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November 25, 1997

From Prophecy to Forecasting:

Future Studies Grow Up

by Konrad M. Kressley

In the first installment of this series we learned that all civilized people have pondered the future; many prophets, astrologers and the like were concerned with predicting human events. Typically, these events concerned careers of monarchs, natural disasters, wars, and even the end of the world. In contrast, contemporary futurologists rarely attempt to predict specific events, but focus on identifying evolving trends of change in the natural and social world. Their predictions are usually couched in terms of statistical probability.

A number of technological and scientific breakthroughs in the last half century have made this approach to future studies possible. Of these, remote sensing via satellite, ultra-sensitive instrumentation, and information science have been the most significant. Satellites have made it possible to gain a total world view, producing observations of areas that up to now had been inaccessible or overlooked. This power of observation has been augmented by a wide variety of sophisticated instruments capable of measuring minute differences of chemical compositions, temperatures, and the like. Finally, the advent of the computer spawned information science, with the capacity for storing and analyzing vast amounts of information from the natural and social environment. Natural and social scientists were now able to construct global inventories of information.

Perhaps the most powerful conclusion was the complex interdependence of various elements of the natural and social world. It's called "systems analysis." Computer-generated models suggest that factors such as population growth, resource use, pollution and climate change could be linked. Likewise, economic models link data about employment, inflation, interest rates and related factors. This interdependence also makes predictions possible. We'll discuss some global and national forecasts in a later installment. For now, let's just consider a small example of how scientific advancements influence future studies. Take hurricane forecasting, which interests everyone on the Gulf Coast. Dr. Miriam Fern, a local geologist, has found a way to track hurricanes over several past centuries by examining the mud of freshwater lakes adjacent to the Gulf of Mexico. Her research project involved sampling layers of mud in Lake Shelby at Gulf Shores. Dr. Fern hypothesized that powerful hurricane force winds would blow beach sand inland, creating layers of sand in nearby lake bottoms. After the storm, normal lake sedimentation would resume, trapping layers of hurricane-borne sand between the layers of mud. The research involves taking core samples from the lake bottom. Back at the laboratory, researchers record the volume and location of the sand which indicates the force of the storm, while organic matter in the surrounding mud layers is amenable to radioactive dating. Dr. Fern now has a fairly good record of how often severe hurricanes visit the region. But don't ask her to predict when the next big one will come. That's a statistical probability. You'll need to get the date from Nostradamus.

The Business of Forecasting

On a more pedestrian level, professional futurists are starting to have an impact on society. Because most forecasting enterprises doesn't overtly advertise, much of the public is unaware that this significant industry has evolved over the past several decades. It began in obscure government agencies, universities and arcane "Think Tanks." The invention of the computer played an enormous role in creating the art of forecasting, because computers allow researchers to assemble and analyze unprecedented amounts of information that up to then had boggled the human mind. Today, futurists are both respected and influential, particularly among the high-level insiders who rely upon their work.

Where do you find a futurist? In 1966, experts in the fields of forecasting and Future Studies formed the World Future Society, which conducts annual conventions and publishes a widely-circulated magazine, The Futurist. There is also a rich literature of other future-oriented books, journals and internet offerings. Some prestigious educational institutions, such as the University of Houston at Clear Lake City, now offer graduate degree programs in this emerging field. Some futurists, whose work we will look at later, have achieved public recognition. Chief among them are the late Herman Kahn of the Hudson Institute, Alvin and Heidi Toffler, who wrote the best-sellers Future Shock and The Third Wave, and John Naisbitt, author of Megatrends. Meanwhile, countless other forecasters contribute through their work at more pedestrian tasks. For example, city planners, corporate strategists and forecasters in the federal government's advisory councils are largely invisible, yet contribute to the rich and growing storehouse of impending developments and consequences. We may take their work for granted, but they nevertheless shape our future.

Care to visit with some futurists? There are now several hundred individual consultants and firms offering forecasting services. The Institute for the Future, based in Menlo Park, California, is typical. The Institute's staff consists of about twenty affiliates, most of whom hold doctoral degrees in a wide range of fields including engineering, business management, and anthropology. Like other forecasting firms, they originally employed only experts from science and engineering, but as time went on, they realized the need for social and behavioral researchers as well. Staffers share two important characteristics: the first is open minds and the capacity to see beyond their own disciplines; second, the ability to communicate and synthesize ideas with their colleagues. The atmosphere ranges between a research university and a consulting firm. Unfortunately, you won't find many of them at company headquarters. Most staffers operate in the emerging "virtual environment," which means that their offices are at home, on the road, or wherever they choose to switch on their lap-top computers. While a certain amount of face-to-face contact is still necessary, this type of organization depends more on electronic communication than weekly staff meetings. We'll take a closer look at this phenomenon in a later installment describing work and careers in the next century.

Most such institutes publish newsletters or bulletins that provide corporate and institutional subscribers with five or ten-year general forecasts. They also provide customized forecasts for their clients. Typically, corporate and institutional executives want to know about threats and opportunities posed by emerging technologies. You don't want to get blindsided by unforeseen events, so a counter- intuitive outside opinion may be worth its weight in gold. For instance, one corporation wants to know how interactive radio, due in 2005, will affect its business. Another firm, which had long manufactured steel file cabinets, asked for ideas on how to adapt its product line to the "paperless office" of the future. In making forecasts of this type, issues of marketing, consumer taste and customer service may receive as much consideration as technologies of the future.

How do they forecast the future? As you are now aware, these expert forecasters do not rely on crystal balls. They use sophisticated techniques, combining the latest scientific know-how with human insight and experience. Let's review some of their most widely-used approaches to forecast the future.

