net zero carbon by 2050), and proposing incremental steps to achieve them may be more to deflect criticism and show an organisation is “doing enough” or “doing its bit.”

This was illustrated recently by Supran & Oreskes’ analysis of ExxonMobil’s rhetoric on climate change, and Culhane et al’s analysis of lobbying in Massachusetts.

Incrementalism can also be a sign not of resistance to change but of a failure to grasp the nature and urgency of change required. That, though, is getting harder to accept.

The latest IPCC report suggests that net zero by 2050 is achievable, but requires immediate, rapid and large-scale reductions of all greenhouse gases, Something it was also saying three years ago.


Discontinuities require different capabilities

A third factor is that organisation, institutions and individuals can lack the capabilities to deal with discontinuities. One of Steffen’s key points is that organisations (both public and private) need decision-makers with better sets of incentives and interests, the drive to act quickly, and expertise not centred on maintaining current systems.

Some will actively resist such change, due to avarice, fear or other factors. Changing that resistance will often require external pressure:

“We cannot build a better future without leveraging the power of governments—and we cannot leverage that power without exerting even greater democratic pressure through advocacy.” Steffen

Steffen emphasises the need for developing acumen (the ability to make good judgements and take quick decisions) for times of “upheaval, chaos and weirdness.”

Discontinuities are rare, so most people have no expertise in how to handle them. Therefore quick and influential learners are essential. The challenge for foresight and strategy professionals is to discourage incremental thinking, and make the case for developing the acumen to address discontinuities. Don’t invite a futurist if all you want is reassurance.

Steffen provides 12 ideas to help develop your own acumen.

 A good tip is that if people are spending a lot of time saying they are “doing their bit” then they probably don’t have a sense of urgency of the problem.

Discontinuity isn’t to be confused with “disruption”, another commonly used futures term. Steffen sees disruption as part of the response to discontinuity – developing “disruptive” solutions (whatever that may mean), or disrupting existing patterns of thought and practices.


Competence matters more than clarity

As we have seen in the pandemic, rapid development of competence to deal with a novel fast moving situation is essential.

With climate change and other environmental crises the same attitude and approach is needed. Pay more attention to our ability to change quickly, rather than describing how quickly the world we are part of is changing.


Featured image by Leio McLaren on Unsplash