Beyond the Crystal Ball: HavingThe Foresight to Predict Future

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From a suite of offices on the fourth floor of a modern building in Bethesda, Md., Timothy C. Mack spends his days pondering and predicting the future. Mack is not a psychic — he’s a lawyer who serves as the president of the World Future Society, where he puts a scholarly, scientific spin on figuring out what the future holds.

Mack is the first to acknowledge he doesn’t have a crystal ball on his desk that clearly illuminates the murky future, but he does try to look ahead and discern certain trends shaping these tumultuous times. And he encourages people from all walks of life to sort through the complexity and change cascading across the world and give some thought not just to the here and now, but to what lies ahead.

Doing so, he said, requires creativity, discipline and doggedness.

“There is no magical bullet. Thinking about the future is kind of like trying to lose weight. You have to do a little something every day,” he told The Washington Diplomat. “The most important thing is to put a little effort into thinking about the future every day. And the way you do that is to follow lines of thought, follow clues, identify what your priorities are.”

Affable and engaging, Mack has the rumpled informality of a college professor. A native of Hot Springs, South Dakota, he grew up near Portland and studied as an undergraduate at the University of Washington. He then attended law school at Syracuse University, where he was editor in chief of the Syracuse Journal of International Law and Commerce.

Mack has been a member of the legal bars in Washington, D.C., and New York since the 1970s, serving as general counsel for a number of nonprofit groups involved in trend analysis, social dynamics and public policy. After holding research positions at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and the National Academy of Sciences, Mack joined the budget policy task force at the U.S. General Accounting Office. He has also done projects for the U.S. General Services Administration and the Department of Defense.

For the past 20 years, Mack has edited Futures Research Quarterly, the oldest and most respected professional journal in foresight scholarship. In June 2004, Mack was selected president of the World Future Society (WFS), a nonprofit, nonpartisan, scientific and educational association of people interested in how social and technological developments are molding the future. Based in Bethesda, it was founded in 1966 and has more than 25,000 members from more than 80 countries, including sociologists, scientists, corporate planners, educators and students.

Mack, who heads up a staff of about a dozen, said the WFS serves as a clearinghouse for ideas about the future. These ideas in-clude forecasts, recommendations and alternative scenarios that help people anticipate what may happen in the next five, 10, or more years ahead. According to WFS, “When people can visualize a better future, then they can begin to create it.”

So what do we have to look forward to — or not — in the immediate future? WFS publishes an annual roundup of thought-provoking ideas about the future covering trends in business, education, technology, values and world affairs. This fall’s outlook for 2009 and beyond includes many striking — and surprising — forecasts:

• China will most likely become the world’s largest economy within three decades. • Search engines will become humanlike by 2050. • Access to electricity will reach 83 percent of the world’s people by 2030, up from 73 percent in 2000. • Architects will harness energy from the movement of crowds. • The desalination industry will expand greatly. • The race for biomedical and genetic enhancement will be, for the 21st century, what the space race was for the mid-20th century. • People will increasingly have more friends whom they’ll never meet and cyber-friends may outnumber real-life friends. • The Internet will become more factually reliable and transparent. • Flying cars may be on the way — at last. • The Middle East may become more secular. • And militaries will use neuroscience breakthroughs to win future wars.

How much of this will actually come true? Looking back to the 2008 outlook, WFS predicted certain patterns that are undeniably making headlines, including:

• The threat of another cold war with China, Russia, or both could replace terrorism as the chief foreign policy concern of the United States. • Rising prices for natural resources could lead to a full-scale rush to develop the Arctic. • Water will be in the 21st century what oil was in the 20th century. • The number of Africans imperiled by floods will grow 70-fold by 2080. • And the Earth is on the verge of a significant extinction event. (Interestingly, a major international survey published in the journal Science in early October showed that a quarter of the world’s wild mammal species are at risk of extinction.)

Those predictions are just a sampling of WFS’s eclectic repertoire. Others range from the domestic — a rise in disabled Ameri-cans straining transportation systems — to the international — global warming-related disasters costing the world 0 billion per year.

By studying and sounding the alarm about these future patterns, Mack says people can make wiser decisions today. He calls futurism both a discipline for specialists and a cast of mind that can be cultivated by those in any profession. As an academic discipline, futurism has its own language, analytical concepts and literature — which can be massive, arcane and mostly inac-cessible to non-specialists.

But Mack insists that most people can develop a future-oriented approach to the world, noting that many futurists are amateurs who share a passion for ideas and a desire to look over the horizon to see what is going on in the world.

“Futurists anticipate, forecast and assess future events by using a variety of rational, empirical and scientific techniques. These methods are largely refinements of the commonsense techniques that people use in everyday life,” he said.

“There are numerous people who are very efficient in thinking through where their discipline is going, how they should address things that their predecessors or competitors haven’t been thinking about. As far as I’m concerned that’s good futurism. I’ve tried to do outreach to those who don’t think of themselves as being part of our community, but who can use our tools.”

According to Mack, these tools include scanning, which is based on a systematic survey of current newspapers, magazines, Web sites and other media for indications of changes likely to have future importance. Other tools used by futurists include trend analysis, monitoring and projection, scenario development and analysis, models, simulations, historical analysis, brainstorming and visioning

For their most sophisticated work, futurists use complex software programs and data management tools to assess the future. But Mack said most people — not computers — have the basic skills needed to think about future trends.

“It’s most important to have common sense and insatiable curiosity about things that others are not looking at. It’s important to be proactive, inquisitive and knowledgeable about the range of possibilities,” he said.

“Foresight is of real value. It gives you a chance to think through things, not on the spot, under hysterical pressure, but a little more systematically, and to really weigh your options rather than just seize the ones that seem to be the most viable at the mo-ment,” he added. “Thinking about the future can allow you to move nimbly in different directions as a situation requires.”

When asked how average people can develop a more future-oriented perspective, Mack says people should study the movement much like they would any other scientific field. In addition to reading future-oriented publications such as The Futurist or others, he recommends people read deeply and systematically in their own line of work, making a point to study where trends in that field are going. It is also often helpful to explore other disciplines, as insights garnered in new fields often have a broader applicability.

For instance, the latest issue of The Futurist magazine talks about how people today are living well past the age of 100, using gerontology research to uncover the secrets of longevity and predict who will become a super-centenarians (those who live beyond 110). Not surprisingly, the magazine also predicts troubled times ahead on the political front, linking together international developments such as global warming, strained oil supplies and unstable financial systems to paint an unsettling vision of the next four years, with advice on how to overcome these global obstacles.

But WFS also tries to predict trends in a variety of industries, from videogames that help with dyslexia to synthetic alternative fuels for U.S. Air Force fighter planes.

As part of his work as president of WFS, Mack travels extensively overseas and gives presentations about long-term trends, as well sector-specific talks such as the future of tourism, conventions, engineering and libraries.

He is currently working on a team for the government of Singapore studying how a nation’s security is affected by developments in technology, the environment and economics. He also worked in South Korea examining how technology impacts national culture.

For Mack, every day spent thinking about the future is interesting and often surprising. And the challenge of peering into the unknown is always stimulating.

“Our business is not products, but ideas and information. It’s like going to graduate school for the rest of your life. Only you don’t have to pay tuition.”

About the Author

John Shaw is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on July 9, 2014