Future Vault

A growing collection of future-related ideas, concepts and resources.

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Empathy

Your ability to set aside your own views and standpoints, understand someone else’s and to step into their shoes.

‘Extended now-sightedness’ [concept]

Definition

“To frame the future within the narrow confines of ‘the now’ by taking the assumptions and trends of the present and projecting them into the future, and assuming they’ll hold.”

1. To assume today’s assumptions will continue to hold

The first form of extended now-sightedness describes a type of near-term future-thinking based on today’s assumptions simply continuing to hold. It can also be used as a term to describe a finite period of time within which current assumptions can reasonably be expected to hold, but beyond which those assumptions cease to be relevant.

The point at which current assumptions no longer hold is the ‘expiry date’ of extended now-sightedness. This is a subjective point in time beyond which we need to use different methods of thinking (see farsightedness) that consider a wider array of assumptions (see also foresight).

2. To assume something is ‘timeless’ and worth preserving

Another form of extended now-sightedness describes how some future-thinkers seek to preserve in aspic a thing (a technology, a theory, an organisation or a structure) as it is today in order to try and ensure its survival in the future.

This type of extended now-sightedness assumes that what we have today is as good as it gets – or good enough – and therefore worth preserving. It’s good for all weathers and all circumstances.

This form of extended now-sightedness makes the assumption that what we have today will simply continue to be as good as it can be in the future, and not require any fundamental redesign in light of possible changes to come.

This form of thinkings assumes one of two things:

  1. there’ll be no meaningful change – that today’s assumptions and trends will continue to hold; or
  2. change doesn’t matter – the idea is ‘timeless’ and will continue to fare well in a whole range of possible future settings. This is because it’s essentially divorced from the world around it to the extent that it’s either impervious to change or grows as a result of change – a kind of anti-fragility.

Either way, this type of thinking seeks to preserve or extend the present into the future. For good or for ill.

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Farsightedness

Achieved through the process of thinking about the future in such a way that challenges present-day trends and assumptions and considers a broader array of thinking.

Foresight [concept]

Foresight – the act of looking forward – is sometimes divided temporally into near-sightedness (short-term thinking) and farsightedness (long-term thinking). But, what distinguishes near- and farsightedness shouldn’t be strictly time (for example, that near-sightedness describes thinking about the near-term, say, the next five years, and farsightedness the long-term – 100 years plus).

In order to help develop our practice of thinking about the future, I wonder if it’s more useful to distinguish near-sightedness and farsightedness by the nature of the underlying assumptions we’re using?

This approach reveals near-sightedness and farsightedness as being procedurally different.

Near-sightedness is achieved by simply applying the trends and assumptions of today, and projecting them forward into the future. To emphasise the point, I call this ‘extended now-sightedness’ because it better describes and highlights the unconscious adoption of current assumptions and stretching them into the future. This, in effect, extends our ‘now’ view of the world. What’s more, at times we might over-extend those now-assumptions beyond their expiry date.

Farsightedness on the other hand seeks to explore alternate possibilities through challenging existing assumptions and considering a broader array of thinking.

Four modes of future thinking 

The four ‘modes’ in which we think about the future:

  1. Simulation – when we make in our mind a detailed picture or representation of the future.
  2. Prediction – our estimation of how likely a specific future event is.
  3. Intention – to set a goal to be achieved in the future.
  4. Planning – when we identify and arrange the steps necessary to achieve a stated goal.

Source: Szpunar KK, Spreng RN, Schacter DL. A taxonomy of prospection: introducing an organizational framework for future-oriented cognitionProc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2014;111(52):18414-18421. doi:10.1073/pnas.1417144111

Future Generations Commissioner for Wales

Established in 2016 and the first of its type in the world, the Commissioner’s role is to act as guardian of the interests of future generations. So, the Commissioner is tasked with making sure new legislation doesn’t simply tack towards the needs of the near-now at the expense of future generations.

In practice, this means to help public bodies and those making policy in Wales to think about the long-term impact of their decisions. The Commissioner will ask policy and decision-makers questions like:

  • is the decision or policy in question in the interest of future generations?
  • does it take into consideration key (long-term) targets? For instance environmental commitments?
  • does it adequately take into consideration current trends that could range towards or away from the interests of future generations? For instance, should we build roads when we might not be using cars in the future? Should we be investing in industries that could disappear with automation?

