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The economic crisis and the value of foresight

Question mark

No, you can’t answer the question, “When will the global economy recover?” That’s the purview of economists, and they don’t know either. The question is leaving people feeling stuck—they don’t know what is going to happen, and don’t know what to do.
 
In the midst of this massive economic crisis, even talented futurists cannot tell you with certainty when and in what ways the global economy will recover. But futures thinking can do a lot to help explain the cascading impacts of the crisis, and the potential changes we will see as the global economy settles down and resumes on a new track.
 
We need foresight, now more than ever. It’s the key to getting unstuck, to turning the question—“what will happen next?” to a statement, “here’s what we will make happen next”.
 
Some of our clients have asked us about near- and long-term trends in light of the current economic situation. They want to know which of the trends will endure the crisis, which could amplify, which might decline, and so on. Much of the thinking that helps answer those questions is about looking at which trends gain strength from the economic shocks, and which may be weakened.
 
The economic crisis will accelerate some trends, and slow others. What will be interesting and often tough, is when the downturn is the final straw for a system, sector, or business, and puts an end to things, perhaps sooner than they might have gone down. The economic strain will kill off some businesses and systems that might otherwise muddle through in good times. Examples are some print media, notably daily newspapers, behemoth cars like the Hummer and H2, and weak retailers like Linens ‘n’ Things and Circuit City.
 
But alongside decline and destruction, there are new motivations, new needs, new possibilities. For example, the economic crisis will raise interest in a number of things: barter, local production, car sharing, used goods markets, reuse/recycling, repair (shoe repair, e.g.), and, when not demanding investment and higher costs, green consumption overall.
 
This swirl of decline and opportunity is where there’s room to make new choices and carve out new, desired futures. We have options and new room to try new things.
 
The tools and skills of foresight can help us explore those options. We can game out scenarios of our future, and open up new thinking about innovations, new business models, potential changes in operations, products lines, and so on. In fact, now is a good time to do those things—so much is in question, and so much is likely to have change forced on it, that we can pick up the old saying “In crisis we find opportunity” and make the challenges we face a tool of positive change. That opportunity demands our best creative, futures thinking. We need to envision, believe in, and build what’s next.
 
 Image: The Ninja Monkey, via Flickr, cc license
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{ 1 comment… add one }
  • Garry G April 1, 2009, 3:28 pm

    I’m finding this ‘crisis’ to be ripe for pitching the value of foresight. Feel like a sunglasses sales rep targeting deer blinded by headlights. And I’m trying my best to deflect the ‘which trends’ question – and selling the core to futures thinking.

    Clients – need a restart button- and I’m trying to sell the value of identifying their assumptions, understanding the nature of change, eras and discontinuities, et al. It seems a rare time when slightly academic activities are accepted. So I’m mildly optimistic that foresight could benefit from this transition period.

    Glad to see you asking what things might be slowed / accelerated by impact of this transition. Agreed that durables could rise et al…But my out loud question is — what about globalization? When the ‘economic engine’ starts up again (assuming no collapse scenario) — what’s the speed of change? Are China, India and Brazil likely to emerge stronger in terms of human talent? Resource control? Is this ‘event’ a trigger for a new era of geo relations?

    I think the space to play intellectually is geopolitical/geo-economics. Reading Thomas Barnett’s latest book now.. highly recommend it!

    Missed you in Pasadena– but trust you had fun with the family!!
    Garry

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