How to think like a futurist

The key is to look beyond trends, which typically don't last

The Museum of The Future was inaugurated Dubai on Tuesday. EPA
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After Tuesday's much-anticipated inauguration of the Museum of the Future in Dubai, now is as good a time as any to reflect on what life could look like years, maybe even decades, from now.

Would you, for instance, build your next house using novel bricks, paints and materials that help absorb and remove carbon from the atmosphere? Do you expect to receive your electricity from a fusion device that runs at 100 million degrees – hotter than the sun? Would you feel comfortable having your child or relative undergo some form of gene editing if it was under the control of a global charter? These are a few of the 50 opportunities we explore in a recent report by the Dubai Future Foundation, downloadable from our website.

The report aims to shed some light and promote thinking about the opportunities that lie ahead if the world is to become a better place. And, importantly, we believe that there is every chance for the world to be increasingly equal, inclusive and prosperous. We are not turning a blind eye to the challenges that are so present. We are also not cherry-picking opportunities for Dubai; this is a global outlook on opportunities.

We can't assume the future would be like the present only with additional sprinkling of cool new tech

The period spanning December to February is annually flooded with reports, each one of which hopes to shed some light on the trends that will matter and inform the coming months. As I have written before, by describing a trend we are making a sort of prediction about the imminent future. For example, avatars and VR headsets will matter as the metaverse becomes a thing. OK. The public will make purchase-decisions based on the green credentials of the company they buy from. Fine. Consumers will want to feel more in control. Well, of course.

Yet, in the coming 12 months, some new knowledge may come along that could reverse all these trends and we will be told how to respond in the next trends report. That’s just it: many of the reports are about consuming trends before us. In addition, these trends are all too often isolated data points or descriptions, and not enough thought is given to what that trend actually means. For instance, if a trend says that more people will spend their money on environmentally conscious brands, does it mean that the environment will improve? Is it just a gimmick that will lure customers? What happens to companies that are not so good at communicating these trends? Does the solution to climate change hinge on my purchase of the right food/flight/shoes/pens/perfume/car/cat food?

Reports that highlight trends frequently assume that people are passive. Reports focused on opportunities, on the other hands, are about being proactive, taking decisions and actions on ideas that do not yet exist, but which have the power to transform the world as we know it. Opportunities are the stuff that matters in a constantly changing world.

Looking out into the distant horizon, we cannot assume that the future would be like the present only with additional sprinkling of cool new technology. To prove the point, today we are not like 18th-century folks with smart phones. That's because so much has changed in society, in economics and in every aspect of our collective and global lives.

The 50 opportunities we list out in our report matter because they are consistent with enabling a future that has growth, prosperity and well-being at the core. This is a departure for someone like me who has for two decades developed scenarios that describe a range of possible futures. And so, a very positive vision is a necessary departure. Similar to “moonshots”, these opportunities propose highly ambitious outcomes that hinge on interventions that do not yet exist. New ways of operating and thinking are, therefore, needed to reach them. The opportunities are as much about the desirable future as they are about revamping stale habits.

One of my favourite opportunities is something called the "climate visa" – a globally recognised permit for people in climate-stressed regions to legally migrate. In a sense, Dubai has been on the forefront by being home to people from more than 190 countries, and with a similar – and very recent – concept: the remote working visa, which meets the different needs of people working in other countries. Clearly, a changing planet will encourage people to move; so, making this feasible and organised is critical. It’s also not something that can be achieved overnight, therefore leveraging existing experience will help.

Another favourite is "GDP 2.0" – a need to re-think how economic performance and growth are measured. This is not a new debate but its urgency is renewed; it’s about understanding the value, but crucially also the cost of economic activity. This includes, of course, environmental and social costs, which to a large extent have been “silent” victims of the economic growth processes of the past several hundred years. The term GDP, or Gross Domestic Product, was first coined in 1937, and the time is ripe to develop a measure that includes the creation of “soft” capital such as caregiving, and other social and well-being impacts.

There are other ideas, such as "rights for robots", "the end of data as a currency", "unlimited energy". In other words, there is something ambitious for everyone to sink their teeth and enthusiasm into.

So, you see, great strides forward are made by defining our future and the opportunities this presents – more than knowledge about what colour consumers might pick for their environmentally friendly faux-fur mittens next winter.

Published: February 23, 2022, 4:00 AM
Updated: June 23, 2022, 11:24 AM