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Crying “Wolf!” about the future

Hurricane IkeOn September 12, 2008, the day before Hurricane Ike hit the Texas coast, the U.S. National Weather Service told people in low-lying, thinly-protected Galveston that "Persons not heeding evacuation orders in single-family one- or two-story homes will face certain death.” [Link] My futurist friend Andy Hines found it bizarre to watch for hours as that phrase, “certain death” scroll across the tv screen in his Houston home.

Though things looked dire even before the storm hit, the Weather Service’s alert was an extreme statement to make. Hurricane paths shift moment by moment. They might have more accurately said that residents “face the risk of death”. It was clear they were saying it that way to scare people. Should they have? Were they “crying wolf!”? (As of this writing, we don’t know how many people in Galveston might have lost their lives. It seems likely that rescuers will discover more losses and that dire warnings were appropriate.)

In communicating about the future, should we exaggerate for effect? How, and how much so can we do that and not be crying “Wolf!” Are the recurring jokes and complaints to futurists; “what happened to the paperless office?” or “where’s my jetpack?” because we too often forecast something that does not happen? We risk losing our influence if that keeps happening, but we also lose influence if what we say is simply not interesting or compellingly different from what people are already thinking about.

I urged people working to explore the future, in my piece on  The 27 Habits of Highly Successful Futurists, to not be afraid to exaggerate for more effective communication and to get people thinking, but to also always know when they are exaggerating. That’s because there is a fundamental difference in the work of exploring the future between making a forecast—a statement about something we expect to happen—and exploring possibilities—asking “what if…” questions to try out new ideas about the future.

The key is be clear yourself and to make clear to all others what you are doing. If you make a forecast, give it with your best thinking on degree of likelihood and your level of confidence in the outcome happening. If you are exploring “what ifs” make sure everyone knows that, and know what the exploration is for. Then you can making more striking statements and not take the risk of crying "wolf".

Our most compelling work is usually an exploration of a world transformed, or a mind-bending new technology taking a place in people’s lives. But we have to know, and reveal, whether we think that transformation is likely, or low odds. I think good futures thinking demands the “exaggerated” views of the future, otherwise we can’t catch the notice and imagination of others. But I know it also demands careful reflection on and explanation of the drivers of the change, and clear assessments of the change’s likelihood.

Image: Nasa

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