Advice from a No-Nonsense Futurist: Challenge Your Predictions!

Read My Lips. No. New. Taxes

It was 1988, and the convention hall was packed. The crowd was clapping and cheering and getting all amped-up, and there he was… George Bush. He was happy to become the Republican candidate for the Presidential elections and, he promised, cross his heart: “No new taxes.”

Here’s the vid; Bush says his famous words at 55:08 minutes in.

But of course, he upended his own prediction, raised taxes, and it came back to bite him.

It was 1992, and I was stationed in Washington DC to introduce Dutch journalists and parliamentarians to the Democratic candidate Bill Clinton. We followed Clinton on his campaign trail and visited the democratic convention. And all the while, the Clinton team told the people that Clinton’s state had the second-lowest tax: “You don’t have to read his lips; read his record.” The journalists and parliamentarians sniggered and were merry.

We’ve all sniggered about inaccurate predictions about our future. There are a few of them floating around the Internet. Like IBM’s CEO Watson supposedly said:

“I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.”

Granted: it was 1943. What did we know back then about personal computers?

Whatever the circumstances, Watson has my sympathy. Because it’s very tempting to predict. I know.

My Worst Prediction as a Futurist

Around twenty years ago, when I started out as a Futurist, I was so in love with my research. I had (still do) this ever-expanding database of signals of emerging market disruption. Cool.

Signals made it into the database if they complied with specific characteristics. For instance:

  • The new concept must be easy and cheap to manufacture
  • The business model must be easily scalable
  • There should be a fit into existing distribution systems
  • And it must really fulfill a (latent) need

At the time (2001), telepresence was up and coming. And I predicted telepresence-induced disruption. I know you don’t know what telepresence is exactly… the prediction failed, remember.

Telepresence was a mobile robot consisting of wheels, a pole, and a monitor. You could sit behind your PC and have a robot with your face on walk around the office. Or a conference hall, or where ever rentable telepresence was available. For an example, click here.

Today, we would probably call it Skype on Wheels.

At first, a single telepresence robot would set you back $ 15,000. Six years later, its price had fallen to $ 250. Video’s circled YouTube about how to make your own.

It would seriously disrupt video calling, video conferencing, and business travel, I would say in lectures and speeches.

I used telepresence sales figures and other data about, for instance, terrorism and climate change, to make it plausible that it would get big, real soon. People would become afraid to travel or have “flight-shame” over the polluting effects of travel. Thus, I reasoned, demand for alternative ways to -sort of- meet in person would increase.

I even had a cute video of a child (0:40 minutes in) connecting to its grandparents on the other side of the world using such a robot. And every audience would go “Awwww” when they saw it and be convinced.

But telepresence did not make it, let alone disrupt anything.

Why is that my worst prediction, you ask?

Because I never thought to challenge the prediction itself, nor the business of predicting altogether. Luckily for me, I fell flat on my face with this one. Nobody got hurt except my ego. But can you imagine what would happen if would have assured the complete travel and conference industries to invest in an army of telepresence robots at their destinations and venues? And if they would have followed my advice at the start of the century? They would have gone broke, because — only a couple of years later — their customers would have just used their brand-new iPhone to FaceTime.

It Gets Even Worse

Futurists are often asked to make a prediction. Journalists, strategists, policymakers, everybody wants to know THE future of ___. And they think that you can deliver.

That’s very flattering and even harder to resist. Also, it’s sort of awkward to explain your invoice if you’re asked to make a statement about the future when you say you can’t. So many of succumb to the pressure and predict.

However, the value of a futurist is different from a trendwatcher’s. It’s not to point out the trends. It’s to extrapolate on trends and trend breaches and develop multiple possible futures. Which will probably all be wrong!

Multiple futures teach decision-makers to find strategies and policies to survive and thrive despite disruption. It flexes their thinking and planning. It opens their eyes to change and helps them to respond in time.

So, futurists are not in the business of predicting the one future. They’re in the business of multiple, mutually exclusive futures, which will never become a reality.

In the meantime, futurists have a compassionate laugh with the colleagues who did succumb. Check out “Cracked” 26 hilarious inaccurate predictions to laugh with us.

The Future is Not Linear

Our world is a complex system of interacting trends. We cannot see all the trends. Some are hidden from view, others we ignore. We don’t know every relationship between trends. Nor how trends and their relationships will develop over time.

So, there you go. Never forget that even the weather forecast is wrong most of the time. The forecast is based on millions of data and looks only a couple of days ahead. Don’t overestimate your insights. Instead, explore multiple futures to become a resilient decision-maker!

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