Failing to predict the future

| 1 Comment

Nicolas Nova has an interesting presentation called ‘Inflated deflated future(s) or… why futurists fail to predict futures’ which he delivered at Design Engaged 2008:

It’s well worth enlarging and reading along with the tiny notes as it covers some valuable points. There are several things I’d quibble with though, quite aside from the fact that, as I was taught, futurists never claim to predict the future.

He seems to suggest that if a company tried to market a new kind of device — videophones, internet fridges, smart watches — and it failed to take off, then that “prediction” of success was a failure. Sure, if the prediction was precise enough to say “videophones will be widely used by 2008”, then it was a failure. But he seems to be saying that these predictions were failures simply because the devices haven’t caught on yet. I’d suggest that all of these could catch on in the future and merely haven’t found their ideal forms, uses, price points, etc so far.

He has a slide listing “common characteristics shared by ‘failed futures’”. Without seeing the live presentation I’m reading it somewhat out of context but it sounds like the things he’s criticising are the over-optimistic attempts at marketing particular devices. This is very different from (a) the people who invented the devices or (b) futurists who might more objectively predict their success or failure. Marketers are by their nature over optimistic and convinced that their project is unique.

He suggests that interactions between trends are often ignored and unexpected developments are often unforeseen. This slide is referring to futurists (“such as John Naisbitt and Alvin Toffler”), which is a very different group of people to the marketers who try to sell us new kinds of devices. Is he just saying here that people who make simplistic predictions are often wrong? Because, in my limited experience, people creating scenarios (who are perhaps another group again) often look specifically at the interactions between different trends.

Finally, there are some slides about the design mistake of making things more “natural”. It’s true, as he says, that what is natural behaviour now hasn’t always been natural. But these slides seem to confuse very different things, linked only by different meanings of the word “natural”: Creating anthropomorphic helper characters in software; Creating increasingly realistic environments in computer games; And working out what human behaviours appear, or could appear, second nature. It seems odd to me to link these ideas together but I’m possibly missing out on some context that was provided by the live talk.

I fear I’m sounding super critical, whereas I’m possibly just trying to clear up some ambiguity in an uploaded presentation. There are several good, and unambigious, points in there too and I wish I’d seen the talk itself. (Via Chris Heathcote.)

Related entries

1 Comment

Thanks for the critical comments, always good to improve the arguments (I am going to refine the talk for other events). But it's true that the notes do no convey everything and lacks transitions as it may be abrupt to jump from one slide to another.

Perhaps I should few bits like in the next iteration:
- who are the persons I refer to as "futurists": real futurists, marketing people, designers, etc.
- what is a failure: a product that was not adopted, a failed prediction, etc.
- what is a "future": an endpoint? a product (what Chris referred to as "iteration")? an idea?

Perhaps the mistake I often see is the confusion between the "possibles futures" described by foresight researchers and what you call "over-optimistic attempts at marketing particular devices". When I read Gartner reports that say the same things every year, only pushing the dates further towards a proximal future, I feel the foresight people from that group is not making a very good job.

Recent Entries

Bye for now
I’m going to stop posting things here. When I started up again a few months ago I had a fair… More…
Master of Design in Strategic Foresight and Innovation
I’m not clear whether this is new or not but, via the Futures weblog, the Ontario College of Art and… More…
Wrong Tomorrow
It’s getting linked to from many places today but that’s no reason not to mention it here… Wrong Tomorrow is… More…
ETech 09: The Real Time City
Andrea Vaccari, from Senseable City Lab, MIT, late on Wednesday aftenroon at ETech 09.… More…