Can we really predict the future?

This is the question a British journalist asked me today. Specifically, he wanted to know if it was possible to predict industry trends thirty years into the future. Here is the gist of my brief reply:

Looking thirty years into the future is notoriously hard to do, especially with the current pace of technological and social change. We tend to notice the technology changes more – just think back thirty years ago, and you’re into a world where the fax machine had just arrived in offices, having been a board level decision to purchase and guarded by a fax operator who signed all faxes in and out (or when Fedex came to collect the faxes you wanted to send and sent them for you). No desktop computers, no mobile phones, no Internet (in fact, even desktop phones were a status symbol reserved for certain levels of management). And almost no-one could foresee where we would be today.

Less obvious, but maybe more important, is social change. For example, thirty years ago in most countries, it was illegal to be homosexual. Now they can get married. Thirty years from now, what we will consider to be right, good and normal? Technology may promise us today that we can double life expectancy again in the 21st century like we did in the last, but will public policy and social values allow this? If the government doesn’t have enough money to keep everyone alive, at what point does it say that it won’t? These, and similar, social issues are more likely to put brakes on development, and alter the course of the future that we think we can see now.

So, I am skeptical of making projections that far out.

However, and having said that, the one thing I can be absolutely certain about is that thirty years from today I will be thirty years older. And I will have similar values to what I have today, even though these will have matured and (slightly) morphed over time. Demographics therefore provides a reasonable basis on which to make quite detailed and significant predictions. For example, in the early 1950s there was a baby boom in most Western countries. We could have reliably predicted that schools would need extra capacity for classrooms and facilities in the 1960s and 70s. In fact, the Education Departments of many countries fell well short of being proactive, and many children of the 60s and 70s (called the “Baby Boomers” as it happens) remember crowded school classrooms, prefab buildings and temporary facilities. Some sociologists even suggest this is where their ability (and desire) to work in teams stems from. That same generation are now heading towards retirement, and there is a growing demand for housing that suits an older generation and we can predict that in the UK, SAGA (if they’re prepared to revamp their image for a much more tech-literate, healthy and image conscious group of old hipsters and rockers) will have bumper years ahead.

So, my answer is a bit of ‘yes and no’. In general we can see demographic trends many decades out. In the specifics of technology, politics and social issues, I fear we’re just guessing. Even if it is educated guessing.

This should not stop us from making these educated guesses though. For two reasons: (1) we should learn to think in multiple futures and scenarios anyway, and (2) if we are honest with ourselves about the level of confidence (I mean that statistically and scientifically) that we have in our predictions, there’s no downside to informed speculation, trend plotting and future trends watching. But, as we all know from experience, some people are better at it than others!

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