Human creativity and strength is at its best when confronted with the complicated, unknown and often utterly unknowable elements of life and the universe. The desire to lift existing veils of darkness and get a glimpse at the underlying truth animates still a powerful desire to escape our conceptual cave and meet the source of light that fills our world with shadows.
The study of future is one such human endeavour, which, simply by its aims, defies the traditional limits imposed on human capacity. Knowing what the future will bring has always been one of those romantically impossible notions, turning the past into a territory of nostalgia and surrounding the present with a sense of fleetness that has many enter a “seize the day” sort of race with every moment, risking to lose control over the wider scope of their lives.
Klaus Æ. Mogensen, futurist at the Copenhagen Institute for Futures Studies (CIFS), talks about the goal of the Danish think tank's scientific approach to the future, emotion, anxieties, and about what remains, despite all efforts, unpredictable.
Elena Stanciu: What does a futurist do?
Klaus Æ. Mogensen: A futurist analyses current trends to get a better understanding of the opportunities and threats that the future could offer. A futurist does not predict the future, but presents one or more possible futures. A futurist uses their skill in analysing trends to advise a company, organisation, or society about the possible threats and opportunities that will particularly affect said entity.
ES: Why is it important to study the future? Who benefits most out of the knowledge futurists produce (businesses, governments, the public?)
K Æ. M: Planning ahead without being aware of what will or could change in the future is like driving a car while only looking at where you are or have been, rather than looking ahead to see what awaits. This is very reckless. A publicly hired futurist will seek to benefit the public, while a company futurist will seek to benefit the company. Some futurist think tanks have a political agenda that they seek to further through selective or normative futures studies. CIFS is a special case by being an independent and politically neutral futurist think tank that helps customers in both the private and the public sector.
ES: Is the study of future meant to help make better decision in the present? And if so, do you find in your work instances where people still make terribly wrong decisions, absurdly against scientific data?
K Æ. M: The point of futures studies is precisely to make better informed decisions for the future in the present. When futurists are proven wrong, it is very rarely because they go against scientific or social data, but because the trends suggested by the data turn out not to hold. For instance, until about a decade ago, there was an overall conviction that oil prices would keep rising until alternative energy sources matured enough to be competitive. What happened was advances in technology made it possible to extract shale gas and oil fairly cheaply, while the financial crisis reduced the demand for oil and hence brought the prices even further down. Predictions about e.g. international flights becoming prohibitively expensive for the common tourist were thus wrong not in spite of scientific data, but because of data that failed to foresee radical changes.
Futurists tend to communicate in the shape of scenarios that aren’t predictions, but visions of what could happen. Several competing scenarios are presented to illustrate the range of possible futures. At times, so-called “wild card scenarios” are created to illustrate a possible, but unlikely scenario given a radical future event (like what would happen if the EU broke down).
ES: What are the things that you find most unpredictable in your work? Do you attempt to reduce the unpredictability, or rather work around it, include it in your findings?
K Æ. M: The most unpredictable thing is not what will or might happen, but when it will (or might) happen. When, for instance, will a new technology breakthrough and become mainstream? This depends not just on technology, but also on legislation and cultural and economic factors.
We try to reduce unpredictability as much as possible by finding solid data to support a trend, but more importantly by analysing how one trend will play together with other (mega-)trends. In the end, however, unpredictability cannot be removed entirely, hence the need to think in terms of scenarios.
ES: What do you make of the contemporary turn to emotion and so-called “alternative facts,” in an age where reason and science should come first? Is affect a relevant variable in future studies?
K Æ. M: “Alternative facts” are deliberate lies or stubborn worldviews that fly in the face of known facts or science. They have no place in futures studies, except as a feature in scenarios; e.g., we might describe a future characterised by widespread obscurantism.
Emotion, however, can play a role in that it isn’t just important what a possible future might be like, but also how people feel about it. When presenting scenarios to customers, we often ask which scenario they consider most likely, and which one they would most like to have come true. If these are two different scenarios, what are they going to do about it? Can they influence trends to make their favourite scenario more likely to come true?
ES: Anxieties about the unknown and the future are inherently human; does the study of future contribute to reducing these anxieties?
K Æ. M: Yes, although futures studies can also increase anxiety by presenting negative future scenarios.
Words: Elena Stanciu