Thursday, October 03, 2019

Book Review: What about the Future? by Fred Phillips

I'm returning today to one of my favorite activities - a book review.  Good books are simply too rare, and good books about topics important to innovators are unfortunately even more rare.  However, I'm happy to say that I've just read a book about understanding the future that should be read by anyone interested in foresighting, forecasting or scenario planning.  If you are an innovator, or hope to create meaningful, viable products or services for customers, attempting to understand the future is vital to creating new products.

The book I'm reviewing today is entitled What about the Future?  It was written by Fred Phillips, who is a professor and also the editor of the journal Technological Forecasting and Societal Change.  In full disclosure Fred was also one of my favorite professors when I took his course on technology adoption at UT-Austin's MBA program.

The Book

Fred has written a book that I really liked, and to be honest I had a difficult time putting into a specific context.  It combines some rationale for examining the future, some discussion on different approaches for examining the future and several philosophical discussions about complexity and uncertainty.  It is a book that challenges your assumptions, provokes your thinking and provides some really excellent points about anticipating future change. 

In short, this is not a "how to" book, but a book that takes on the larger questions about what the future is, how uncertainty and complexity should influence our thinking and planning.  Ultimately I think Fred captures the purpose of the book in the statement from the introduction that reads "They need the skills for forming a fundamental perspective about the future".  And that's what this book seeks to provide.

Fred's approach

Fred lays out the book in an interesting sequence of chapters.  Early in the book he grounds the reader on concepts like risk and uncertainty.  He notes that while we are uncertain about the future we often are overly certain about the past, and provides illustrations why even the past is often a bit uncertain.

The middle chapters deal with why we might want to understand the future and the impacts to decision making and organizational structure if we have a better understanding of the future.

The closing chapters become a more philosophical discussion about the future and our ability to understand the future and, having reached conclusions about the future, the impact on business and public policy.

Fred brings a systematic way of thinking about the future, using many examples that will be familiar to those who conduct work in foresighting, forecasting or scenario planning.  He includes a number of charts, graphs and illustrations that help detail his approach and thinking.  His writing is crisp and his arguments are very incisive, so the text is easy to read yet thought provoking at the same time.

One of my favorite arguments he makes in the book is that "the purpose of forecasting is not to be right, but to be ready".  This is reminiscent of the adage that plans are nothing but planning is everything.  We can't possible get our predictions of the future exactly right, but we can exercise our understanding of potential futures to be ready as they occur.

Interesting ideas and arguments

A couple of ideas that Fred presents I found especially interesting include:

 - which is changing faster, technology or society?  The general response is that technology is changing faster than society, but Fred makes an argument that society is changing faster than technology.  He makes the argument that technology innovation is actually slowing, while factors like shared values are changing or disintegrating faster than ever.  What impact would a culture or society that's morphing faster than technology have?

 - Fred argues that the two most reliable ways to predict the future are demographics and the Kondratieff wave.  He makes the point that demographics is destiny, and by understanding demographic change we can anticipate other societal, technological and other demands. 

 - I was not familiar with Kondratieff but the ideas from this Russian economist make sense - they are based on cycles of economic expansion and lassitude.  Kondratieff projected 30 year cycles of increased innovation followed by 30 years of exploitation of the previous innovative period.  This idea of cycles of innovation and cycles of consumption make sense to me.

Other ideas

Later in the book Fred talks about the difficulty of imagining the future, using what he calls the Captain Cook problem - one of almost willful blindness.  He notes that the Tahitians failed to acknowledge or even recognize Cook's flotilla because they had become accustomed to identifying items on the ocean as flotsam, whales or canoes.  They could not see or understand what was directly in front of them because their mental models did not include an option for these new things.  Likewise, many people who want to understand the future may not recognize that aspects or artifacts of the future are already present.  Here we can borrow from William Gibson and note that the future is already here, just not widely distributed.

My favorite chapter

Chapter 11 is perhaps my favorite, because Fred provides a significant number of examples of trends that reach a tipping point, and thus move from potential change to accepted change.  He calls these "Crossovers" and the ideas behind the crossovers and what these crossovers tell us can help shape how we think about understanding the future in the future.  This chapter alone and the crossovers Fred documents are worth the price of the book.

Review and takeaway

This is an excellent book and should be read by a wide audience, especially those who have an interest in understanding how to approach the future.  Individuals in industry, government, public policy and other functions should have a better appreciation for the future and the interwoven aspects of complexity and uncertainty as Fred presents.

If I have concerns with the book it is because I am always seeking really definitive, practical tools and methods.  Fred hasn't written a "how to" book, he has written a "how to think about" book, and this gives the book a wider audience and a more philosophical bent than I expected.  If only more people in more companies and more positions of power in public policy and in government agencies spent more time thinking about and trying to understand the future, I think we'd all be far better off and far better prepared for what the future holds.

I'd highly recommend this book, not for the specific answers it provides but for the questions and thoughts it should provoke.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:55 AM


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