First sip: Thinking the future by Clem Sunter and Mitch Ilbury

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Like a good beverage, a good book holds promise from the first sip. This extract is used with the permission of Penguin Random House.

About the authors

Photo: Pixabay

Clem Sunter was born in Suffolk, England and was educated at Winchester College. He read Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Oxford University.

In 1971, he moved to Lusaka in Zambia to work for Anglo American Corporation Central Africa. From there he was transferred in 1973 to the Head Office of Anglo American Corporation of South Africa in Johannesburg.

In the early 1980s, he established a scenario-planning function in Anglo with teams in London and Johannesburg.

Using material from these teams, Sunter put together a presentation entitled ‘The World and South Africa in the 1990s’ which became very popular in South Africa in the mid-1980s. In it, two scenarios were offered for South Africa: the ‘High Road’ of negotiation leading to a political settlement and the ‘Low Road’ of confrontation leading to a civil war and a wasteland. South Africa took the High Road.

In 2001 he wrote The Mind of a Fox.

Mitch Ilbury is a strategic intelligence specialist, published author and entrepreneur.

He founded Growing Foxes, an education company that develops strategic intelligence through a live learning platform.

He holds a Masters degree (with distinction) in Intelligence and International Security from King’s College London. He also read Philosophy and International Relations at the University of Cape Town as both an undergraduate and post-graduate (with distinction), and has studied Game Theory at the National University of Singapore.

He has studied under some of the top global minds in cyber security, intelligence studies, strategic communication and conflict simulation.

Mitch is now the Director of Growing Foxes and mindofafox.

About the book

Title: Thinking the future
Authors: Clem Sunter and Mitch Ilbury
ISBN: 9781776096299
Publisher: Penguin

Every decision we make is a decision about the future. We constantly make choices that affect the next week, year or decade, but get blinded by what we want or expect the future to be. Cognitive traps lie everywhere: failing to question our assumptions; believing in greater certainty and personal control than life allows; or missing signals because we’re distracted by the noise.

The post-2020 world demands a revolutionary way of looking ahead, and in these unpredictable times, the key to good futures thinking is good thinking. The goal of constructive futurism is not to forecast specific events, but to plot a series of scenarios that show what could happen. Consequently, we can work towards the future we want, avoid the ones we don’t, and be prepared to manage the risks and opportunities no matter what.

In Thinking the Future, scenario specialists Clem Sunter and Mitch Ilbury teach us the futurist’s art of decision-making, where the flexibility of thinking like a fox plays a key role in adapting to a complex and interconnected world. The book rejects the appealing but misleading self-help narrative that you can decide your future through sheer determination in pursuit of your goals and replaces it with a more dynamic approach.

Isaac Newton said: ‘If I have seen further than others, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.’ By reimagining seminal concepts thought up by some of history’s greatest thinkers, the authors detail the dos and don’ts for thinking the future and handling its uncertainty in a constructive way.

First sip

Capturing an outlier

Turning from a relatively harmless event like rain to one of the deadliest tragedies in world history, we want to show how identifying and responding to flags has saved people’s lives. On 26 December 2004, a 9.1 magnitude earthquake occurred in the Indian Ocean with an epicentre located 160 kilometres off the western coast of northern Sumatra. It was the third largest earthquake ever recorded, and it lasted between eight and ten minutes, the longest duration ever observed. It triggered a series of tsunamis that struck the coastlines of countries all around the Indian Ocean as far as the east coast of Africa, killing 227 898 people in fourteen countries.

Ten-year-old Tilly Smith was holidaying with her parents at a hotel in Phuket on the day of the tsunami. In a geography lesson at school two weeks earlier, Tilly had learnt that the signs of an imminent tsunami were an abnormal ebbing of the tide, revealing much more of the beach than usual, and frothing bubbles on the surface of the sea. On the beach in Phuket that day, Tilly noticed both of these flags and alerted her parents to their significance. Her parents warned the other beachgoers and the staff at their hotel, and the beach was evacuated before the tsunami hit the shore.

The point of this remarkable story is that thinking the future in an intelligent way reduces the number of events that come out of the blue and really shock you. You might not be able to stop the event from happening, but you can avoid being blindsided by it. Equally, some of the most valuable futures thinking anticipates life-changing events and unusual turning points leading to futures that do not resemble the past. One doesn’t normally think about the possibility of tsunamis while lying on the beach, but when the flags of one popped up, Tilly perceived them and realised that the probability of a tsunami scenario had changed from highly unlikely to virtually certain.

The other crucial takeaway is that Tilly and her parents showed foxy agility in spreading the message of the tsunami scenario they’d envisioned to those nearby and, most notably, to the hotel staff, who had the capacity to take more widespread action. Hedgehogs, meanwhile, would have been unable to cope because they would not have envisaged the crisis in the first place. Their minds tend to be closed off to the completely unexpected.

