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How to Map the Future Together

April 23, 2021 by Twan van de Kerkhof

Business leaders love to feel that they control their future. Partly that is a good thing. “Longing to reduce uncertainty and doubt has driven much of our progress”, Margaret Heffernan writes. But they should realize that “the future is uncharted and life remains uncertain. (…) The only way to know the future is to make it. (…) An effective leader’s principal asset isn’t power but the ability to make a better future feel possible, practical and meaningful.” The central message in Heffernan’s book about mapping the future is that life is perhaps more complex than you wish for, so rather than working towards a defined outcome, dedicate your best efforts and talents to what you believe will contribute to a better future. Heffernan is a British professor, entrepreneur and author.

Societies, economies and organizations are complex systems (which is different from complicated), she writes. Characteristics of a complex system are that “they don’t repeat reliably and there is no stable narrative”. They are inherent unpredictable. Simplifying complex systems risks making them less effective. “Striving for efficiency and predictability kills off the robustness of the system. (…) You cannot manage the complexity, anomalies and flukes out of life.”

Budgets in companies and of governments are always built on forecasts, but according to Heffernan forecasts are always incomplete, ideological and self-interested. Incomplete because “models are always subjective and incomplete representations of complex reality. It’s easy to mistake the simulation for the real thing.” Remind yourself of this when parliament discusses an increase of purchasing power with 0.4 or 0.6 percent, which is fake precision. Heffernan adds that forecasters have their own agendas that influence their predictions and that they “gain bigger reputations and make more money by being bold. (…) We could and should treat predictions as hypotheses and ask better questions of ourselves: if there is vested interest, where does it lie? What’s at stake? What am I being sold? (…) There is no one person, process or prophet who gets it right every time.”

Heffernan also points at the pitfall of using the past as a guide to the future. “We create models of the future by recruiting our memories of the past.” But history can’t be a meaningful predictor of the future. There are no laws of history. “Believing that history will repeat itself led to blindness and blunder. The difficulty posed specifically by historical analogies is that they overweight parallels and leave us blind to crucial differences. We overweight continuity and narrative, while underweighting change and contingency.” It is an interesting question what this means for our future beyond Covid.

Heffernan is a great story-teller. She writes amongst others about the building of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, fighting AIDS and the transition of Nokia, weaving all of this into her central story of unpredictability.

She also writes about CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, one of the world’s largest and most respected centres for scientific research on elementary particles. CERN is what she calls a ‘cathedral project’: “destined to last longer than a human life-time, to adapt to changing tastes and technologies, to endure long into the future as symbols of faith and human imagination. These projects challenge to the utmost our capacity to imagine and adapt a future we can’t see or predict”. The scientists at CERN never know “what they will find (if anything), how long that will take, how much it will cost and how much value will be produced – all of this is uncertain, can’t be planned, predicted or forecast.” But some of their findings have changed the world, none more so than the internet. “Many insiders questioned the investment. Not a single commercial company expressed any interest. By the time he was done, CERN had invested twenty-eight man-years in the project and, in accordance with all its work, CERN released it free to the world.” CERN-projects require technology that hasn’t been invented yet, materials stretched beyond their known limits and collaborations with institutions and commercial corporations that may not have been identified. “Nobody could guarantee the value of work that had never been done before.”

Margaret Heffernan. How to Map the Future Together. Simon & Schuster, 2020