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.
One of the best workshops I’ve run in the past eighteen months was with a group of museum curators, held in the Whitechapel Gallery in the room holding Goshka Macuga’s Guernica installation. The documents assembled for the exhibition seemed to permeate the workshop; everyone seemed to take extra care because of it. The project that the workshop was part of has now published a collection of reflections from participants. I contributed the short essay below, on the role of the past in futures work.
When I was a kid in the late 1960s, the hovercraft and Concorde were trumpeted as the great British technological innovations – the result, perhaps, of Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s modernising meme about “the white heat of technology“. I even seem to recall, although heaven knows I may have imagined this, a set of British stamps which featured both.
This thought was prompted by a few days spent last weekend in the Isle of Wight over the (English) Bank Holiday. The island often seems, well, quite old-fashioned, and the longest running commercial hovercraft services in the UK plies noisily from Portsmouth to Ryde, across a stretch of water also served by a car ferry and a passenger catamaran.
Concorde, which has been out of service now for more than half a decade, was also as famous, or as controversial, for its noise as its speed. The two technologies raise interesting questions aboout how, and when, particular ideas about the future stop being useful.