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Futures thinking is here to stay

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Saliem Fakir is Executive Director of the African Climate Change Foundation

One could make the quip that everywhere we go and turn there is futures thinking but we are none the wiser. To know something about the future is not the same as having the wisdom to act to in a way that may change the cause of the future you do not want.

In periods of political upheaval within nations and between nations uncertainty about future stability and investment in the future is a source of anxiety. More so if the world is moving into unfamiliar territory.

A number of converging events accumulate and reach a crescendo – the cause of minor and large storms.

There was the 2007 financial crisis, global terrorism, the Middle East conflict, Brexit, increasing friction between Russian and NATO and then the continued simmering tensions in the south China sea. Then lather one crisis after another with an over-heating earth and where many parts of the world are experiencing extreme weather. The list is endless. Reactions to these events may vary from discomfort, curiosity to terror depending on your personality trait or proximity to the places where the effects are most pronounced.

We want to tame uncertainty because things have been fairly predictable for so long.

In the past, we relied on oracles and divine entities to both foretell the future and protect us from calamity. Today, we hedge our bets on science, big data, humanism and technology. They go by all sorts of names Futurology, Scenario planning, Game Theory, strategic planning and heck there are more and more people calling themselves futures thinkers.

The industry is thriving. The preoccupation with the future will never end judging by the sales of Yuval Harari’s twin books of Homo Sapiens and Homo Deus. Harari may have just over-taken Nostradamus in popularity.

Stoic philosophers opine that we should live in the here and now. By this, they did not mean we should not be interested in the past nor future but rather we can change little of the past and we can never truly know the future despite the best of guesses. The Stoics may have a point here but it still does nothing to erase this deep yearning to try and make sense of today and see as much of the future as possible. Even if this desire to peer behind the veil is met, we should at least heed another of the Stoic principles: do not be attached to your own best predictions of the future – learn to be detached.

It’s a form of sobriety.

Futures thinking is part art, science and speculation that has a long pedigree which is as old as civilization itself. In the modern era, it was rendered more scientific through the path-breaking work of United States think-tank, the Rand Corporation, more specifically, the work of Herman Khan and his work on strategies to avoid or deal with a thermonuclear disaster. Later, the work of the oil and gas company, Shell, gained infamy in scenario planning. Planning and anticipating the future is a natural predisposition for governments. They have to do it. How well they do it is another matter altogether.

South Africa has long done this through the medium-term expenditure frameworks and the establishment of the National Planning Commission is an expert-driven vehicle to try and look at the long future.

South Africa is not new to futures thinking. Some pioneering work was done by Anglo-America’s Clem Sunter, his famous High Road and Low Road Scenarios, then the Mont Fleur and Dinokeng Scenarios, and during the Zuma era, where the sense of the future was at its most abysmal state, the Institute of Race Relations conducted an exercise at looking at South Africa’s political landscape beyond 2030. Now that South Africa’s Presidency is under Ramaphosa perhaps RW Johnson’s question “Will South Africa Survive? could be postponed a little while longer.

Futures thinking has also received creative flourish in philosophy, non-fiction and fiction writing. There are just too many to reel off here.

Consider the Thomas More’s Utopia, the Sci-fi works of HG Wells and the dare to imagine alternative social systems through the works of the recently deceased, Erik Olin Wright, and his real Utopias Project. Margaret Atwood, the novelist, has also been churning the pages of social science fiction.

While futures thinking is multidisciplinary in nature two types of approaches tend to dominate.

History seems to be the answer to everything even the future.

The philosopher Hegel believed that history is the evolution of consciousness and hence freedom. History had a telos – its ultimate aim was to free humans from bondage. The Hegelian idea is contained in the once hyper-confident prediction that the post-Soviet era will be a liberal one. Francis Fukuyama, the author of such a prediction, confidently announced that we will see the ‘end of history’. Fukuyama today has to eat his own words given how much of the liberal order is being rattled by identity politics and populism. There are numerous books –penned by a variety of scholars – at the end of liberalism. We are destined for a new political end.

History has not ended. It may well if we believe Graham Allison, in his recent work: Destined for War, that rival great powers can find themselves in the Thucydides Trap. Even the Harvard Belfer Centre, a think-tank, has dedicated an entire project on understanding Thucydides Trap and how we should deal with it.

Allison is referring to the classic historian Thucydides’s work covering the Peloponnesian War when Athens took on a rival rising power Sparta.

