Learning from long-term futures

Posted in economics, future, innovation, long waves, methods, scenarios by thenextwavefutures on 17 January, 2009

I’ve written here before about longer-term futures and how we think about them. Over the past year or so I have beem fortunate to work on a series of scenarios projects, for different clients, but on the theme of sustainability, looking out between 30 and 90 years. There are some patterns – and looking across them they throw up a set of questions about the future. I’ve written a short article (dowloadable from the Selected Articles page) and I’ve summarised the main points below the fold.

The main theory which puts data to a long-term cycle is Carlota Perez’ work on technology investment cycles, which have – by her analysis – followed half-century patterns since the late 18th century. The most recent wave – information and communications – started in 1971, with the development of the microprocessor. Effectively her model (article downloadable from here in pdf), which owes a lot to emphatically more Schumpeter and nothing to Kondratiev, has a first phase of ‘installation’, an investment phase in which technology develops in clusters of applications, and a ‘development’ phase in which it matures and profits are taken. I like the model because it tells an intellectually coherent story about the relationship between technology and economics. [And there’s a good summary of Perez’ argument in a Mary Kaldor article at Open Democracy.]

The other long cycle which is referenced in the futures literature is the generational cycles, typically thought of as being 25-30 years. (A paper by the Hawai’i futurist Jim Dator opens in pdf). We’ve all lived through the value shifts which they represent, but they are harder to date precisely.

In the course of the projects, though, we also came to date cycles around changes in governance – in the UK these seem to be around 40 years, although this was only a heuristic; we haven’t found a theoretical basis for it yet. But, for example, Britain saw saw significant shifts in provision and ownership models of welfare in the 1900s, the 1940s, and the 1980s. This needs more specific research, but it’s possible that it’s related to generational cycles as well (how does an idea about social argoanisation become dominant and then decay?).

From this, and looking across the four sets of scenarios, there seemed to be four common questions. There’s more of a discussion in the paper, but in summary the questions are:

  • Have the last 25 years been a blip or a trend?
  • Does the increase in energy prices represent a step-change or a temporary market imbalance?
  • How are our prevailing assumptions about technology being challenged?
  • Can we identify the next wave in governance before it arrives?

In particular, if the Perez 50-year cycle holds, and the governance cycle is indeed 40 years, they are going to coincide in the 2020s, which could open up the prospect of radical disruption.

One of the scenarios projects was Foresight’s project on the future of sustainable energy management and the built environment. This was launched at the end of November, and the futures report, and other project materials, can be found here. One of the tools we used to understand the rate of change of scenarios over time was the Three Horizons model – I have posted a long article I co-wrote on this to the Selected Articles page as well.

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