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On Being A Futurist

1. Predictions-R-Us!
Predictions. Forecasts - especially highly contentious ones. That’s what people want (indeed what they expect) from one so branded. What are the omens?Tell us what the future will be, they ask. Which trends are important? Which merely distractions? I wouldn't be surprised if they have John Naisbitt’s classic best seller Megatrends in mind when they pose such questions…

The notion that futurists predict the future is a widely held view. It is also wrong. Professional futurists do not predict the future. Nor should they make claims to that effect. That is not our role. Most of us are smarter than that. After all, as Mark Twain once said, The art of prophecy is very difficult - especially so when it is about the future!

So much of what may happen in the future is tentative, contingent upon the decisions and reactions of billions of individuals. If we could predict the future it would mean that the human destiny was predetermined and immutable, whereas we know that is dynamically complex and utterly unpredictable.

The pivotal role of the futurist is to embrace these uncertainties; examine what might occur should present patterns persist; engage in dialogue about whether that is desirable then, where necessary, help people take steps to design viable alternatives.

Surfacing key patterns and trends and mapping their more essential (and potentially disruptive) qualities is, of course, useful and cannot be discounted. Such knowledge can be empowering. Fresh insights can lead to the development of better strategies. But trend spotting is only a very small part of the futurist’s toolkit.  And trends can be wrong. Strategic foresight (or futuring) is a meta discipline after all. It is also a vital step in the process of deep design - the ecologically intelligent design of viable living systems.

The real value of futuring is in the essential edge it offers us in reframing (interpreting issues and events differently), reinventing (anticipating sooner what needs to be done) and adapting (taking action to avoid, attenuate or accelerate specific consequences).

While it is impossible to determine the future with any precision (let's face it, sometimes it's even difficult to get a grip on the present) we can know a lot about probable futures and their consequences, just as we can imagine and play with a range of alternative possibilities. Knowledge from the future allows us to be better prepared for any eventuality. If we see changes on the horizon, we can be ready for them. If these changes are not to our liking we can take preemptive steps to shape alternatives. And we can do that on a global scale – if we have a mind to.

So it is important to take patterns and trends seriously, even though their ultimate conjunction is likely to be emergent, novel and not in the least what we had initially imagined. Which is why access to real-time strategic intelligence is so important. Trend analysis allows us to react, often too late, to consequences we would rather avoid. Strategic intelligence enables anticipation and adaptation, which is far more helpful.

The Hames Group has been publishing Emergence for almost twenty years now. This quarterly strategic intelligence update maps critical factors (such as trajectories, worldviews and issues) that appear to be driving and shaping global change. Drawn from our extensive futures knowledge base, Emergence also examines the intended and unintended consequences of these dynamics for our clients across a range of industries and interests.

Real-time strategic intelligence is invaluable to those of our clients who are making critical multi-million dollar decisions based upon future possibilities. Which is why Emergence is so eagerly anticipated by some of our most successful business leaders. Each issue comprises options, insights and advice that puts our clients on the front foot, especially relative to competitors. I am unable to share much of our proprietary knowledge publicly for this very reason.

However, I am often asked to speak more generally about the future in public forums, especially emphasizing major issues society must address over the coming years and speculating about the implications arising from these issues. Having reflected upon global change for well over two decades now I am convinced that some of these insights are beneficial for two reasons: (i) they often run contrary to more orthodox views concerning the future, (ii) they often examine linkages and consequences that, for whatever reason, are neglected by others. I suspect this has more to do with the way The Hames Group synthesizes patterns, trends and trajectories as integral components of whole systems than any expert opinion, model or analytical technique we might employ.

I am sharing a few of our insights here in the hope that the linkages we have identified, as well as the general tone of my discourse, will persuade others to think differently, perhaps more positively, about a future that is not in the least pre-ordained and can still be shaped in many ways that will conserve and benefit all life on Earth.

2. Future Agendas
On the surface, it would seem that many of the issues facing humanity between now and around the middle of this century have been pretty well chronicled and debated, from a number of diverse perspectives and in every medium from the popular press to specialist research journals and even international summits. Indeed, many might argue that we are inundated with too much data to sensibly sort through.

Upon further investigation, however, it is not at all clear-cut. Prompted by the media, popular debate tends to vacillate between momentous global events, socio-economic concerns, geopolitical imperatives - and the latest technological hype. The general mood, too, seems to be despondent. Even reputable foresight practitioners who earn their living from environmental scanning and crafting future scenarios fall into this trap. Too much repetitive gloomy information from the usual suspects invariably reifies conventions from which it is almost impossible to escape.

