By Sohail Inayatullah
When tomorrow is just like today, boredom can result. We seek novelty. However, in this phase in human history, tomorrow will certainly not be like today. Indeed, we are in the midst of dramatic social and technological change. This includes:
- A demographic shift in Africa such that 40% of all children worldwide by 2050 live in Africa[i] and by 2100, 39% of all adults globally will live in Africa.[ii][iii]
- Under-population [iv]in many Western and East Asian nations,[v] creating labour shortages, and the possibility of steady-state economics.
- The rise of new technologies such as 3d printing, drones, artificial intelligence, driverless cars dramatically increasing productivity, reducing costs, and among other impacts, recongifuring city design (why parking spaces? or why not cars as mobile homes?).
- The likely major disruption in the global food industry through cellular agriculture – the new pure meat and pure milk and the end of the animal based food supply chain, the possibility of the narrative shift from slaughter houses to greenhouses and food labs. [vi]
- The shift from coal based energy to solar and wind (and other alternatives) renewable systems.
- The beginning of the rise of the peer to peer economy and possibly platform cooperativism, certainly the possibility of the uber-ifcation of energy, that is: AI, plus solar, plus energy sharing. This challenges energy hierarchy, changing consumers into prosumers and foundationally challenging energy producers – are fossil fuels the new stranded assets?[vii]
- A likely hegemonic shift from an American centric world to a China and Asian-centric century, changing what we value, the global hierarchy of truth, knowledge, and beauty.[viii]
- On top of that, perhaps the most profound shift is the rise of gender equity – the beginning of true diversity and inclusion.
For many these changes are heralded as the beginning of a new era, the end of empire, the end of the patriarchy, the end of the coal-oil era, the end of poverty, the end of man over nature – a transition to a new era, what Sarkar has called, neohumanism. [ix] For others, these are frightening as the assets they have held – physical as in coal mines, psychic as in male domination, cultural as in Empire-first are all under threat. “They vow to make their tribe great again”[x]
For sure, in these times of transition, finding a centre to hold on to can become difficult. We feel powerless, vulnerable, lost. Our normal day way of thinking and being may not be enough. We may need super-powers to stay calm, afloat, strong, focused during these tsunamis of change, as the futurist James Dator has written.[xi]
In my work in Futures Studies and as a student of the mystic, P.R. Sarkar, I offer the following ideas or super-powers, if you will.[xii] I have used these with dozens of nations, hundreds of international organizations, and hundreds of citizens groups throughout the world. May futurists use some or all of these powers.
We hope they help in avoiding the pitfalls and perils coming, and to create the futures you wish for.[xiii]
First, as everything changes, find a quiet time – meditation is best for this. Breathe in, breathe out. Make this a practice, such that the feeling of quietness carries throughout the day. Meditation, mindfulness, zikr, zen, or other methods that help focus on one thought – the mantra, the sound that transports one to shanti, stillness – even when hundreds of thoughts race.
Second, see the future as an asset, part of a learning and creation journey. Instead of being worried about what will happen, use the future to start to create realities you would like to see happen (within your zone of control). Insights about the changing world, what you can do, what your organization can do, to help one chart their way forward. Instead of being lost in the day to day, the litany of events, we find that by challenging one’s assumptions about reality or double loop learning, the future is easier to create since one is watching for weak signals, watching for what works and what does not. Indeed, misleading assumptions are considered one of the leading causes of strategy failure. Often, we double down, argue even more belligerently for our view even as the data suggests otherwise, as in climate change.
Or we rush to create a list of things to do. But double loop learning is questioning our assumptions. Is the future created or given to us? Do I believe the future is bright or bleak? One large organization paid its managers to conduct a review on the changing external world – the environmental scan – and paid experts to comment on this review. However, it had no intent, as evidenced in board meetings, to change their strategy. They merely wished to inform regulators that they had done due diligence on the emerging future. They did not wish their assumptions challenged.
Third, find the used future. The used future is a practice we engage in that no longer works. For example, many institutions wish to be part of the knowledge revolution but they still engage in clock in and clock out behavior. They remain focused on the assembly line, instead of creating metrics where it is out come not time spent that truly matters. As institutions remain mired in the 19th century, workers experience fatigue, tired of surveillance, and feeling what makes them special is not being counted.
Fourth, understand which disruptions or technologies, cultural mind-set shifts, demographic changes will impact them. And, this is crucial, discern the first and second order implications of these changes. Many argue which will be the correct impact. They seek certainty in a world where the future keeps on changing. Wiser is to ascertain the alternatives. For example, with the rise of cellular agriculture, is it wiser to (1) move towards regenerative agriculture, where farmers are stewards of the land, (2) shift toward pure meat and make the land that was used for animal farming for other purposes, or (3) become a niche organic meat seller, or (4) all the above, or (5) to do nothing in the hope the new technology does not disrupt you and your industry? Instead of being focused on the right answer, the future is full of possibilities. However, without going through the implications, we often resort to defensive postures. One farming federation when presented with the possible future of lab meat becoming prevalent suggested that they needed to eliminate vegetarians and scientists. While this was done in humor, the challenge to move from “there is nothing we can do” to alternative strategies became apparent to all participants.
Fifth, we focus on scenarios, a number of possible stories about the future, instead of the right answer. These scenarios become alternative worlds that you, the organization, and the nation can inhabit. From these scenarios, options can emerge, choices can be created, and conflicts resolved since alternative futures are now clarified. They can help develop national strategy, for example, as with the recent scenarios below of the Malaysian Ministry of Education.
