Skip to content Skip to sidebar Skip to footer

When trying to predict the future, watch for ‘dog poop’

“Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.” Niels Bohr’s words are a wise warning to reckless forecasters. Trish Lorenz and Martin Wright uncover some instructive howlers.

“Combining a nuclear reactor with a home boiler is no longer a problem. It would heat and cool the house, provide unlimited hot water and melt the snow from sidewalks and driveways. All that could be done for six years on a single charge of fissionable material costing about $300.” — Robert Ferry, US Institute of Boiler and Radiator Manufacturers, 1955

“Nuclear-powered vacuum cleaners will probably be a reality in ten years.” — Alex Lewyt, President of vacuum cleaner company Lewyt Corp, also 1955

Lewyt and Ferry both stumbled into a risky habit of all amateur futurists: extrapolating from present trends. In this case, they were caught up in the surge of excitement over the rise of nuclear power. They were not alone. In the tech-fuelled optimism of the ’50s, magazines, radio and the infant TV were buzzing with predictions of flying cars and lunar settlements.

They had fallen victim to what later became known as the Gartner Hype Cycle. This maps the enthusiasm and subsequent disillusionment typical in the introduction of new technology — a useful reality check for those caught up in “irrational optimism.”

By contrast, there are those whose feet are too firmly rooted in present realities, and fail to see how innovation can combine with social changes to speed the widespread adoption of new technology.

“The Americans need the telephone, but we do not. We have plenty of messenger boys.” — Sir William Preece, Chief Engineer, Royal Mail, 1878

“The horse is here to stay, but the automobile is only a novelty, a fad.” — President of the Michigan Savings Bank, advising Henry Ford’s lawyer not to invest in Ford Motors, 1903

It is difficult to consider any factor that doesn’t apparently exist at the time of making a prediction, but that’s essentially what looking ahead requires. It wasn’t all that long ago when people were predicting a bright future for teletext and fax machines. Few would have anticipated that both would be made almost obsolete by the internet and email. And yet the weak signals were there for those who chose to hear them. A fax machine, after all, is simply a modem with a rather complex print interface attached. It only evolved as it did because people were unused to reading information solely on screen, and computers were too big to carry around with them. Once laptops took off in the early ’90s, the fax was doomed.

“There is no reason why anyone would want a computer in their home.” — Ken Olson, Chairman, Digital Equipment Corp, 1977

Australian Senator Dr Russell Trood sums it up neatly when he says: ” ‘Nowism’ is a serious occupational hazard for those in the prediction game.”

Today’s futurologists no longer try to predict a single outcome for the future; instead they map a variety of scenarios. For Adam Gordon of Future Savvy, scenario-based thinking gives people “permission to think through alternative outcomes without necessarily predicting them.” Instead of trying to forecast precisely what might happen, he says, “we can ask ‘What if it does?,’ and then explore the outcomes and our responses.” Such thinking characterises much of the strategy adopted by forward-looking governments on tackling climate change.

James Goodman, head of Futures at Forum for the Future, agrees: “People think it’s the output that’s important, but actually it’s the process.” And, he adds, “All future planning has uncertainty at its heart.”

Or as Martin Raymond, Strategy and Insight Director at The Future Laboratory, says, “We always try to spot the dog
poop in our forecast.”

Editor’s note: This was a guest article by Trish Lorenz and Martin Wright at Forum for the Future. This piece originally appeared in Green Futures, which is published by Forum for the Future and is the leading magazine on environmental solutions and sustainable futures. Its aim is to demonstrate that a sustainable future is both practical and desirable — and can be profitable, too.

The Global View creates and curates research, perspectives and intelligence on the modern leader’s agenda.

Subscribe Now

Get our latest research papers and amazing posts directly in your email.


The   Global view © 2023. All Rights Reserved.