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August 15, 2009

Developers: Learn to Predict the Future

by Magnus Lindkvist
*posted on this site with express permission of Magnus Lindkvist*
People like to believe they are highly adept at understanding the present and predicting the future. The fact that we are continually surprised by extreme events, political shifts, technological changes and the rise of emerging markets proves otherwise. When we hear the words like “tomorrow’s world” or city of the future, most of us think about some abstract utopia—or dystopia, depending on one’s general outlook—somewhere far in the future.

 Reared on years of science fiction, people fill a disproportionate part of their futuristic visions with all types of technology and digital devices. However, in imagining tomorrow like a set piece from the new Star Trek movie, people miss a number of abstract, invisible, yet ground breaking trends and developments in society


They fail to imagine things that are too abstract, strange, outrageous, or complex when they think about tomorrow’s world.


Because cities are entities that far outlive the people who build and shape them, it is crucial that urban developers hone their ability to spot invisible trends.


The following are ways to hone those skills:


Ø  Admit you are blind.

Evolutionary Biologist Richard Dawkins once said humans are relegated to living in the “middle world”: they cannot see microscopic details like viruses or atoms, nor can they see very large developments like galaxies.

People are forced o rely on memory or imagination if they want to see anything other than the present. Unfortunately, most people do not approach trend spotting with an acknowledgement of these shortcomings. They make drastic, overconfident claims about where the world is heading and deduce that the issues that matter today—climate, change, population control, financial turmoil, terrorism—are the issues that will matter in a few decades. Admitting blindness is a first and significant step to opening one’s mind to tomorrow’s world of possibilities.


Ø  Study turtle trends.

Behind the scenes exist a number of turtle trends—slow moving changes taking place over decades, even centuries. Because these trends cannit be spotted on a city street, people have to rely on other sources. Libraries are a great source of historical accounts and data, as are the elderly.




Ø  Change your information diet.

Books, it is said, feed your head, as do blogs, magazines, newspapers, tv programs, conversations, seminars and other information sources. When did you last replace one of these sources of your world view? When did you last make an effort to meet new and different people? When have you ever abandoned your entire information flow and replaced it with something else or with nothing at all? A survey by the Economist showed that people tend to surround themselves with people and media that confirm—rather than challenge—their view. Remember that all emerging trends start their life on the fringes of society, not in the mainstream.


Ø  Be an opportunistic collector.

The best, most comprehensive and challenging trend-spotting outlooks are presented by people who have been gathering data, information, images, and anecdotes for years. To build a conclusive, elaborate portrait of tomorrow’s world, you need to continually collect these snippets of information as they pass by and take along a scrapbook—analog, digital or mental.


Ø  Immerse yourself.

What kinds of world view do business-class travelers get? They have their own fast-track security at airports, their own lounges, and their own secluded seats aboard the plane, and they tend to restrict their attention to media focused on business. With this level of alienation from the real world, it is not so strange that the country experienced a financial meltdown last year.

Consultants, architects, and urban planners have a nasty habit of functioning the same way. Instead of making a significant effort to travel and engage with people inside and outside cities around the world, many spend their days in offices discussing statistics, examining survey results or staring blankly at computer-aided design/computer-aided manufacturing drawings.


Ø  Realize that the messenger and the delivery ought outweigh the message.

People like to think that there is nothing stronger than an idea whose time has come. Nothing could be further from the truth. Consider the issue of climate change: in 1958, director Frank Capra made The Unchained Goddess, a documentary about the potentially catastrophic effects of climate change. Thet movie—although it was well made—changed a few political agendas and did not win a Nobel Peace Prize. Some 50 years later, it took a former U.S. Vice President to do that.

The messenger—who is saying what—and the delivery—how and when it is delivered—are usually a lot more important in driving societal changes that people like to admit. If you want to alter and shape the future, you should focus your attention on who should deliver the message of change and in what shape or form the message should be delivered.

Ø  Never underestimate the unexpected

World War II, the 9/11 attacks and last year’s financial debacle are just three examples of events that were unexpected yet had a huge impact on the world. When people talk about trends, most picture linear curves pointing in one direction or another. What people cannot see is the number of random events that will significantly alter and maybe even cut off these curves.  The 9/11 Commission urged the U.S. state Departments to make imagination part of its daily routine, and so should you. Trend spotters need to build a “What if…?” into every scenario they construct and to continually broaden the scope of possibilities that this question might entail.


Ø  Discover your matrix

In the 1999 science action film The Matrix, actor Keanu Reeves as Neo is living in a digital dream created by machines to harvest human energy. The metaphor of this movie is that all people live in some version of a matrix. Swedes for instance, fought their last war over 200 years ago and tend to be—in the words of the country’s foreign minister—“peace damaged”, with a world view as skewed as a country that is war ravaged. Human beings are unable to look at what is wrong in their world without moving outside of it.

What used to be considered normal—having doctors recommend cigarettes, for example—is considered outrageous today. Being a homosexual would land you in jail as late as the 1950’s in England, whereas today urban theorist Richard Florida asserts that having a high proportionate of gay residents makes a city more creative and economically prosperous. Take a step back and imagine what everyday phenomena people will laugh at or ridicule a few decades from now.

People all like to believe that they are adept at understanding the present and predicting the future. Acknowledging blindness to change, however, is an excellent starting point. Or, to put it in the words of Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska, “whatever inspiration is, it’s born from a continuous “I don’t know”.