My WIRED MAGAZINE feature: How to Predict the Future - secret to more accurate forecasting and shocking truth about easily avoidable Futurist errors.

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It is often said that no one can predict the future, but the truth is that forecasting is far easier than you may think, because many things change more slowly than media hype suggests.  I know this from advising corporations on the impact of key megatrends, over the last 20 years, and from writing many books about the future since 1987.  I’m not talking about share prices, commodity prices or currency rates.  Anything to do with markets is as difficult to predict two months ahead as the British weather. Every now and again in history there is a genuine step-change, for example the collapse of communism, or a global war, or the creation of the web, but such things are rare.  That’s why most board room debates about the future are not usually about direction of a trend, which tends to be fairly obvious, but about timing or speed of that trend. 


Here's what I wrote a while back for Wired Magazine (adapted).


It is often said that no one can predict the future, but the truth is that forecasting is far easier than you may think, because many things change far more slowly than media hype suggests.  I know this from advising corporations on the impact of key megatrends, over the last 20 years, and from writing many books about the future since 1987.


I’m not talking about share prices, commodity prices or currency rates.  Anything to do with markets is as difficult to predict two months ahead as the British weather.  And sudden events can spread with global force in a hyper-connected world, so leaders need to be agile, with backup plans.


Every now and again in history there is a genuine step-change, for example the collapse of communism, or a global war, or the creation of the web, but such things are rather rare.  That’s why most board room debates about the future are not usually about direction of a trend, which tends to be fairly obvious, but about timing or speed of that trend.  


And many so-called shocking events or defining moments turn out to have rather less impact than many think at the time.  Where was the immediate financial crisis in the weeks after Brexit - so widely forecast.  President Trump is a dramatic choice of President, but was rapidly neutralised in the White House, left with little more than an ability to tinker with taxes or embark on military adventures.


Take the last two decades. How much has really changed in day to day life, in ways we did not expect? Here is an important test. Imagine that a senior executive friend of yours had a terrible accident way back in 1998 and since that day has been in a deep coma.  One day he wakes up in hospital and almost immediately asks to see you.  


How long would it take you to update him on all the most important things that have happened since 1998?  My guess is less than a couple of hours.


As a well-informed person back then, he will hardly be shocked when you tell him about Smartphones, the Internet of Things, Big Data or Cloud computing.  He knew back in 1983 that telco and IT prices would continue to collapse, and devices shrink rapidly, and by the mid 1990s it was obvious that everything would one day be connected everywhere.


In 1997, he was using a Nokia 9800 smartphone with email, spreadsheet, word processor, SMS, browser, Apps and camera.  His teenage daughter was having 16 social media chats at once.  The web was already hitting retail sales, the travel industry and banking, and data was being used widely in marketing.


He knew then that China would be the world’s largest economy in the next 25 years, and that Asian nations would see an astonishing rise in middle class wealth. He expected world population to peak at well over 9 billion by 2050, mass migration to cities or across continents, rapid improvements in life expectancy, greener energy and growing worries about sustainability.


Nor would he be surprised to learn about a prolonged global recession, or about more banking scandals, or about a second Iraq war, with revolutionary chaos in the Middle East, and many terror attacks in Western cities by Islamist extremists.  Such things were widely recognized as future possibilities, debated by government leaders and in board rooms, and anticipated in books like mine.  He would not be surprised to see the rise of tribalism in Europe, struggles within the Eurozone, and a narrow vote by the UK to leave which was then fiercely contested.


Walk him down the streets of London, Paris or New York.  Take him to a typical office of a large company or family business. You will struggle to show him anything extraordinary – apart from people using mobile devices more often.  Today we are dressed in similar ways, do similar things at work and to relax, take children to similar schools who are learning in similar ways (apart from using the web more).


Perhaps the only thing that will really shock him is how little has changed.  Many bank branches still exist, and more cash is used across America and the EU than ever, despite predictions of a cashless society.  Paper books still sell globally, along with physical newspapers, particularly in nations like India; sales of children’s books soared by over 17% in the UK last year, while Kindle sales flattened.  Most people still commute to work, sit in offices that look like ones a decade or more ago, complain about volumes of email, and pure home-working is rare.  Business travel has continued to grow, despite rapid adoption of video conferencing.


Cars, fashions, music styles, radio, TV soaps, global sporting events, film plots and live theatre are much the same.  Yes, there has been a shift from watching live TV, to TV-on-demand and social networking or web surfing, but such things would not be such a great surprise to him.


Most things at home are similar or identical – lights, heating, taps, alarms, microwaves, cookers, fridges or washing machines.  And they are likely to continue to look similar or identical, even when all electrical devices are networked in smart homes.


And despite all the headlines about robots taking over the world, the truth is that sales of robots in factories have grown a mere 7% a year over the last decade and a half – very slow compared to the explosive sales of smartphones and related technologies.   


What this all points to is one of the greatest delusions in human history, one which can stop rapid decision-making, kill investment and stifle innovation. This same delusion can easily become an excuse for lazy thinking about strategy.


So then, we should focus with confidence on major factors which affect our longer term future, in particular on megatrends which are most likely to affect our own organization, while also addressing how customer needs are evolving today, in an agile and creative ways.  


Yes there will always be industry disruptions and economic crises, and we should take them seriously, with well-planned contingencies to stay one step ahead, but history shows that they are often over-played.  


* Patrick Dixon is Chairman of Global Change Ltd and author of “The Future of Almost Everything” – Profile Books.  http://www.globalchange.com - 15 million unique visitors


Read feature by Patrick Dixon in WIRED magazine:


http://www.wired.co.uk/article/how-to-predict-future-past


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