John Maynard Keynes said, famously, that ‘practical men’ were usually ‘slaves to some defunct economist’. Something similar is true in futures work. There are some views of the world that are so embedded that no amount of good futures analysis can dislodge them from the minds of their adherents. Indeed, the futurist Jamais Cascio has coined a term for this, “legacy futures“, which describes futures that are trapped in a moment that has already passed, a “now” that is already history.
These thoughts are prompted by the latest wave of lobbying by British business interests for a third runway at Heathrow. I get weary writing about this: I went through the relevant trends at length a couple of years ago and found that in terms of air transport in the richer world almost all the trends were headwinds. More recently Chris Goodall at Carbon Commentary has noted that demand for business air travel from the UK was declining for some years before the crisis. (Since then he has returned to the subject, most recently using Civil Aviation Authority data to lay into the misleading numbers deployed by the campaigns that promote the expansion of Heathrow.) It’s worth noting that all that stuff about flights to China, trotted out again by the CBI in the past month, is more or less just plain wrong. It disregards the huge number of flights to Hong Kong from Heathrow, compared to the negligible numbers from other European hubs, which expansionist advocates contrive to overlook.
A couple of years ago The Futures Company collaborated with the Institute of Development Studies on an ambitious futures project which was designed to understand the possible futures of a post-crash global economy, and then to identify impacts for development. One of the conditions of the tender was – unusually – that we subsequently write up the work for academic publication, and the paper we wrote for the journal Foresight has recently been commended as one of the best papers in the journal during 2011. In turn, this means that it’s available for open download until 10th October from the website of the publishers, Emerald.
The client for the project was a British government department, and the sponsor within the department was sure that he didn’t want the scenarios to be developed using the mainstream 2×2 double uncertainty method. I was fairly sure about this as well; for one thing, I didn’t believe – given that the scope of the scenarios was the entire global economy – that the 2×2 would produce sufficient nuance, and secondly, I knew from experience that while it is possible to translate 2×2 scenarios into soft models, just about, the translation can be messy.
For our part of the work (on which I worked with my colleague Joe Ballantyne), therefore, we used a ‘light’ version of morphological analysis – largely for reasons of time – substituting a form of pattern analysis for computer-based analysis. In turn this meant that Andy Sumner of the IDS, the paper’s third author, was able to draw out the main elements that linked the national economies to the global economy and categorise them.
I’m proud of the paper, which I think describes well the way that a fairly complex futures process, done quite quickly, was able to drive insight and improve our anticipation of the future. In the few days before the window closes: enjoy.