Great powers – with one on the rise – tend to fear each other and inevitable they may miscalculate by trying to engage in pre-emptive strikes so as to weaken the other.

The Allison’s work finds echoes in academic work such as that of John Mearsheimer who is a theorist of realist geopolitics. Allison thinks the US and China will go to war. Mearsheimer says it’s a strong possibility. The truth is they could. Lots of things point to that but nobody knows when and how. All we can know for sure is that if they do it will not be a pretty picture.

Where history is helpful in some respects technology and science can also stir the imagination of futures thinkers. Technology has led writers to conceive dystopic and promising futures. They border from the extreme to the tinge of realism. The philosopher Jeremy Bentham envisaged a Panopticon in which the habits and behaviour of prisoners can be subjected to constant and rounded surveillance by a watchful eye that had a three-sixty view of the prison. Perhaps China, in the age of artificial intelligence and quantum computers, is putting Bentham’s idea to the test with its systematic surveillance and digital monitoring of its own population under the rubric of the Social Credit system.

Bentham thought of the Panopticon as a design for prisons but the French historian and philosopher Michel Foucault, used the idea, as a metaphor for critiquing modernism. Foucault saw the rise of science and technology as enabling new forms of centralised power – the chief of which is to control both thought, action and punish dissent.

Before we go off attacking China take time reading the latest book by Shoshana Zuboff: The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, she will quickly disabuse you of the erroneous belief that mass surveillance is the preoccupation of authoritarian regimes. Most democratic states are relying on willing and unwilling surveillance measures to keep a watchful eye over the populace. The Snowden revelations showed how widespread mass surveillance and co-operation was amongst major developed economies and democracies.

We are in the throes of a debate on the use of personal data by big data firms: Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, Uber, Google and so on. This in light of the way Cambridge Analytica used algorithms and your personal data to influence the Brexit vote.

Zuboff draws us to the paradox of freely giving of our daily lives and habits to big data machines and algorithms only for it to be used against us. And, increasingly the slippage between commercial and state security are being blurred. Orwell’s, 1984, like Aldous Huxley’s, Brave New World, was long prescient of how liberal societies themselves used direct/indirect forms of propaganda and surveillance technologies to manipulate and control the populace by influencing their thoughts and behaviour.

It was HG Wells who had the foresight to see where technology could take us and conceived the idea of a World Brain. Wells thought peace and justice would be better served if the whole of humanity had access to the best of ideas and knowledge. The World Brain is a prelude to Google and Wikipedia. The idea of technology coming to the aid of reason and intelligence finds echoes in more recent imaginative futures conjured in Ray Kurzweil’s notion of Singularity (first actually conceptualised by the physicist John von Neumann). With the combined effect of computer hardware and software machine intelligence and self-learning would enter into a sort of ‘event horizon’: a runaway growth rate that will accede human comprehension where such systems will reach levels of super-sentience and intelligence that no human can match.

Where Hegel dreamed of marinating reason through the process of historical dialectics Kurzweil saw in evolving artificial intelligence the emergence of self-improving synthetic superintelligence. In turn, other technology futurists place our best bets on superintelligence by creating a chimaera: a biologically engineered human (transhumanism) being kitted with the best of AI.

The point being made: futures thinking is here to stay. Even President Ramaphosa in his State of Nation (SONA) address could not resist the temptation: he called for a special panel to be established to study the fourth industrial revolution and its implications for South Africa. But, first we must keep the lights on or we will have no future.

At least futurology, futures thinking or scenario planning draws attention to things we may not ordinarily see because they rely on a multiplicity of disciplines to sketch plausible futures or future narratives. They often bring stakeholders and thinkers together that would not ordinarily meet forcing them to think from outside of their comfort zones and boxes. More importantly, they allow different worldviews to clash with each other in a safe space. Some of this out-of-box thinking is envisaging the unknown – the Black Swan – and how we could best respond to disruptive forces. Futures thinking can also concentrate the mind and mobilise efforts around issues that have grounding and reality to them. Anticipating future threats can also tell us where we are weak or strong as a nation or a firm. They help us mobilise around vulnerabilities like some cities are doing with sea-level rise. Futures thinking is vital when nations seek to secure geo-economic interests in a changing world. It can avoid the pursuit of costly strategies and mistakes because of poor intelligence and foresight.

We must be all warned: futures thinking cannot foretell the future, all we can do is make a learned guess. And, most important be detached and use wisely. DM

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