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Just why is it so hard to predict the future?

By Dr Paul Deane, ERI, MaREI, School of Engineering

Opinion: we have the collective human skills today to understand the choices we have to make for the future we want

Chicago's Jackson Park was buzzing with excitement. The American Press Association had gathered some of the best minds in banking, science and society to tackle a simple but daunting question: what will the world look like in 100 years’ time? Discussions gravitated to the possibility of automation taking jobs, how the speed of communication and travel will change the world and what new clean fuels will offer?

This gathering of minds took place at the World Expo in Chicago in 1893. The world was changing fast. The space and time that separated people in the vast American continent was being conquered by railroads and the telegraph. Information as well as people could now move across the country in times that were hitherto unimaginable. The gathering of experts anticipated that access to better information would lead to a "happier, more informed society with less disputes where less lawyers (actually two-third less to be precise according to their predictions) would be needed". As an added side benefit, marriages were also expected to last longer.

The birth of the industrial revolution and steam power lead many to predict that all manual labour would be replaced with steam powered machines and that future societies would only work three hours a week. As medicine got better and people toiled less, we were also expected to live to 150 years old. Social and technological momentum suggested the planet was on the brink of an incredible utopian future, but it wasn't to be and the world was plunged into two dreadful global wars within 50 years.

Their future predictions were incredible, wonderful - and completely wrong. Just why is the future so hard to predict? The 1893 meeting points to a number of traps we sometimes fall into when thinking about the future and can help us understand why we get it wrong so often.

We tend to assume the future will be better and comfortably buy into utopian visions. In his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari suggests that this is an inherent part of the human collective. Believing in a better future is good for social cohesion and politicians exploit this tendency frequently. US president Donald Trump regularly talks about a future vision of an imagined past where everything was "just great", while French president Emmanuel Macron talks about a clean future where everything is clean, sustainable and crisp. Both are fictions, but humans don’t like uncertainty and we seem willing to go on these journeys.

In science, we have a much better understanding of mother nature than human nature and this impacts on how we think about the future. Mother natures’ rules are defined by the physical world and they are logical, well understood and don’t change. This allows scientists to understand complex physical processes like climate change with a high degree of certainty. But human nature determines how society will react on a social and political level to events like climate change. Humans are irrational and emotional, making us hard to predict. This is what makes the precise future impact of climate change and many other events harder to predict.

When thinking about the future, we often overemphasise the role of technology and underestimate where technology fits in a social context. We love talking about technology because it is exciting, but it also allows us to avoid the deeper questions about ourselves and society. Ask a scientist what the is the cause of climate change and they will likely say it is greenhouse gasses. Ask a spiritual leader and they might tell you the cause is our relationship with consumption. When thinking about the future, we tend to look outward and point to technologies rather than look inward. This throws up questions about who creates narratives of the future: in today’s world, it is predominantly technologists.

But just because we are bad at predicting the future doesn’t mean we shouldn’t. We have to plan for future infrastructure, population changes, pensions, hospitals, homes, schools and more. This requires us to peek into the nebulous cloud of possibilities that is tomorrow and chart a course towards some distant future.

But we are not hostages to some unknown fate and we can plan for a future we want to create. This is the fundamental difference between today and society in 1893. Then, they could only imagine the

future; today, we have the collective human skills to understand the choices we have to make in steering a course towards a future we want.

While economic forecast will continue to be wrong, exit polls terribly incorrect and oil prices impossible to predict, we should strive to understand and perhaps even celebrate the uncertainty that drives these deviations. After all, the world would be a very boring place if we could predict it.