Predicting the future without a crystal ball

With technology rapidly changing, making accurate predictions – and successful long-term investments – is increasingly hard. But, as Ben Hammersley explains, it is by no means impossible

As someone who has been working for more than a decade with companies and governments to help them understand and prepare for what lies ahead, Ben Hammersley, a futurist and editor-at-large at Wired magazine, is well placed to advise on how to approach long-term infrastructure investment.

We publish edited extracts from what Hammersley (pictured above) told delegates at our recent Global Summit in Berlin.

Exponential growth

Hammersley began by discussing Moore’s Law – the principle that every year, the amount of computing power you can get for the same amount of money roughly doubles. The principle is often invoked in a range of technological fields.

“For a futurist, or somebody who has to make strategic decisions, it creates a big problem. Exponential growth – that doubling and doubling of capability – is difficult for us to conceptualise. We’re bad at dealing with doubling numbers, which means our forecast horizon –  how far in advance we can think and still be relatively sensible – has shrunk considerably.

“Futurism and scenario planning was invented in the 1960s by the Rand Corporation in Santa Monica. At first, it was about nuclear weapons. Their forecast horizon was 25 years, and 25 years was pretty sensible. Today, mostly because of modern technology, a sensible horizon for any form of prediction is roughly three to five years. If anybody comes to you with a solid forecast about how the world will be in more than five years – about anything other than climate – they are bullshitting. Technology and all the things around it interact with culture and society in ways that feed off each other. And so, as futurists we have to deal with this interdependent co-arising of change. Technology and society and culture change each other and, in doing so, lay the ground for the next series of changes.

“So, as you’re trying to make investments in infrastructure, which is going to last a long time, thinking about what the world will be like halfway along the lifespan of that asset is tricky. But there are some ways in which you can do it.”

New technology creates new needs

Hammersley noted how a few years ago, so-called hoverboards became very popular for kids around Christmas, and the technology became cheap enough that knock-offs started pouring out of Chinese factories. Fast forward a few years, and similar technologies have evolved to make dock-less scooters a major fixture in some cities.

“This technology is something that is happening right now and is fundamentally changing infrastructure-related questions in the cities where it’s being introduced. As it gets increasingly popular and more people use it for their daily commute, it changes the decisions that people have to make around roads and parking and shopping centres, and all those sorts of human behaviours.

“We can go from the Christmas present that you wanted a few years ago and extrapolate forward, and say ‘well, that technology is rubbish’. But when it gets good – and it will, because that exponential growth curve continues to grow – then we’re going to have something like this. And when this arrives it’s going to start changing the way that cities operate. And when that changes the way cities operate, it’s going to change the needs of that society, because technology and society and culture feed off each other. But, of course, this technology is not standing still.”

Cool today, useful tomorrow

Another example Hammersley cited was the Segway Loomo – a personal transportation device that uses cameras and artificial intelligence. When he walks his daughter to school, the device is able to recognise and follow him as it carries her along.

“Now that’s pretty cool. But what’s really useful about Loomo is that I can take it out myself, go shopping and then load my shopping on to the Loomo and it will follow me home. That’s pretty cool in 2019. But if you extrapolate forward, as you’re learning to do as futurists, you’ll realise that this is a very cool piece of technology, for example, in an ageing population. Because older people who would still like to be independent, and who have to go to the shops to buy food but can’t carry the food home, could have a robot which could do that for them and follow behind them like a sort of grocery-carrying dog.

“This technology is available today and your job, as a futurist, is to look at these technologies out on the streets around the world and think forward. Think of the implications in two, five and 25 years’ time. In two years’ time, the implication will be that it will be a cool thing that I might want to buy.

“In five years’ time it might be that’ll be a cool thing I might want to buy for my ageing parents and I’m going to have to make sure that their front door doesn’t have a step. So, we have to change like that.

“But in 25 years’ time – as that technology becomes trivial, as it becomes super cheap and super common – people who run shopping malls or airports, where you’re going to have luggage which follows behind you automatically, are going to have to make sure their shopping malls and airports don’t have any steps. So there are these deeper implications.”

Cognitive-enhancing infrastructure

Hammersley cited recent research which found that having people in closed meeting rooms with no windows for extended periods raised levels of carbon dioxide to the point that they started to inhibit cognitive function and decision-making ability.

“This explains a tonne of things and, as that knowledge spreads, you’re going to look for office space where you can open the window or at least get fresh air in. And you’re going to want sunshine, because we’re realising sunshine is incredibly important, as well as other things people are realising are incredibly important, in order to protect the ability to think clearly, to indulge people’s lifestyle concerns and generational climate concerns as well.

“And so, right now, if you’re investing in buildings which are going to be there for 20 or 30 or 40 years, you have to think not only of the tenants today, but the tenants in 20 years’ time. And what’s going to be important to them are things like how do they think clearly when working alongside artificial intelligences.

“At that point, in 20 years’ time, people will realise that some of the things which are celebrated today are actively hindering them. So, environmentally sealed buildings make you stupid, open-plan offices make you stupid. The environmental psychology of the open-plan office is terrible for innovative thinking. We’re realising this now, which means that if you’re investing in a building which can only be made into open-plan offices, in a few years’ time you might have trouble getting tenants as society changes and the knowledge of this becomes more common.

“We see the same thing for climate and carbon and all these other things. Right now these are small signals but, as they get bigger, they will impact things that you’re into.

“I’m not saying things have to be perfect, but you have to make the stuff you’re investing in adaptive. This brings us to the real problem: how do you make sensible decisions that will enable you to be adaptive?

“As I said at the beginning, your forecast horizon is actually very short. I said I work as a futurist, but I call myself a presentist. Outside in the streets in Berlin, it’s 2019. But inside, in the corporate headquarters, it’s 1973. Most of you probably work in companies that don’t live in the present day. If your boss has their emails printed out for them by their secretary, for example, they live in 1998. And that’s cool, but we have to deal with that.

“If you have a fax machine, you might as well have a pigeon as well. So really, the only way for you to be able to adapt to the future is actually to get yourself right up to the present and then stay in the present all the time.”

The grandparent game

This is an exercise Hammersley recommends to help people envision what the future might look like.

“This is a really good game to play this evening over dinner. You’ll probably all agree that, to a greater or lesser extent, your grandparents, and certainly your great-grandparents, had social or political views which you today find abhorrent. Chances are your great-grandmother was mad racist, for example.

“And you know family dinners are sometimes a bit awkward because of this. If you want to think clearly about the way society is changing – which you have to do, because you’re making these long-term investments – then the game to play is to think ‘which of my beliefs will my grandchildren find completely abhorrent when I am 90 and running around on my AI-driven hoverboard and screaming at the toaster? What will my grandkids be embarrassed about?’

“And when you have this conversation tonight, you’ll find that actually most people will start to agree on the same few things, like eating meat to the levels that people do, owning your own car and having a petrol engine, the use of plastics and not understanding about the microbiome.

“This is actually a super easy way of cheating at futurism, because you just look at the things that you – in your heart of hearts – know your grandkids will think you’re mad for doing today. And you’ll just say, ‘OK, that’s going to be the norm in 20 years’ time’. It’s a very powerful sort of cognitive technique and it’s different from culture to culture.”