Faking the Future

We are regularly invited to speak at and participate in events which have the future as their theme. One of the most striking things about many such events is how little genuine exploration there is of anything beyond the next 12-18 months. The bulk of the topics and speakers tend to focus on describing the recent past or the present. The often unspoken assumption is that the trends, ideas and developments we are seeing now are the key factors that will shape the next 5-20 years. An example of this was the recent Nesta FutureFest event held in London. While many of the talks were interesting we only saw two out of about 15 sessions that we attended make any attempt to go beyond the present day. We acknowledge that for many of the audience the chance to reflect on things that were not on their radar was an eye opener – and we appreciate that most of these events are not designed for futurists as the target audience. However why not be honest about the present day focus of such events rather than trying to suggest they are genuinely forward looking?

fakingfutureWe do feel that the lack of ambition in many of these events is doing the audience a disservice and in some cases there is an almost deliberate attempt to provide an official and safe perspective on what the public needs to know. Whether or not these events explore them, fundamental shifts are taking place that could have a profound effect. Digital transformation and disruptive innovation are reshaping jobs, professions, firms and industries. Developments in cybercurrencies and the underlying blockchain technologies could reshape entire economic and political systems. Groundbreaking bio-medical advances hold out the prospect of dramatic changes in everything from life expectancy to human capability and cognitive performance. Automation is eliminating even highly skilled professional roles – a recent Oxford University study of over 700 different jobs suggests that 47% of them could be completely automated in the next 20 years. At the same time the nature of the jobs market is changing, the new knowledge based and highly automated industries require far less and more highly skilled employees than those who are typically losing their jobs. Indeed, recent data suggests that, since the most recent economic downturn, only one out of every 40 jobs created in the UK has been a full-time position.

With these and other equally fundamental shifts in prospect, it is essential that we don’t try to ‘fake the future’ and present a sanitized view of what’s to come. It is perhaps more important than ever that event owners, the media and governments recognize their responsibilities in preparing society for the possible shocks and transitions on the horizon. We have to raise awareness, stimulate interest, encourage debate and enable more informed decision making on the far reaching developments taking place and the deep transformations they could bring about for individuals, society, governance and the world of work.

Originally written for March 24th issue of FutureScape. View the full issue here.

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