No.75 - January 2010

What’s spectacularly wrong with this famous prediction, said to have been made in the closing years of the century?

If London traffic keeps on growing at present rates, the city will grind to a standstill within 60 years.

On the surface, it sounds like a reasonable guess. It wasn’t predicting a gridlock of cars, and it wasn’t made last century, but in 1890. Our Victorian proto-futurist was convinced that, by 1950, the thoroughfares would be hopelessly clogged by an accumulation of horse manure
six feet deep…

History is littered with posthumous embarrassments such as these [see ‘Extrapolators beware’, p33]. Each of them serves as an object lesson in the dangers of projecting present trends into the future – just one of the pitfalls facing those foolish enough to make forecasts.

On the surface, they make a mockery of ‘futurism’. But this has recently become a much subtler science. The cream of today’s futurists are not so concerned with guessing what might happen – entertaining though that is. Instead, as James Goodman explains [‘The future’s not what it used to be’, p27], their most exciting work is about preparing us for whatever the future might fling: to become more adaptable, more resilient – in effect, more sustainable…

Depending what you read or watch, ‘the future’ can by turns sound scary, sexy or just plain mysterious. Yet its seeds are all around us in the here and now. There’s no shortage of clues as to how we’ll be living in five, 10, even 50 years time. ‘Weak signals’ abound – on the street and in the blogs, in academic journals and retail trends.

But as Hugh Knowles points out [‘What’s a weak signal? And what do we do with it?’, p30], these are often drowned out by other noise. And nothing’s louder than the constant babble of reassurance that the future will be just like now – only more so. It’s not just Victorians fretting over streetfuls of manure who’ve been deafened by it. How many music or media moguls in the early 1980s imagined that those techy young men writing lines of code in some campus IT lab, were starting a revolution which would sweep rock-solid business models into the dungheap of history? That the geeks, in effect, would inherit the earth? Precious, precious few…

It wasn’t so long ago that we imagined 21st century skies as alive with personal jets, carrying commuters on the skyways of the future. Now many are wondering if aviation itself is set to be the first great industry to be sacrificed on the altar of a stable climate. In ‘Will the future take flight?’ [p18], Roger East explores whether there is still room for a form of transport whose greenhouse effect is second to none. To date, technical fixes have proved elusive. So will one finally emerge – a long-haul airship, say, or a sleek ‘solar wing’ – in time to keep us flying in the low carbon skies? Or will we somehow learn to live without planes?

Either way, it’s likely that the first hints of the eventual outcome are already here among us – if we could just tune into those weak, elusive signals, seeping in from the future to now…

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Post date: Fri, 01/01/2010 - 00:00

I still can't work out how you manage to put such a brilliant mix of innovative subjects together with such consistency... An inspiring read which I genuinely look forward to.

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