In working to get people to look out further into the future, we have to understand and work with people’s immediate concerns. Those concerns are an obstacle to long-term thinking until they get acknowledged, discussed, and put in a longer-term context. Most often, people have at least some fear about change and uncertainty, even if they don’t realize that motivation, and cannot express it.
The short-term view and the long-term view
But they can reflect on what’s on their minds, what they are unsure about, and what they think could be bad, versus good, as the future unfolds. What’s on most people’s minds includes global, national, and regional events and problems, and the big, immediate things facing their family or business.
For business people, with quarterly revenue targets, this year’s performance review, a new technology roll-out, on their minds, the long-view has trouble getting a purchase on their thinking. With a war, an election, a looming recession, and a lending crisis on their minds, the long-view fades from view too easily. But truly being prepared for the future means we have to look past the immediate situation.
When I present to groups on the future, I choose a set of broad forces of change to explore with them. Each of those forces is part of a long-term future—10 or 15 years into the future, at least. But each has to also be clearly understood from a perspective of today. Ultimately, my futures work is about the present and the future. The future starts momentarily and everything about it is built from what we have now. There is no disconnect between the future and the present.
For example, futurists generally agree that we will see rising prosperity in much of the world, over the next few decades (though most also explore potential discontinuities that could derail that growth). But facing a group of businesspeople and telling them that prosperity is rising is harder with a US recession and larger economic crises unfolding.
It’s essential to not allow an immediate situation drown out important messages about the future. We have to acknowledge what’s on people’s minds right now, and show them how it fits into a longer-term context. That means using ideas about the future to, for a time, set our thinking beyond the present situation, focusing on what could be true, in 10 or 20 years.