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It’s 2020 — here comes the future

As someone who works in the field of scenario planning, I find that every end of year brings no shortage of amusement and more than a little dose of humility. This is because this is the season for us working in the field to review forecasts and predictions made 12 months earlier, and see how hilariously and hideously we got them mostly wrong.

It’s 2020 — here comes the future

The first-ever set of national scenarios that the Singapore Government crafted more than two decades ago used the year 2020 to imagine the nation’s future.

As someone who works in the field of scenario planning, I find that every end of year brings no shortage of amusement and more than a little dose of humility. This is because this is the season for us working in the field to review forecasts and predictions made 12 months earlier, and see how hilariously and hideously we got them mostly wrong. 

In a matter of days, we will welcome 2020, marking not only the end of a year, but also an eventful decade. 

More than that, 2020 is one of those time horizons that Generation Xers like myself thought would always be distant and mythical enough that it could be the basis for long-term scenarios. 

Indeed, the first-ever set of national scenarios that the Singapore Government crafted more than two decades ago used the year 2020 to imagine the nation’s future. But more on that later.

Growing up, I always thought of “the future” as 2020. But now, here 2020 comes.

Poring over past reports by think tanks, pundits, experts and so forth, I notice that many of them have “2020” in their titles — ranging from utopian forecasts of permanent bases on the Moon for human settlements (this gem by the Rand Corporation in 1969) to dire warnings of catastrophes of kinds, for instance population, food shortages and so on.

Why do we not only persist in producing such predictions, but more importantly, lap them up?

The writer Daniel Gardner, in “Future Babble: Why expert predictions fail — and why we believe them anyway”, suggests that it is human nature to want to know the future. 

What is more, there is an innate desire in us to try to reduce uncertainty. Alas, the world is a complex place — and the complexity is increasing — and the simplistic and simplifying narratives of the experts which we imbibe do nothing to help us see into the unknown. 

If anything, they create a false sense of security and precision.

As Mr Gardner puts it pithily: “Fundamentally, we believe because we want to believe.” And because of that, we make all sorts of excuses for when predictions fail. 

A good example comes from the late stand-up comic George Carlin, who pointed out that a near-miss is really...a hit. One of the standard excuses we hear from experts is: “I was almost right.” Which essentially means you were wrong, and therefore of no consolation or use whatsoever.

Another example is how growth forecasts are constantly revised with the terse phrase “better than expected”. Once you unpack this phrase, you realise that this forecast superseded a previous one, and that there is no guarantee that this latest forecast might not itself turn out to be wrong and have to be superseded by a “better” forecast.

Given how we cannot help but think about the future, and also given the embarrassing futility of forecasts, and of trying to “get it right”, how then should we carry out the enterprise of strategic foresight? How should we use scenarios of the future?

I would suggest the scenarios, the stories we write about possible future states of the world, be used as learning spaces, for us to better know ourselves in the present. 

The stories we write about how the world might look like in the distant future, in a sense, teach us about our present hopes and fears, our values and our blind-spots. 

Instead of trying to “get it right”, we can use scenarios to ask ourselves: “What if we’re wrong?” Wrong about our present assumptions, our conventional wisdom, and our current policies. It is as T S Elliot put it,

“We shall not cease from exploration,

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started 

And know the place for the first time”

To think about the future, in a sense, is to learn about ourselves in the now.

An example of this more fruitful learning approach can be found closer to home to those national scenarios that the Singapore Government developed in the mid-1990s using the newly-adopted Shell scenario planning methodology.

Two of the scenarios were made public, or at least some elements of them: “Hotel Singapore” and “Home Divided”. 

Deliberately positioned not as forecasts, the scenarios instead served as cautionary tales, opening up the Government’s mindset to considering the broader and possible unpalatable consequences of its economic policies and global city strategies of the 1990s. 

More importantly, the scenario planners started asking these questions at a time of great optimism and prosperity, both in Singapore and in the region (recall that this was before the Asian Financial Crisis). 

It is a testament to that team of futurists’ courage to ask the inconvenient “what if we’re wrong” questions at a time when it seemed to be smooth sailing ahead.

The titles of the scenarios alone are instructive. The “Home Divided” scenario warned of widening income gaps and emerging cleavages along not just ethnic lines but socio-cultural and ideological ones, despite overall prosperity.

And the “Hotel Singapore” scenario highlighted the possible unintended consequences of its “global city” strategy, where the flipside of openness, flows, and speed were the loss of rootedness, the displacement of solidarity by transactionalism, and the growing contestation over the Singaporean identity.

Are we “Hotel Singapore” and/or a “Home Divided” now, as imagined in the mid-1990s? 

Did we do enough to pre-empt and mitigate the excesses described in those two scenarios? Did the courage to imagine differently translate into the courage to act and to change course where needed? 

So while those two scenarios were never meant to be predictive, but for learning purposes, we can't help asking if maybe they came "true". Perhaps we succeeded in staving off those two dystopias? 

Well, whatever tentative answers we have had all this while, we are about to find out for sure, because we are all about to check into 2020.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Dr Adrian W J Kuah is Director, Futures Office, National University of Singapore. This is his personal comment.

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