Cynics would no doubt claim that this focus, or rather the lack of it, reflects the degree to which community interest in the future is evident. I disagree. It has much more to do with the dearth of opportunities for the community to engage more deeply, together with the paucity of the mechanisms we habitually use to talk about the future. Both are clearly inadequate given the complexity of the global problematique. Nor can we totally dismiss the possibility that one of the causes of such apparent disinterest in engaging more fully with what are incredibly complicated issues, after all, is an ingrained fear (often stoked by government as much as by, for example, individual acts of terrorism) about our ability to control the future.

As a consequence public debate mostly skates around, or ignores, the structural nature of mindful change - such as the development of appropriate design criteria for systemic viability; ecologically intelligent design; sociocratic forms of governance; targeted innovation; and human intent - in spite of the fact that these are all important facets in the advancement of our civilization.

Often we openly disparage more spiritual and ethical matters as being too esoteric to include in future-focused conversations. But these, too, are integral to progress. More integral dialogue might include, for example, the way we design future society and its institutions to respond more appropriately to the emerging global situation, as well as the degree of appreciative enlightenment we need to bring to bear on how we think about the future of our civilization in the first place.

Whatever the rationale, the current state of public discourse is drained of intellect and bereft of hope for systemically viable solutions. In thrall to spin doctors and corporate media, even critical political discussion has now been reduced almost to the language of sports commentators – euphemistic and ridden with clichés. We are far happier, it seems, relying on journalistic impressions, applying lazy thinking and dreaming up half-baked panaceas than we are with rigorous dialogue. I suppose platitudes and myths at least give us the illusion of progress.

But it is not just the issues themselves, nor the lack of a rigorous engaging public dialogue that is the core of our predicament. We often complain about a lack of vision, but the overarching context for change, too, especially in terms of possible adaptations to current institutions and praxis, has not been well articulated. Nor, it has to be said, is it that well understood by the majority of pundits. I include here those with obvious vested interests to protect (such as the oil and tobacco lobbies, for whom much of the dialogue would be existential in nature); others, including well-meaning politicians and journalists, who have learned to speak in an argot of spurious sound bites and downright lies, and a few experts who, having fabricated dogma, defend their hard-fought reputations by constantly chanting their original hypotheses, come what may.

I do not intend following these well-trodden paths. I am not a scientist, lawyer, engineer or economist, so cannot profess any technical expertise. Nor have I any desire in adhering to a status quo that has delivered so much pain, injustice and inequity. And I certainly do not hold to a single truth. Life is far too complex and uncertain to be sure that anything will remain the truth for long.

So how can we best express the essential nature and challenge of this global change agenda? A movie with a moral purpose?Simple scenarios to change the talk on the high streets and in the villages perhaps?More powerful computer simulations? That, after all, is what many people are doing in their desperation to get heard.

A simpler solution might be just to update Naisbitt’sMegatrends. But that would miss the point entirely. With so many significant trends to include, the ensuing debate would be a confusing undertaking. Besides, this would still only give us yet another list of trends with an accompanying list of discrete solutions.

Actually I’m not convinced any of these practices do much to advance the whole cause. They are partial solutions at best. The last thing we need is more data where sheer noise so easily obscures crucial signals. And advanced computer modeling, while necessary, constantly upgrades the seriousness of our situation, creating dismal scenarios that trample on hope and confounding scientists, who scramble to translate and explain the language of environmental collapse even as it finds new and troubling expressions. So what do we really need? Where is the breakthrough?

Firstly, a few high level strategic imperatives that could leverage a global mind shift. Naturally, we need to be able to make explicit the emergent dynamic of global change resulting from the collision and entanglement of critical patterns and change drivers, but only in order to deflect the current trajectory while proposing viable alternatives. And that is more story than list. Secondly, a new ‘planetary’ consciousness that will enable us to reconstruct human purpose and intentions.

We also need more viable frameworks. But these will only come about through revitalizing the sets of assumptions we habitually use to invent our reality, the wonderful yet terrifying reality we ourselves have created and that we see all around us. We need new stories too. A new story might just make another world possible.

3. Brand New Story
So what is this new story? How can we accommodate so many grave problems (such as climate change, energy shortage, unbridled globalization, ecological collapse, endemic poverty, ethnic and tribal conflict, terrorism, moral decline, military intervention, population growth, urbanization, human trafficking and the rise of organized crime, for example) into a plausible case, founded on evidence rather than myth, for a new overarching human purpose that is compelling, viable and that restores hope?

Whatever the story, and however it unfolds, our future history can be expressed as an evolution comprising three interdependent domains:

  • the external world of observable issues and events, of geopolitical upheavals and technological promises
  • the internal world of ideas, altered states, values and beliefs
  • activities that create a more purposeful interface between these external and internal worlds, namely intention and design.

