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Is it possible to predict what the future holds for technology, science and society over the next few decades? Futurologists think that we can – and their success rate is impressively accurate.

 

Human-carrying drones? Cities on Mars? Insect protein in the supermarket meat aisles instead of beef and ham? These might sound like scenarios dreamed up by inventive Hollywood script writers, but all are predictions made by the world’s leading futurologists – men and women who have made it their mission to foresee what the future holds for mankind.


Forget crystal-ball gazing and Mystic Meg-style sixth sense. Futurologists deal in cold, hard facts, using their expertise in areas such as technology, politics and climate science to anticipate upcoming developments. They work behind the scenes, advising businesses, politicians and social institutions on what to expect next in our rapidly changing world.

The key to the future

Futurology is less about iron-clad predictions and more about identifying upcoming trends. Imagine how organisations could have profited by anticipating the social-media craze or the drop off in high-street sales. Staying on top of the latest developments can mean the difference between success and failure for businesses, which is why many have turned to futurologists for inside knowledge.


“It has become a cliché to say that the world is changing faster now, but that doesn’t make it any less true,” says Tom Cheesewright, founder of applied futurism practice Book of the Future. “Technology has enabled us to make change more quickly and to spread change more widely. Change doesn’t have to be of society-shifting scale to completely undermine some people’s way of life – or destroy their business. That’s where I come in. I help organisations to see what’s coming and shift their business more quickly to adapt.”


It isn’t just businesses that need the help of futurologists. Graeme Codrington, founding director of strategic insight firm TomorrowToday, works with non-profit and educational organisations as well as corporations with the goal of helping key societal institutions to become future-proof. “We live at a time when disruptive and exponential change dominates our world,” he explains. “We’re living through an era shift in history and over the next decade or two we’re going to see significant shifts in how the world works. My goal is to help people prepare for this world by anticipating the changes coming our way and implementing strategies today that will keep them relevant and valuable in tomorrow’s world.”

Secrets of the trade

So how do future-gazers go about anticipating these changes? Tarot reading is out, according to Anton Musgrave, a senior partner at FutureWorld International. It’s all about research and collaboration.


“I examine and research many forces, large and small, that are building momentum and which both individually and collectively in combination could have significant impact on the world in the future,” he says. “Then I synthesise the core and most important impacts.”

The real key is knowledge. British futurologist, speaker and author James Bellini says that most people simply aren’t aware of just how advanced we already are. “Most audiences I present to are probably working with views about the present day that are many years out of date,” he says.

Can we really know the future?

Futurologists have a remarkably good record at predicting upcoming events and developments. Take civil engineer and futurist, Elfreth Watkins, who in 1900 published a list of ‘what may happen in the next 100 years’. His spot-on assertions included Americans being taller by one to two inches, express trains travelling at 150 miles per hour, ready-cooked meals being widely available and physicians having the ability to diagnose diseases through x-ray.   


Today’s futurologists can also point proudly to a backlog of correct predictions. Meet Jim Carroll, who has been predicting the emergence of various current trends since 1996. “I can go back to some of the books I wrote in the ‘90s and I was bang on,” he says. “I wrote one book, Surviving the Information Age, which predicted the rise of the next generation of entrepreneurs who have been unencumbered by the challenges the baby-boomers faced with early forms of computer technology. I also began talking about the impact, potential and role of the Internet of Things in various books I was writing from 1996, labelling it under the phrase ‘hyperconnectivity’.”


Other futurologists also point to impressive success in anticipating future trends. For instance, Codrington wrote a book called Mind Over Money in 2001 predicting that the world would face a major economic crisis between 2008 and 2010, while Cheesewright anticipated the rise of delivery drones.


That isn’t to say that the experts get it right all the time. According to Bellini, the entire futurist community occasionally misses major upcoming developments.


“In the very early 2000s, none of us saw the coming of social media on a truly revolutionary scale,” he says.

Here today, gone tomorrow

So which existing trends are here to stay and which are destined to become a footnote on the pages of history?


One of the biggest transformations, most futurologists agree, will occur in the jobs market. With intelligent machines encroaching on the roles of many recognised professions, us humans are set to lose much of our usefulness. As Musgrove says, “Jobs as we know them today will diminish and people will increasingly be engaged in projects for value.”

Roles that are particularly at threat, says Bellini, are drivers, accountants, telemarketers, estate agents and machinists, all of whom are soon set to be replaced by advanced technologies.


Other elements of our lives that we take for granted are also soon set to disappear for good. “We live in an era in which things that are part of our lives are becoming obsolete faster than ever before,” says Carroll. “Fax machines, CDs, 35mm film – all of these things disappear in real time. Project that trend forward and we’ll see the disappearance of a world in which we generate most of our energy from carbon or utilise an old concept called ‘cash’.”


One trend that currently dominates our lives but that many futurologists see vanishing in the near future is the screen. Cheesewright believes that screens may not become obsolete, but that they will be much less important in the future.


“Everything seems to have a screen or an app nowadays,” he says. “But it’s often the worst possible interface for what we want to do – a light switch is a much better way to control a lamp than a phone. New forms of haptic (touch) interaction, smart sensors and artificial intelligence will take away a lot of the need for screens and manual control of our technology. The replacement may not be another interface, it may be no interface at all. Your home, car or smart clothes will just know what you want.”

The next generation

Change is accelerating. In the next 25 to 50 years, we can expect to see social and technological changes that dwarf the digital revolution of the late 20th century. Futurologists anticipate human-carrying drones, breakthroughs in quantum computing with chatbots becoming all the rage, nanotechnology materials moving mainstream and advances in artificial intelligence which might even allow us to experiment with downloading consciousness.


All of this will have a major impact on our health and life expectancy. Codrington sees us using robotics and nanotechnology to redesign the human body and ultimately experiencing dramatic increases in longevity as cures for many major diseases are discovered.


Increased longevity will bring its own challenges. Musgrove warns that society could struggle to deal with a growing wealth divide and distrust in a technology-dominated world. Not all the changes confronting us over the next few decades will be positive. But there’s one thing the experts agree on: the future is sure to be fraught with excitement.