Trend Extrapolation is based on the assumption that the future is essentially a continuation of the past. The Census Bureau plots population growth projections on existing growth rates, while businessmen determine the future demand for products on the record of past sales figures. Trend extrapolation is the simplest and most logical forecasting technique and relies heavily on computer analysis of statistical information. While it can be extremely accurate in the short run, unexpected developments in the more distant future can flaw the projections. In the early fifties, for instance, doctors could predict the number of polio cases with remarkable accuracy from year to year, but the subsequent discovery of the Salk and Sabin Polio vaccines made those long-range forecasts meaningless.

Expert Forecasting relies heavily on the insights and intuitions of the most knowledgeable people in a given field. Leonardo Da Vinci was celebrated for his scientific and technological vision many centuries ago. More recently, the late oceanographer Jacques Cousteau was frequently asked to make predictions about the world's marine life, while Lee Iacocca is consulted about the automotive future. Despite their impeccable credentials, all experts have personal limitations, vested interests, and biases that tend to distort their analyses. To overcome this problem and to pool the collective wisdom of experts, the Delphi technique was developed. Here, a "Think Tank," such as the Rand Corporation in California, assembles a panel of experts and requires them to write answers to specific questions about the future. Once this is done, their forecasts are made available to all other panelists who then embark on a revised forecast based on what they learned from their colleagues. A critical feature of the Delphi technique is that all forecasts are anonymous, so that the experts' judgment will not be clouded by professional rivalries, cliques and interpersonal relationships found in any such group. After a number of these cycles, the collective wisdom of the group usually produces some meaningful consensus.

Use of Leading Indicators is another common forecasting tool. Popularized in John Naisbitt's book Megatrends, this approach assumes that a small number of innovators start trends that eventually snowball as they catch on with more and more people. For example, Paris fashion shows greatly determine the fashions that will be found in boutiques from Dusseldorf to Dubuque; California conceives youth fads; and Silicon Valley initiates computer innovations. The trick, of course, is to identify leading indicators early on so that forecasts for a larger society are possible. This principle applies not only to fads or fashions, but to social, economic and political innovations as well. Just as people choose their outfits based on what those around them are wearing, business and government institutions carefully check out their counterparts before making major decisions. You might say it's a "herd instinct." Finally, the concept of Leading Indicators plays a major role in economic forecasting, where monthly statistics on housing starts, for instance, would also generate forecasts of employment, durable goods sales, and related economic trends.

As you can imagine, the most effective forecasting is done by combining various techniques to create synergy. We know intuitively that a variety of trends are interacting simultaneously. Forecasters try to determine these interrelationships by using the technique of Systems or Cross-Impact Analysis, which utilizes highly sophisticated statistical methods. One can observe the ripple effects when a jump in Middle East petroleum prices affects our gasoline consumption, car sales, and airline ticket prices. On a larger scale, scientists use computer models to plot global climate change by calculating the interaction of factors such as population growth, economic activity, and emission of pollutants. Now you know where the theory of Global Warming came from.

While statistics and computers have their place, there is still no substitute for the intuition and imagination of the human mind. If anything, forecasts based on hard, statistical facts give creative futurists something to work with, and relate to a larger context. This is the essence of Scenarios, where futurists combine a number of forecasts into a hypothetical course of events. Scenario, a theatrical term, can also be described as a "story line" or plot of future events. Defense planners have a similar technique, called Contingency Planning, where all possible outcomes of a military action are calculated. During the Cold War, Pentagon planners once actually concocted a scenario of nuclear defeat and prepared contingency plans for a surrender to the Russians! While this example may seem absurd, other scenarios have indeed become reality.

Science fiction literature is also gaining acceptance as a forecasting tool. Some of the best writers of science fiction, such as the late astronomer Carl Sagan, are able to combine solid scientific knowledge with fertile imaginations. The Frenchman Jules Verne thrilled his readers with prophetic tales of space travel and submarine adventures well before the turn of the century. And consider the work of Aldous Huxley, the British novelist who published Brave New World in 1932. Looking several hundred years into the future, Huxley envisioned a world where science reigns: human reproduction, divorced from sexuality, is handled in laboratory test tubes; meanwhile, mood-altering drugs keep everyone in a constant state of happiness. In fact, many of these technologies are already available, and Huxley only erred in underestimating the pace of change. Currently, innovations in the field of Virtual Reality are particularly close to recent science fiction literature. More about this later.

Skeptics sometimes ask me about the accuracy of forecasts and whether they're really worth the high fees charged by professional futurists. The success of the industry should be evidence enough, and a number of studies show the growing success rate of forecasting over the last several decades. Edward Cornish, President of the World Future Society, recently evaluated a set of forecasts made in the inaugural issue of The Futurist in 1967. Out of 34 forecasts, there were 23 hits and 11 misses in 1997, just 30 years later. For example, the futurists were right about such things as use of artificial organ parts, growth in agricultural production, and the common use of drugs to treat psychiatric disorders. They erred in predicting widespread availability of desalinated sea water, three-dimensional TV, and that most urban people would live in high-rise buildings. And what is the future of Future Studies? While earlier forecasting focused mainly on science, technology and economics, the current crop of futurists also takes great interest in issues of culture, society, human development and spirituality.

The next installment in this series will examine some of the forces which drive the future and how experts in the field visualize what lies ahead.

Konrad M. Kressley teaches Political Science and Public Administration at the University of South Alabama. He is a member of the World Future Society and has published future-oriented research in The Futurist, Technology in Society and other journals. He is working on a self-help book featuring forecasts of life in the next century.

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