One of our first tasks must be to rid ourselves of the self-doubt and delusions that trap us in the past. Another is to re-frame assumptions so as to challenge more objectively the more obvious orthodoxies. For example, is the ‘war on terror’ actually just another type of cultural politics? Can democracy only manifest in one form, a form simultaneously defined and debased by the world’s most powerful states? Is it ethical to pursue economic goals simply in order to create wealth for a few if, by doing so, we create such appalling conditions for the rest of humanity? Is it morally relevant for us to quarantine ourselves from the rest of humanity by virtue of our lineage or where we happen to live? Is life really getting worse for the majority of humankind or is such pessimism unwarranted? How much of an impediment is the tension between our need for collective global governance on the one hand and the desire of nations to position themselves as sovereign and independent?

Equally critical is the need for us to accept multiple realities in ways that do not bias, distort or manipulate. We no longer have the luxury of playing poker with the future. Frankly, we live in the best and worst of times. We have killed nature. It is poisoned beyond recovery. The instruments of advanced capitalism saw to that. We are at each others throats, allocating more to the destructive arts of killing, violence, pornography and competition than we are willing to spend on peace and universal prosperity. And we are insufficiently motivated to overcome the more oppressive, toxic features of the global corporate economy.

As a result more than 20,000 people die each day from hunger and other readily preventable causes while much of the Western world gorges itself to ill-health because it has too much food. Fully one third of the world’s population is starving. Many survive on less than a dollar a day. They do not even have clean water to drink. The divisions between rich and poor have never been so stark.

Human induced global warming is causing extreme weather, higher ocean levels and agricultural disturbances. The ‘war on terror’ has the potential to erupt into the clash of civilizations so many commentators seem to desire. Depression, anxiety, addiction and other psychological disorders soar wherever traditional communities break down. Oil reserves are drying up, severing the umbilical cord of global economic activity. And the overextended US economy is beginning to crumble under the weight of massive debt and its swelling trade deficit with the rest of the world.

Yet still we fail to fully grasp the gravity of our situation. The media is hesitant in bringing the full force of impending global catastrophe into our living rooms, except in entertaining bits and pieces. Instead, fantasies and sanitized distractions keep us cocooned in comfort. Our eyes remain conveniently glued to more important matters, like the cricket, or the tennis, or the latest mishap involving the heiress Paris Hilton. Meanwhile the long-favored instruments of old empires (monarchies, bureaucracies and corporations) ensure we remain blissfully ignorant of any alternative possibilities that might threaten their legitimacy.

Why in God’s name would sane people want to know the truth? Most of us living in post-industrial societies have become rich beyond our wildest dreams. So obscenely affluent, indeed, that each day we happily fritter away vast amounts of food, clothes, energy - and goods that will be used just once, if at all. We revere ownership, power, wealth and excess to the extent that our values have become warped through self-indulgent hyper consumption. Materialism, the expectation that we can have more or less anything we want, drives ambitions while fossil fuels and seemingly unlimited financial credit sustain platinum lifestyles few others have been fortunate enough to experience. You know the kind of thing: seven star hotel luxury, ski slopes in the desert, luxury spas on palm-fringed atolls... But none of this can go on indefinitely.

Paradoxically, we condone the inequitable global system we have created through our silence, our apathy, our cynicism and our never-ending ability to rationalize motives. We still regard ourselves as a civil society – a species more advanced than others. How can this be? How civilized can we actually be if we have allowed our society to fall into such a parlous state?

The fundamental mindset that allows things to be this way is unsustainable. The global problematique reductionist thinking has created is imploding in on itself. Nor indeed can the sloppy language we have devised in conjunction with that thinking, one which we so readily harness in the demolition of alternatives, be allowed to endure. Why?

4. A New Design Paradigm
Arising out of the ashes of the industrial economy's end game a new world is struggling to be born. But it needs our help. Over the coming quarter of a century, we will need to do something we’ve never done before. We will need to consciously redesign the entire basis of our civilization. The timing is perfect: for the first time in history, science and technology have given us the capability to design life as it could be. Our tools and genius can cure most ills, heal the rifts between rich and poor, stop most conflict, eradicate poverty and even put an eventual stop to global warming. Human destiny lies within our fingertips. The only things in doubt are our willingness to embark upon this great adventure - and the language we must invent to tell the new story.

However this story unfolds, and at whatever speed, new strategic imperatives and impediments alike are now increasingly clear:

Political change.
Global society has to become more integral. More enlightened too. But in order for this to transpire we will need to move beyond the concept of the nation state (of whatever political persuasion) as the basis for organizing and governing human affairs. A more cooperative sociocratic order is desirable. But what could possibly precipitate such a profound shift?

