This is how a futurist copes with uncertainty

This current moment is all about preparing, not predicting, Future Today Institute founder says

A metropolitan municipality worker wearing a hazmat suit sprays disinfectant onto a taxi window in Istanbul, Turkey, on Saturday, March 14, 2020. Turkey confirmed three more coronavirus cases, taking its total to five. The country also announced it was suspending flights to several European countries to attempt to curb the outbreak. Photographer: Kerem Uzel/Bloomberg
Powered by automated translation

Let’s get one thing out of the way: futurists do not predict the future. They can, however, help you plan for it.

Amy Webb, a quantitative futurist and the founder and chief executive of the Future Today Institute, told The National that her work is all about "preparation, not prediction" — and preparing is now more important than ever.

The Future Today Institute is a US foresight and management consulting firm that advises the leadership of the Fortune 500, Global 1000 and government agencies to prepare for complex futures that are increasingly shaped by new technology and breakthroughs in science.

“I know it seems like the world has been turned upside down with a soul-crushing amount of uncertainty. It feels like there is just no point in planning for the future,” Ms Webb said. “I know this seems like a paradox, but in times of crushing uncertainty like we are living through right now, you have to plan for the future more aggressively and diligently than you would have otherwise.”

So how do you cope with uncertainty like a futurist?

“It’s not like we sit around making a lot of guesses and speculating,” Ms Webb said. She recommended a common futurist framework called the axes of uncertainty.

First, make an exhaustive list of uncertainties that are happening externally. These are changes in which you typically have no direct control, Ms Webb said. External uncertainties are things like economic trends, regulation, how people are communicating and climate change.

Next, make a list of internal uncertainties — you will find these are things you have more control over. In a company, this could be things like workforce development, coming up with new products and investments. If you’re using this tool for personal reasons, list some things over which you have control and you’re curious about exploring further. Examples include traveling, pursuing higher education or even what time you wake up in the morning.

Now you will start to come up with plausible outcomes based on the uncertainties you’ve listed. Take both lists and connect two uncertainties that normally wouldn’t go together.

Next write a headline for what the future would look like if both of those uncertainties were to happen at the same time, along with a sentence or two describing it.

It will look something like this:

Covid-19 diagram. Courtesy Future Today Institute
via Amy Webb

Now that you’ve identified “plausible future states”, as Ms Webb called them, label each either a near-term opportunity or near-term risk, or a long-term risk or long-term opportunity, or an existential risk. "We’re looking for risk early so we can mitigate it — and better, turn that risk into opportunity."

Action can be simple and look a lot like normal work: "if you've revealed a potential opportunity, do some more research and explore the idea in more depth. If you've revealed a possible threat, talk to your colleagues and continue to build out your scenario, allowing yourselves to take it to extremes. Getting in the habit of taking incremental actions and making small bets is a good way to deal with a future that's in flux", Ms Webb wrote in a blog post outlining the steps.

This exercise allows you to “lean into uncertainty without anxiety or fear”, Ms Webb said. “The point is to imagine the unimaginable for the purpose of seeing that existential risk in advance. If you can see that risk in advance you can either mitigate it or turn it into opportunity.”

Just a few days after the World Health Organisation declared Covid-19 a pandemic, the Future Today Institute released its thirteenth annual Tech Trends Report.

The report highlights first the role of artificial intelligence, and advises readers to “act now” as its influence is all but guaranteed - and the institute very much still stands by that even amid rising uncertainty.

AI represents the third era of computing, one that could usher in a new period of productivity and prosperity for all, including in diagnostics, according to the report.

“There were already trends in play and if anything, the advent of this pandemic is going to lead to huge and very likely inflection points across different sectors. We are going to see a rush for investment and R&D and some discovery in artificial intelligence as we try to get AI to speed up scientific research and discovery,” Ms Webb said.

She also said there will likely be rapid advancements in 3D printing.

3-D-printed valves. Courtesy Isinnova
3-D-printed valves. Courtesy Isinnova

“A lot of people had written off 3-D printing as a toy, or maybe not having a lot of use cases outside of certain industrial sectors or design.”

But recent examples, like a self-organised group of scientists and designers on Facebook who developed an open source mask that could be 3-D printed and another group that designed a key component of a ventilator in Italy, show how important 3-D printing could be.

Prior to the global response to the coronavirus, tech giants like Facebook and Google were squaring off in courts in the US and EU over issues of antitrust behaviour.

That is the biggest trend of them all, according to Ms Webb, amid Covid-19 there is a massive opportunity for a new trust economy to take shape. “We have for years been looking at antitrust and policy uncertainty around surveillance, data privacy and data ownership.”

But the Future Today Institute finds “we will soon see a host of new tools built to engender and ensure—but also manipulate—our trust”.

“In the coming year, sentinel surveillance systems will algorithmically detect manipulated content—for a fee. Meanwhile, governments and interest groups around the world will try to shape the future development of AI and blockchain technology, proposing legislation and 'bill of rights' manifestos.”

Two things have already happened that will expedite this new world order: China’s use of citizens’ data, drones and infrared cameras to detect whether people were sick and to keep them away from each other, and other countries’ copy-cat response to help contain their own public health crises.

And in the US, Google’s emerging role as the platform of choice for the federal government to manage potential Covid-19 cases.

Verily, Google’s health-tech sister company, includes a screening survey to gather information on a person’s age, location and symptoms and directs qualifying respondents to free, drive-through testing locations. It is initially being rolled out to two California counties.

The current website has users sign up or log in with Google to start the survey.

“There’s nothing on the website that says why you have to sign in with Google. People are freaked out by that,” Ms Webb said.

But if the company can explain why it is asking you to sign in with a Google account, exactly what’s going to happen with your data and why, then there is opportunity to build trust.

“What would it take for Big Tech companies mining, refining and harnessing their data for the public good? What would it take?” Ms Webb asked.

She answers her own question: “It would take things that are not insurmountable: explainability, transparency, traceability. One of the trends that we were already covering is we think the new trust economy is in the process of being born. Now would be a good time to ramp some of that up.”

The full report can be found on the Future Today Institute website.