Can we fix the future?

Can we fix the future? Why technology asks us questions, but it doesn’t always have the answers.

I often end my talks with a simple phrase:

“Design tomorrow.”

It’s a little cheesy but it communicates succinctly an idea. That there is no such thing as absolute fate. Or as Sarah Connor put it in Terminator 2:

“There’s no fate but what we make.”

Put another way, we’re responsible for creating our own futures. As the computer scientist Alan Kay said:

“The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”

Right now we have a lot of inventing to do.

I often get asked what we’re going to do about coming crises. In jobs or climate. I’m asked these questions in part because I’m a futurist: it’s my job to address them. But the context of these questions is often in a discussion about technology. There’s often a sense from the questioner that technology caused these crises. And so technology should offer us the answers.

Can technology fix the future?

Another idea I explain in almost every talk I give, is that technology is the biggest driver of change right now. Technology has no agency, or intent. But it has two effects that combine to accelerate change.

The first is the lowering of friction: fast communications, digital services, shared knowledge — all these things make innovation quicker, easier and more universally accessible. Whether it’s starting a new business or building a better mousetrap, we are all empowered with more tools and information than ever before. And so we can make change more quickly.

The second is the competitive tension this accelerated innovation creates. If our competitors and those we are compared against move forward, we must move forward to. Incredibly this effect leaps market boundaries: the quality of service we get from Amazon we begin to expect from government etc.

What’s important to note is that though the combination of these effects accelerate change, they have no effect on its direction. It doesn’t drive change for better or for worse. It simply drives change faster.

Steering the Bus

The result of this is that operating in business or in government today feels a bit like steering the bus in Speed. We’re going quickly whether we like it or not. The only choice we have to make is the direction of travel.

There are those who would like to slow things down, but notwithstanding a globe-spanning EMP burst or all out nuclear war, I don’t see that happening. You can’t un-invent technology.

So instead, if we want to fix the future, we must look at our direction of travel and how we plot our route.

My job as an applied futurist is to inform the former, and help with the latter. The Applied Futurist’s Toolkit is an attempt to do just that.

But I’m not driving the bus. Whether or not we can fix the future isn’t down to technology. It is down to the decisions we make. As societies, nations, a race.

Can we fix the future? Ultimately I’m optimistic. Because as Tony Stark said:

“By default, optimists make the world, because pessimists never even try.”

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Tom Cheesewright