The Role of Commissioner is enshrined in law. The Well-being of Future Generations Act 2015 established the Office of the Commissioner’s ways of working which flow from the principle of sustainable development, defined in the act as: “The process of improving the economic, social, environmental and cultural well-being of Wales by taking action, in accordance with the sustainable development principle, aimed at achieving the well-being goals.”

The Act defines a generation as about 25 years.

Further resources:

Future gifting

The act of “future-gifting” is to anticipate your future needs and wishes, and to do something practical in the present to help you more effectively meet them.

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Horizon scanning 

An exercise which asks people to identify slight changes in the present – sometimes called “weak signals” –  with a view to keeping an eye on their development and considering their possible impact. 

Participants are encouraged to see the difference between what is constant, what changes and what constantly changes.

Like the horizon, the range of topics you should explore as part of this exercise should be broad. It should branch out to novel and unexpected issues as well as capturing known reoccurring problems and established trends.  

The idea that underpins horizon scanning is that signs of what may happen in the future can often be found in places where few people are paying attention to. For example, ideas at the fringes of current day thinking that challenge common held assumptions, found in places such as specialised publications and scientific journals.

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Judgement

The skill to marry personal qualities with knowledge and experience, fitting to the situation under consideration, to arrive at opinions and make decisions.

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Letter to my future self [tool]

The practice of writing an email and sending it to your future-self. Hit send and receive your mail in one, three or five year’s time (or specify the date). FutureMe has been future mailing, or being a virtual postman from the past for over two decades.

Long Now [concept]

The concept of the ‘long now‘ was coined by musician Brian Eno in the 1970s. Eno noticed that so many people were increasingly rapt in a ‘now’ that consisted of seconds and minutes, or at most stretching to only a few days. This ‘short now’ way of living, where everything is “exciting, fast, current, and temporary” was, according to Eno, “undeniably lively, but the downside was that it seemed selfish, irresponsible and randomly dangerous.”

The counterpoint to the ‘short now’ should be a mentality of the ‘long now’. This is where our time horizons extend out way beyond our own lifetimes. Or indeed beyond those of our great-grandchildren children. He was thinking more along the lines of a time horizon that captures the lives of our great-grandchildren’s great-grandchildren. Importantly, as we expand our horizon of time, we should also expand our horizon of empathy towards future generations of “fellow-humans who are going to live in a real world which we are incessantly, though only semi-consciously, building.”

The concept of the ‘long now’ has been adopted by the Long Now Foundation. It’s mission is to “help make long-term thinking more common”. It defines ‘long-term’ as the next 10,000 years. One of the Foundation’s main projects is to build a clock that will run uninterrupted for 10,000 years.

The Long Time Project

The Long Time Project is focused on finding new ways to help us care about the long-term future, so that we take responsibility for it in the short-term.

The project is centred on the role culture can play and draws together individuals and organisations.

Its ultimate aim is to support artistic and cultural output that “enables people to engage with their lives in much longer time frames.”

The Long Time Project was co-founded by Ella Saltmarshe and Beatrice Pembroke. It’s based on the contention that “Short-termism is rapidly becoming an existential threat to humanity.”

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Personal time horizon [concept]

The future can feel very abstract. This is a tool I developed to help us think more concretely about time by using our own experience of time – our lifetimes – as a starting point.

Your personal time horizon is made up of one component: your age, expanded out across three equal periods of time:

  1. the period between your birth and the present day (your age)
  2. the period before your birth equivalent to your age (so if you’re 30 years old in 2020, this period takes you back from your year of birth, 1990, to 1960)
  3. and the period from the present day into the future equivalent to your age (for a 30-year-old, this takes you to 2050)

So, to calculate your personal time horizon, take your age and multiply by three. So, if you’re 30 years old in 2020, your personal time horizon is 90 years stretching from 1960 to 2050.

Taking your personal experience of time (your age) and using it as a rule of thumb to look backwards and forwards gives you a window of time. This isn’t an abstract number, but a period grounded in your own experience of time: your lifetime.

I discuss the concept in more detail here.

Prospection

The ability to picture a range of alternative future possibilities.

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Self-control

Your ability to place your present self’s desires behind those of your future self.

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