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Small questions, big answers

My old archaeology professor, John Witthoft, shared a bit of wisdom I have not forgotten in the nearly 30 years since I took his classes. He said, “ask a small, simple question, and you will find a great complex of things to explore.” He knew that too many of us undergraduates would reach for huge topics like the decline and fall of empires, when we were likely to have greater success, and get more out of, a paper on how metal smelting enabled greater technological advances, or the role of the horse for plains Indians, for example.

So it is with studying the future. In exploring the future, we are too often faced with the impossible: imagine and understand “the future” –the whole thing! That’s just too much to undertake. It’s certainly not helpful to people trying to get a stronger sense of change and the possibilities for their product, their sector, their profession, their community, and so on. The enormity of the task is too great, and too often people will give up trying to understand the future. There are simpler ways to get the conversation about the future going.

I suggest starting with a small question or a small “what if”. It will open up a big world of thoughts and perhaps answers. It will drive your thinking to the bigger questions, but they’ll have a purpose and a focus. Try using “artifacts from the future”. Wired has a regular feature on those “artifacts”. They publish a back-page Photoshopped image that showcases a future possibility. A recent one showed produce for sale, but the produce comes from “Ventria Bioscience” and Monsanto, and includes the Pizzamato, a pizza flavored tomato, and the Cinna-Del, an apple with cinnamon flavor. The “artifact” images are usually subtle but powerful, and the few details brought forward each are worthy of a conversation. These small details open up a big range of thinking, and I would argue, lead more naturally to a sense of future possibilities than a great thick report on the global future can.

So in exploring the future, don’t aim too high too fast. It’s important to put the focus on something we can think about and understand. Maybe it’s a simple artifact or prosaic detail of daily life. Those are things that mean much to people. And pictures are ideal.

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