Most people and corporations are terrible at planning for the future, according to prominent futurist Dr. Peter Bishop of the University of Houston.
"The way the public — and particularly the way policy and decision makers talk about the future, is with way more certainty than they should have," Bishop explained in a phone conversation with Business Insider.
"To tell you what's going to happen is asking the wrong question," he said. "It's not what the future will be, but what it could be or what it might be. And the problem is that in the halls of decision, in the boardroom or the pentagon or something like that, That degree of uncertainty is not welcome."
Bishop says there are subtleties to future planning that can only be grasped by a futurist.
Several major corporations feel the same way, which is why Google just hired futurist Ray Kurzweil as director of engineering and Cisco employs furturist Dave Evans. Bishop himself has worked with IBM, NASA, Nestle, and more.
Says Bishop: "We're encouraging companies to spend a little bit of time thinking about the future, single digit percents. They don't do it because they don't know how to do it so they think it's a waste of time, and the reason that they don't know how is because nobody in their schools has ever taught them how to do it."
So what are the keys to thinking like a futurist?
Futurists think in terms of "multiple futures" rather than one. Not only does this increase the chances that one will have a plan for the actual future, but it also "intellectually conditions" one to adapt to change.
Futurists also see value in challenging basic assumptions.
"What we do now is basically assume," says. Bishop. "Then we go on and make plans, and those assumptions are fine. The problem is we don't challenge those assumptions, and what we've been taught in physics class is to state your assumptions. We were never taught to say, 'and what if those assumptions are wrong? What's different about it?'"
Just look at what happened in New Orleans in 2005:
"One of the classic cases of this was the plan for responding in New Orleans to a hurricane, like Katrina in 2005. On the very first page of that plan, published by LSU under a grant from the Department of Interior, and the very first assumption was, the levees will hold. They should say that, and they should make that assumption. The problem is that they should also have said, and what if they don't? Now that may have sent them off to go look at them, number one, that would have been a nice thing to do. And secondly ... what is the plan if the levees do not hold, because then water comes in pouring in from the lake and the river and stuff, and they had nothing about that."
Bishop says big changes are coming in our lifetime:
"There will be significant change within our tenure within any position within our lifetime for sure, that we will have to learn to live in a new world — to some extent. It's not completely new the way some futurists will say. But it will be new enough that we will be uncomfortable, we will be unprepared, and that we will have to learn new skills and new techniques in order to be successful in that future compared to how we are being successful today, or indeed how we were prepared to be successful when we were in school or training."
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- Peter Bishop