Futures Friday: Hope vs. Foresight

How optimism and data shape our views of tomorrow

OK, I know we are all tired of the subject, but let’s talk about Covid for a second. I have seen a lot of articles and books with titles like “What I Learned During Covid” and “Learning Through the Pandemic” that seem to have a very optimistic view of the current state of the pandemic (i.e., near the end and final days). That optimism is hope. We all hope that the pandemic is becoming manageable. However, recent data suggests that it is not likely to be entirely true. We have certainly managed to find ways of living with Covid (mostly), and it may be close to entering a new endemic stage where it is just another thing we deal with in our modern world.

I think it can be easy for all of us, myself at the top of the list, to replace foresight with hope. We really, really want it to be true. We are ready to move past this era in our collective lives and be able to look back, learn, heal, and move on.

However, if foresight teaches us anything, it is that what lies ahead does not simply bend to our wishes.

Being a futurist can be a tough gig. While most of us are optimists to varying degrees (we believe that we have agency over what lies ahead, to be able to create change for the better), we are often bring gloom to a room. No one wants to hear about how you can get reinfected with Covid, or about trends around Long Covid, or about any other of statistically troublesome trends around a pandemic that has figuratively (and literally) sucked the life out of so many of us.

When we speak at parties about all the cool tech heading our way, we are a hit, but when we talk about plausible problems that we must face head on, we often do not get invited back to those fun parties.

If we were a character in the hero’s journey, we certainly would not be the hero. I am not even sure we would be a Mentor or an Ally. We are in fact often the Herald — the one that gives the message of things to come, though we are often seen as the Guardian — the one blocking the hero. And what tools do we use to block the hero? Things like data, trends, analysis, and of course experience in looking at things holistically and systematically. Ya, so we can be a pretty big bummer sometimes.

I am one of those futurists who likes to live in hope. It stimulates. It generates creativity. It helps me inspire others. But when it comes to planning, strategy, and even tactical implementations, I cannot rely strictly on hope. We have the ability for critical thinking. To ignore that skill because hope is easier (and worrying sucks) can leave us shortsighted instead of foresighted.

Practicing foresight gives me (and my clients) an advantage, but it can be hard work. The actual professional foresight part is not the hard part. It is having the discipline to look beyond wishes and desires when we are worn and torn. It is having the capacity to face futures data and still hold on to hopes and dreams. It is creating a culture that allows for preferred futures while not ignoring or pushing aside other futures. That is hard for an individual and even harder for an organization.

So how do we do it? Well, we hold onto hope and optimism and do not give into fear — fear of what foresight might be telling us. Hope helps us create our preferred futures and have a goal to aim for. We can use foresight tools such as scenarios and backcasting to envision a path to our preferred world. That path though is mapped with foresight data.

Foresight and futures can seem ethereal, difficult to grasp, and even too speculative to outsiders, yet at its core it is a practical tool, an extension of data-driven decision making (DDDM). Using data to make better decisions is a common business practice, and that is what foresight does. It provides a wider and more holistic data set that includes quantitative and qualitative information.

JT Mudge is a professional futurist and data consultant. He is a member of the Association of Professional Futurists and writes and speaks about data and futures. He works as a Data Strategy Consultant at productOps.

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JT Mudge

JT Mudge

I am an innovator, storyteller, futurist, and problem solver. I have a passion for sustainability and social justice. https://www.linkedin.com/in/jtmudge/