As a futurist, I’m amused when people say ‘no one could have predicted that’.
I’m currently spending time in Bulgaria. A week in, I notice things that soon will stop registering in my consciousness as the novelty of the experience wears off. My old neighbourhood has changed quite a bit, in a good way. New sleek buildings and developments, tidy public spaces, more playgrounds for the kids, cleaner local park, color-coded recycling bins (plastic, glass, paper).
But something seems off. The glitzy property developments that have mushroomed in the area are eerily empty (the recession, stupid!) – only a couple of windows are lit in the evenings, though each entrance is manned by security guards 24/7. The tidy public spaces are gated, and the local park and streets are vacant after dark, the territory of stray dogs gathered in packs, just as I remember them from 5 years ago.
As a futurist, I study change. And I’m amused when people say ‘no one could have predicted that’. No one, they say, could have predicted the fall of the Berlin Wall, or 9/11, or the 2007 recession. Now, we futurists certainly don’t claim to be able to predict anything, but we do know where to look when we consider what might change. How, when, in what form – that’s a different matter, and no one can offer a blueprint. But understanding that something is bound to change does carry actionable insight. People caught by surprise often choose not to look (consciously or unconsciously) in places that create discomfort.
Take the fall of the Berlin Wall. Only two categories of people were taken by surprise in earnest: Westerners (large category!), and a portion of the socialist elites in the East. But the average Eastern European university student in the 80’s knew that things were simmering. Glasnost, perestroika, semiotics, Levi-Strauss, Saussure, Chomsky, critical theory, gender studies, post-modernism, quantum theory, complexity, etc – were all surely going to amount to something; it was in the air. In the private study circles, the informal gatherings, the hardly noticeable disturbances and small revolts against authority. How, when, in what form – no one could say at the time — but something was definitely about to change.
September 11 and the Great Recession, though different in important ways, reinforce the concept from systems theory that disequilibrium triggers forces that often overshoot in their attempt to balance things out – the pendulum effect. Seen from the perspective of the power theory of change, this would mean: Pay special attention if your actions create imbalances – winners/losers, haves and have-nots. They tend to boomerang. If you’re comfortable with a status quo that has excluded others and privileges you, there is a strong chance that you’re averting your eyes from a reality that another – less privileged half — is up to something. And don’t be surprised if change happens (in ways that disrupt your world).
Back to Bulgaria. In my first week, I’m still an observer – a week from now, I’ll be fully embedded in the environment, going about things as anyone else would. So I’m trying to capture what I can while it’s still impinging on my awareness. If I were a politician sitting in Parliament, I probably wouldn’t have eyes for the scavengers that go through the neighbourhood garbage bins daily. Or for the cart-and-horse that circles the streets in this high-end neighbourhood in one of Europe’s new capitals. I’d probably be focused on European law, policies, education reform, corruption, etc.
And I’d be taken by surprise – were I an MP – if suddenly, out of nowhere, the scavengers and homeless and pensioners and Roma, gathered in packs, decide to invade the glossy new empty buildings that refuse to lower their prices (deep pockets?) despite the general depreciation of the property market (a 20% decrease in 4 months, since June, according to a real estate agent). Security agents brushed aside, clinically tidy public spaces trampled upon, playgrounds destroyed, cart-and-horse charging forward, full of scrap metal and recycling plastic, glass, paper. In hindsight, it would all make perfect sense.
Culturally speaking, this is an unlikely future for Bulgaria – plausible but improbable. Dystopian, catastrophic scenarios are not the fabric of this society. And trend-wise, it is not even a full or accurate picture of the country. Other manifestations point to opposite dynamics – for example, playgrounds are bustling with children: the recent (and strikingly observable) baby boom[i] is an indication of a society that has faith in its future.
Furthermore, many of us believe that looking at external reality through a single lens (or theory) is a poor path to foresight, as different ways of knowing reveal different aspects of the world.
And finally, this story is not really about Bulgaria – it just illustrates how futurists go about their work, inquiring into life’s complexity as it unfolds. Asymmetries and imbalances are simply a potential source of change that shouldn’t be ignored.
If you want to think like a futurist, instead of looking away, get closer and look deeper – in more ways than one!
Image: Foresight Alliance
[i] According to figures published by the National Statistical Institute in March 2010, Bulgaria witnessed a baby boom in 2009, with the lowest decline in its population since 1993: http://sofiaecho.com/2010/04/06/883133_baby-boom-in-bulgaria-in-2009. Other sources indicate that the trend continues in 2010: http://paper.standartnews.com/en/article.php?d=2010-08-14&article=33900