The future is back

Twenty-odd years ago the Center for Futures Research (CFR) at the University of Southern  California folded. The reason was lack of interest in the future on the part of the business community. Since the CFR was supported entirely by donations and grants rather than the university’s endowment, that was the end of the line. The almost universal mantra of senior executives in American corporations at that time—and since—was to keep one’s eyes firmly focused on the next quarter. Worry about ten or twenty years from now? Ridiculous!

How times have changed.

One of the main inspirers of that near-term-focused corporate attitude was Jack Welch, aka Neutron Jack, the CEO of GE. Now, in an interview published in the Financial Times, Welch claims he was misinterpreted and is quoted as saying it was “a dumb idea” for executives to focus so heavily on quarterly profits and share price gains. Instead, according to Welch, short-term profits should be allied with an increase in the long-term value of a company.

But concern for long term value implies a similar concern for the ways in which events, both internal and external to the company, play out. Clearly, many of the giants of the financial industry have utterly failed to have those concerns. Hence the economic mess in which the world finds itself today. The long-term future apparently has not been a topic of concern in that industry for decades. Serious futures research, for the reasons noted above, has almost vanished from the scene.

By serious futures research I mean quantitative reseach about the types and likelihoods of the alternative futures facing us. For a quick overview of that see my article A Brief Introduction to the Future. Such research requires some serious investigation into the myriad factors that can influence future events and, usually, some probabilistic calculations about those event interactions and outcomes. This is not the kind of research performed by most popular “futurologists”.

The future is fundamentally unpredictable, at least in detail. So serious futures research doesn’t make predictions; it produces arrays of alternatives, scenarios, that depend on how real events transpire. Its purpose is to expose, to make visible, outcomes that may be counterintuitive so that a company or government organization can develop strategies for encouraging the positive outcomes or avoiding the negative ones. Obviously the “mathematical geniuses” in the financial industry did not do this type of research. We’re stuck with the results.

So now the future is back with us. It’s time to pay more serious attention to it.

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