Actually its already happening. As identical forces and institutions (associated with issues like global warming, for example) threaten the welfare of people from all nations, globalization is establishing a single planetary class interest. Ultimately this actuality will compel us to abandon nationhood, just as in earlier epochs we dispensed with the barony and the clan. For the first time in history we see ourselves as a species with common concerns. The age of empires and of competitive colonial thinking have run their course. They are in their death throes.

These old empires are best epitomized by brand America and the deadening hand of large conservative corporations. Consequently it is instructive to look there first for any omens indicating decline. And, unsurprisingly, evidence is there aplenty in the current state of the US. This once proud and dominant nation is now hated by more people than it has admirers. Well-meaning aspirations have become mired in heavy-handed foreign and domestic policies that have overstretched its capacity culturally, economically and militarily. Another cold war with Russia or China (or both) would bring with it an intolerable burden for the US and its allies. It would make today’s power struggles trivial by comparison.

There are just two ‘psychological’ obstacles to overcome. The first has to do with instating collaborative practices in circumstances where competition has traditionally prevailed. Theoretically that should be a simple task. Most people are convinced by logic: it is quite simple to prove that cooperation, in general, is more economically efficient than competition.

The second obstacle is trickier. It’s about loyalty; particularly extreme forms of loyalty manifesting as patriotism. Human loyalties are notoriously amenable to manipulation because of their highly charged emotional content. It is clear, for example, how national sporting competitions often inflame and intensify subtle imprints arising from our ingrained tribal tendencies. Little by little our loyalties are shifting away from nationalistic issues to more global priorities, like human dignity and survival. But this transfer will take time and still needs a helping nudge.

At least the futility and obscenity of continued political bombast, feuding and state-sponsored violence are becoming more and more apparent each day. When compared with the collaborative effort we need to put into saving our species from extinction, everything else appears trivial.

Economic change.
Any political u-turn away from the nation state to more global institutions will, of necessity, be accompanied by similar adjustments in economic priorities and activities. Most significant in this respect is the urgent need to shift from a mindset of unlimited growth and development to a ‘sufficiency’ economy - one that causes no further damage to the environment or to people. This will also help reign in the world’s addiction to rampant consumerism.

Almost unwittingly we have become terrorists. Nowhere is this clearer than in our patterns of production and consumption. We consume far too much, maintain unsustainable lifestyles, commit cultural genocide on the vast majority of humanity, plunder non-Western economies in the name of free trade and impose our morality on the rest of humanity. Of course, there is a difference between other forms of terrorism and ours. Powerless against powerful governments, the victims of injustice, the terrorists we decry often have a legitimate grievance. We have no such excuse. Our motivation boils down to greed, a weird sense of superiority, and an unshakeable belief in our right to dominate the world.

As the economy shifts so capitalism, in all its various forms, will gradually evolve and adjust to the new realities. As indeed will fiscal and monetary policies. Central to today’s economy, for example, is the framework of monocracy that keeps some countries rich and others poor. Such an unjust system will no longer be tolerated as we become a more global community with shared interests and goals. Ethical principles will also be reflected in the systems we use to price goods – shifting the emphasis away from taxing stuff we value to taxing stuff that damages and pollutes.

Perverse subsidies that artificially prop up unsustainable and harmful industries and that keep toxic corporate practices intact will be abolished, too, as other market distortions are remedied. Full cost accounting (where prices accurately reflect the financial, ecological and social costs of production, use and disposal) will ensure that the true cost of harmful practices become transparent to consumers. Once pollution costs are factored in to the prices we see on supermarket shelves, our buying habits will change. Under the current model these costs are borne by future generations and faraway people. That will not continue. In the future there is no such thing as faraway. We are all connected.

Another significant economic factor that can’t be ignored is oil. Oil is the bedrock of the modern economy. It provides energy for transport, industry, heating and lighting and is used in the production of lubricants, drugs, plastics and millions of other products we take for granted. Oil has enabled the lifestyles we enjoy and which others now demand. But at a huge cost.

Irrespective of whether our future economy is driven by solar, hydrogen or other forms of alternative energy, we must end our cheap addiction to carbon as fast as possible. The world currently consumes 1000 barrels of oil every second of every day. But as demand (especially from developing nations like China) outstrips supply, the costs of producing and consuming energy generated from fossil fuels will escalate exponentially, making the use of alternatives far more viable and economically attractive.