Sixth, the future strategy needs an enabling metaphor. Every person or organization has a narrative that underlies how they interact with the changing world. More often than not, when the external world changes, the story is left behind, and individuals live a metaphor that no longer creates the desired vision. Instead, suffering results. One global organization was looking to the future but their metaphor was an old crippled elephant. They needed to find a better story and then en-act from that story, the new future they wished for. In this case, they imagined themselves to be an octopus – intelligent, flexible, and swift to react. Individuals as well carry stories that do not work.
One CEO found that his core skills he had learned over 40 plus years were no longer useful. He described this as coming to play a game of tennis at a grass court only to find out that he was now playing on a clay court. His new narrative became someone who could play on multiple courts. For that, he needed to expand his life skills to include spiritual and emotional intelligence. However, in the long run, he realized, it was not winning (or losing) that mattered but the rally, the love of the game. Thus, a better narrative for him was that of the coach, teaching children how to play.
Seventh, and finally, and perhaps the most important superpower of all is to link the story to the system, to strategy, otherwise, the story is empty, mere words that lead to nothing.[xiv] If, for example, the octopus is the new story, then power needs to be decentralized to the tentacles, to the field. If the octopus is the new story, then there needs to be funding for emerging threats and possibilities. In the elephant story, the organization is unable to see the future as the organization has no systematic ways to scan for trends and weak signals. If the octopus is the new metaphor, then the organization needs to focus on outcomes, to actually become flexible. Systemic change also means that the new measurements of success are needed so that the story is not just valued but is the anchor to the desired future. Often organizations wish to move from crisis management (ambulance at the bottom of the hill) to prevention (fence at the top of the hill), however, when they do so, their budgets decline and accolades are not passed out since they have solved problems before they occurred. New measures of prevention are required, as for example, with the work of former deputy commissioner of Toronto Police, Peter Sloly. Elected representatives as well are hesitant since they need to be seen cutting the ribbon on new projects. Thus, new measures are required that ensure the vision – prevention, for example – is measured and rewarded.
With this final superpower, the subjective worlds of narrative and vision align with the objective worlds of systems and measurements. The future becomes real: the real becomes the future.
Scenarios on Adelaide Park Lands linking strategy with metaphor. David Chick.
To conclude, in times of dramatic change, we don’t simply need better maps of the changing world, we need special powers or super powers to avoid the futures we don’t want and create the futures we do. We need the super power of:
(1) Being able to stay calm and focused through meditation;
(2) We need the power to learn and reflect instead of acting from unchallenged assumptions and past behavior.
(3) We need the superpower to challenge the used future – what we have been doing but no longer works.
(4) We need the ability to understand how the world is changing, and the impacts of these disruptions on our day to day life and strategy.
(5) We need the superpower to understand and create alternative futures instead of being fixated on one view: one future. This means letting go of the train-track worldview.
(6) We need the super-power of narrative, of telling a different story about our lives. And, finally,
(7) We need to link story to systemic change, creating a virtuous cycle of change, ensuring that what we value, we count.
[i] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-28757054. Accessed 16 2 2019.
[ii] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-28757054. Accessed 16 2 2019.
[iii] See Sohail Inayatullah, “The Youth Bulge,” Journal of Futures Studies (Vol. 21, No. 2, December, 2016), 21-24.
[iv] See Sohail Inayatullah, “Ageing Futures: From Overpopulation to World Underpopulation,” The Australian Business Network Report (Vol. 7, No. 8, 1999), 6–10.
[v] https://theconversation.com/japan-is-not-the-only-country-worrying-about-population-decline-get-used-to-a-two-speed-world-56106. Accessed 16 2 2019.
[vi] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/china-israel-trade-deal-lab-grown-meat-veganism-vegetarianism-a7950901.html. Accessed 16 2 2019
[vii] I am indebted to the World Bank executive Richard MacGeorge for alerting me to this approach. He moves the discourse away from political interests to sunken psychic costs.
[viii] See, for example, Sohail Inayatullah, Asia 2038: ten disruptions that change everything. Tamsui, Tamkang University, 2018.
[ix] See, for example, Sid Jordan, “Era of Neohumanism,” https://gurukul.edu/newsletter/issue-38/era-of-neohumanism/.Accessed 17 2 2019. Also see, Sohail Inayatullah, Marcus Bussey, and Ivana Milojevic, eds., Neohumanisteducational futures. Tamsui, Tamkang University, 2006.
[x] See special issue on Donald Trump and the future, , the Journal of Futures Studies. (Vol. 21, No.3, March, 2017),
[xi] James Dator, “Surfing the tsunamis of change, ” http://www.futures.hawaii.edu/publications/futures-visions/SurfingTsunamisMexico1994.pdf. Accessed 16 2 2019. Also see: Christopher Jones, “Surfing the tsunamis of change,” Journal of Futures Studies .Vol. 8, No. 2, 2013, 115-122. http://www.jfs.tku.edu.tw/18-2/S04.pdf. Accessed 16 2 2019.
[xii] See Sohail Inayatullah, Understanding Sarkar: the Indian episteme, macrohistory and transformative knowledge. Leiden, Brill,2002.
[xiii] These are drawn from, Sohail Inayatullah, What works – case studies in the practice of foresight. Tamsui, Tamkang University, 2015.
[xiv] This approach is developed in a series of books, the latest being Sohail Inayatullah and Ivana Milojevic, eds. CLA 2.0: Transformative research in theory and practice. Tamsui, Tamkang University, 2015.