Envisioning the Future
Thursday Jun 15th, 2023
Trying to Predict the Future Is Fraught with Peril
Few would argue that we are living in turbulent times. Experts across disciplines have adopted an acronym for the current business environment that was first coined by the U.S. military to describe the chaotic situations in modern war-torn landscapes: VUCA, which stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. This is how we now describe our current business environment.
Volatility, amplified by accelerating change, produces a world in which social, cultural, and technological progress is exponentially increasing in ever-shorter intervals. Despite our outward desire to embrace creativity, studies have demonstrated that our innate desire to reduce uncertainty actually works to sabotage our innovative efforts. Additionally, there is more than technology driving the complexity of today’s environment. Societal, economic, environmental, legal, and political drivers are colliding with technological advancements to create new challenges and, more importantly, new opportunities.
If uncertainty is when the variables are defined but their values are unknown (like rolling a set of dice), then ambiguity is when even the variables are unknown (do you even have a set of dice?). Businesses that focus solely on planning around uncertainty delude themselves into thinking they have a handle on things.
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When contemplating the future, we instinctively think of the “top trend” lists always making headlines. For most, the word trend has become synonymous with the future. But trends are not the future. Trends are visible because they are occurring today. They represent the present. Trends can be our worst enemy; they keep us connected to what is immediate and surrounding us but fail to stretch us to see what is changing, what is emerging, and what is possible.
The good news is you, my friends, are the future. You are creating it every day. Every time you talk about using new technologies, test the latest generative AI tool or read articles like this one, you are setting a future in motion.
As a Certified Foresight Practitioner (futurist), I have the privilege of researching and thinking about the long-term impact of innovation. I leverage a framework called strategic foresight that compels me to:
- Challenge biases and old ways of thinking,
- Scan the environment from a macro, meta and micro perspective,
- Analyze signals evaluating them from a societal, technological, economic, environmental, and political (STEEP) perspective,
- Develop future scenarios and implications from a utopian and dystopian perspective.
Yet regardless of your profession, what frameworks you use, or experiences you’ve had, I most often see the same mistakes made when thinking about the future. We evaluate trends already happening and gravitate toward one end of a future spectrum and act as if “the die is cast.” Think about generative AI: Never has technology been so quickly embraced and feared. The public sentiment quickly chose a side with very few people indifferent. It is either the greatest innovation since the smartphone and if you dismiss it, you’ll be left behind. Or the singularity is coming, and we need to curb our enthusiasm and regulate before AI eliminates jobs or even humankind. We act as if the future happens to us, so we plan feverishly and try to mitigate risk.
Man Plans, and God Laughs
The future doesn’t just “happen to us.” We can… we must… be an active participant in its creation because our future is being built on ideas far bigger and far more amazing than anything in the past. Our vision of the future determines our actions today so if we change people’s visions of the future, we can change the way they make decisions.
You need not be trained in foresight or strategy to change people’s vision of the future. You do, however, need to be thoughtful and more importantly, intentional. Whether you’re thinking about where your children will be going to college or trying to create the best future for their great grandchildren, I’ve found one analogy and three lenses in which to view the future very helpful.
First, the analogy. The future exists across a spectrum, with two distinct ends: the push and the pull of the future. Most people focus solely on the push of the future. This end of the spectrum represents the trends and emerging issues coming at us, pushing us into the future regardless of our actions. On the other end of the spectrum is the pull of the future. This represents our ability to identify and create our preferred future.
There is a small anchor on sailing vessels that has a critical role. In times past, when there is no wind, this small anchor, known as the kedge, is tied to a long rope, and sent out in a rowboat with a few of the ship’s sailors. They travel in the direction the ship wants to sail and drop the kedge. Those remaining on the ship then pull themselves toward that location. That said, the future does not need to happen to us but is instead something we create every day.
We can choose a destination and pull ourselves into our desired future. Once we determine our path, we can work backwards from a future date to identify the steps that took place, as well as specific requirements, to achieve that outcome. Unlike forecasting, “backcasting” begins with identified aspirations and works backward, detailing the physical and strategic milestones that must be met to reach our preferred future outcomes. In this way, disbelief about the future is suspended, and strategic vision and design around those goals can be explored as if the goal has been achieved.
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Here are three lenses to view a potential future that can help frame a good outcome.
Lens 1: It’s an ecosystem. Do you remember creating terrariums in elementary school? One purpose of this science project was to teach kids about ecosystems. With the right balance, once the jar is closed, the plant uses water, sunlight, and nutrients from the soil to survive. Innovations, regardless if its web3, AI, digital twins or smart cities, are part of a greater ecosystem. Each coexists with changes in the economy, public policy, consumer sentiment, behavior, climate change, and (we were recently reminded) public health.
We need to keep the ecosystem in balance.
Lens 2: Everything we do always has a second-order effect and often a third. Every action has a consequence, and each consequence has another consequence. Consider the bio-hacking movement where everyone tracks their steps, their sleep, their bowel movements and now wants to live to be 120. I mean, who doesn’t want to live longer? However, few consider that people want to age in place, exacerbating the housing inventory crisis. Or that we know little about how our brains work and that the current statistics show almost 50% of people who live past the age of 70 will have some form of dementia.
I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t try to live longer. What I am suggesting is we intentionally do the “what if” exercise.
Lens 3: “Which World'' are you intentionally, or unintentionally, pulling yourself toward? As I mentioned, you are creating the future today. The question is, which worldview are you creating?
- A Transformative World where there is positive change across society, production, technology, and consumption. Where holistic approaches to business, policy, and education models are becoming mainstream. Where collaborative innovation occurs across international boundaries.
- A Market World which is an extrapolation of the present world, including the forces of globalization. Is it a world where growth of megacities as hubs of innovation, the “cloud” empowering individuals but increased separation between the “haves” and the “have nots” and social unrest expanding in developed nations.
- Or is it a Fortress World where market forces, governmental policies, and technological innovation could not contain social tensions and environmental degradation. The tensions created by population growth, economic development, and the unlimited exploitation of resources create crises that cannot be mastered by policies or institutions. A world where there's fear around personal and organizational security and an increased influence of corporations.
We can create a future that is abundant and where access and affordability has been democratized. Let’s be intentional.
While it’s impossible to provide detailed maps for every potential future, or any future, I hope these views help you create a brighter, more sustainable future. Remember, you are all creating the future every day with your actions.
For more information about the “Future of Real Estate,” I invite you to NAR’s iOi Summit.(link is external) If you haven’t attended before, iOi stands for Innovation, Opportunity, and Investment, and it has become the preeminent technology and investor conference focusing on how PropTech is driving digital transformation in real estate.
Hosted by the National Association of REALTORS® (NAR), the sixth annual iOi Summit will be the best we’ve ever held. If you can’t attend, send someone from your team to network with 700 of the smartest people from real estate innovators, venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, brokers, title officers, mortgage lenders, and more.