Ecological change.
As the future catches us, human intentions are set to make the greatest leap of all. Out of the conscious changes mentioned above, a new philosophy of human purpose is beginning to emerge – one that establishes our species as part of a system in which all life is sacred. Such a philosophy is not just an abstract set of ideas divorced from life but an essential, liberating condition; the meaning and value we ascribe to our future experiences as a collaborative global community.

A vital element of this new consciousness will be the design paradigm we develop (inspired by nature) to revitalize the relationships between technology, industry and the built environment.

The earth’s ecosystems are constantly changing and adapting. Some of these changes are part of natural cycles. Others (much more alarming in that they have triggered positive amplifying feedback loops that rapidly accelerate the effect and impact of global warming) are human induced. Only recently has society concluded that human activities are responsible for global warming. It took a while to convince some. But the link is now irrefutable.

We will need to work hard to replace the systems that have caused such dire circumstances. There is a rapidly closing window of opportunity within which human intervention has any chance of halting this process and returning the global climate system to a more stable state. Failure to respond rapidly and effectively will inevitably precipitate devastating change on a par with the five previous mass extinction events known to have obliterated almost all life on earth.

In the past we have used brute force to dominate and subdue nature. This entrenched unsustainable systems and infrastructures, but it was short-sighted, clumsy and inherently wasteful. It now threatens our way of life. It may even have brought us to the brink of extinction. The degree of effort now required to preserve our species is reinforced by the scale of the problem. Global warming and climate change are constantly in the headlines. But that is by no means the entire story.

The twenty-first century could see a biodiversity collapse up to 1,000 times greater than any previous extinction since the dawn of humanity. Conserving biodiversity in a time of increased resource consumption, overpopulation, and environmental degradation requires huge efforts and continued sacrifice on the part of local, often impoverished communities. For the developed world to persist with its self-serving agendas and petty bickering at this time would surely be considered abhorrent by future generations. Rebooting the environmental cause and instituting closed-loop industrial ecologies will be vital to our survival.

Social ecologies, too, must adapt in alignment with environmental change. Utilizing ecologically intelligent principles of deep design we will create communities in such a manner that their ways of life, technologies, and social institutions respect, nurture and cooperate with nature’s inherent capacity to sustain life. Ecoliteracy and deep design will be become required knowledge for business and political leaders as well as professionals in all spheres.

As the creation of sustainable global communities becomes our overriding intention, cooperation and ecological literacy will flourish on a global scale. Anthropologists tell us that human beings have become more cooperative over the course of past centuries. As a result there has been less conflict. Conflict as a political strategy of old empires, inspired by the thinking that gave birth to the nation state, will fade still further as we bolster planetary institutions, empowering them with the resources and legitimacy to create a world that is environmentally sustainable; a world in which poverty, malnutrition and injustice are consigned to history. Gradually we will find ways to transcend conventional rules, roles and cultures, embracing all people (regardless of race, gender, class or creed) in the process.

Technological change.
Technology has always been used as a weapon against the world’s poor – an advantage rich nations have regularly used to leverage influence and maintain their dominance. In any viable future we will need to ensure that technological innovation focuses on the actual needs of the global community, rather than being directed towards the commercial desires of the few.

In particular we must apply this genius to issues like climate change, food and energy.  And the design of cities. The pressures arising from urbanization are acute. Roughly 200,000 people leave the countryside for life in the city every day. Given this speed, urban development must focus on the creation of ecologically intelligent cities on a human scale, using deep design principles, and where the community itself is the subject, rather than the architecture. Drawing on nature we must design and create perpetually self-sustaining, life-enhancing cities capable of meeting the food and energy needs of citizens.

Modern medicine, too, while benefiting large pharmaceutical corporations, has failed us. Preventable diseases are rife in the developing world merely because the potential for profits is low. And while we can delay death, modern medicine has diminished our capacity to deal with suffering. It makes more people sick than it heals. Yet the convergence of digital and genetic code has the potential both to lengthen life and improve the quality of life’s experiences.

In the future of the earth community, environmentally-conscious producers will use entrepreneurial energy to drive the creation of ecologically-friendly products. In so doing we will retain our essential humanity in an increasingly technocratic world. That is not to admit defeat at the hands of technology but rather to embrace our true nature and biology. There are things far worse than dying: like self-hatred, despair or losing connections with those we love and who matter to us.

Leadership change.
Forerunners of the global mind shift I have outlined are already among us. Aided and abetted by a hybrid, fluid, all-embracing digital counterculture (a new social activism that is without precedent) they have already started much of the work that needs to be done. We recognize them as five literacies leaders. Their authenticity often astonishes and their new consciousness transcends ego. But they provide us with hope and bring a reinvigorated sense of possibility into this new human future.

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