The Importance of Flags

Tilly’s accurate flagging of the tsunami serves as a suitable introduction to Karl Popper’s highly perceptive 1966 essay titled ‘Of Clouds and Clocks: An Approach to the Problem of Rationality and the Freedom of Man’.

Popper saw things in the world as existing on a spectrum from completely disorganised at one extremity to highly organised on the other. Clouds – on the left of the spectrum – represented physical systems that, like gases, were irregular, disorderly and unpredictable. Clocks, on the right, were physical systems that were regular, orderly and highly predictable. He put seasonal weather patterns towards the right end of the spectrum as somewhat-reliable clocks, and puppies further left than old dogs because they hadn’t been trained yet and were less reliable and consistent in their behaviour. He stated that the predictable movements of the planets in our solar system made them clocks, whereas individual gnats, flying in a cluster, would be classified as clouds because of their irregular movements inside the cluster.

He went on to criticise the proposition of physical determinism, which argues that all phenomena operate as part of a predictable system, and it is only our ignorance of some elements in the chain of cause and effect that forces us to see certain things as random or disorganised. This belief had dominated scientific thinking from Isaac Newton onwards, but Popper called it a nightmare in that it portrayed the whole world as a huge automaton with us as the cogwheels. Moreover, he cruelly added that the term ‘cogwheel’ would also apply to the physicists who believed in the theory.

Equally, he thought that the opposite belief, that all clocks are clouds and the world is fundamentally random, was just as unsupportable. He referred to the gnats again in his counterargument, saying that as a cluster they predictably stuck together while being disorderly at the individual level. Thus, he claimed that the world is a hybrid of clouds and clocks. It is neither totally chaotic nor totally organised.

The predictability and unpredictability of the universe is why you need flags as tools to negotiate the future. The rules of the game will stay the same, while the key uncertainties will drive the future in one direction or another. The flags are the signs along the way indicating the direction in which the key uncertainties are taking you and, therefore, which scenario is coming into play and which is fading into the background.

In terms of our scenario matrix of the last chapter, they provide an ongoing assessment of whether you are moving up or down the vertical axis and whether you are moving to the right or left on the horizontal axis. By combining those two assessments, you can pinpoint the quadrant where your future might currently be located.

Flags can even influence the outcomes described by the scenarios, like a crowd at a soccer match. People react to signs of change, and that might help push the change in the same direction, cause it to slow down or perhaps turn it around. If the future concerned is within your control or influence, then the flags might indicate areas where you could take action to prevent the key uncertainties from developing in a negative direction.

North Korea’s nuclear missile strategy is a key uncertainty in any range of scenarios examining the future stability of the Far East. A flag to watch here is North Korea’s relationship with America. An increase or decrease in tensions between the two countries will affect the state of military readiness that North Korea maintains. This, in turn, will raise or lower the prospect of a regional conflict, particularly between North and South Korea.

Another flag is the level of international economic sanctions being imposed on North Korea, and whether they are being heightened or reduced. This will give an indication of how desperate the regime is to either reach a settlement on denuclearisation or ramp the programme up further.

A third flag is the number of missile tests North Korea chooses to conduct and where those missiles land. In the same way that asking the right questions is a key to thinking the future effectively, choosing the right flags to watch adds huge value in providing ongoing answers to these questions.

Let us give another example. The rate of climate change probably figures as a key uncertainty in scenarios appertaining to the future of the coal-mining and oil industries. It probably also features in economic scenarios for California in the US and New South Wales in Australia, because of the impact that forest fires and intense rainfall have already had on human activities in both states.

As the annual statistics flow in to reveal whether the rate of climate change is quicker or slower than expected, the difference between the actual and anticipated figures will constitute a flag. It will indicate whether the call to phase out fossil fuels will intensify or diminish, and it will be useful in assessing the new normal as to the frequency of fires and floods in California and parts of Australia. If the flag is red, one-in-a-century events may turn into one-in-a-decade episodes demanding a complete rethink in risk-management strategies.

Sometimes a flag is identified as a game-changer before any key uncertainties have been formulated or scenarios written. It is a prequel rather than a sequel to the exercise. A flag of this sort is so fresh and powerful that it cannot be ignored, and on these occasions the scenario-planning process has to be reversed: scenarios are extrapolated from the flag, as opposed to the flags being used to assess which of the anticipated scenarios is coming into being. Should the flag be a new but stable trend, it may later be converted into a rule of the game to act as the basis for a new set of scenarios.

Alternatively, if it is a highly unpredictable phenomenon, it can evolve into a key uncertainty from which different scenario narratives will flow. A great example of powerful flags changing our view of the future occurred in January 2021, when Amazon and SpaceX found themselves in a battle over outer space. SpaceX wanted to reduce the orbit altitude of some of the satellites in its Starlink constellation to increase connection speeds. However, Amazon responded by saying it was working on its own satellite system for Project Kuiper, and the planned reduction in altitude by SpaceX could endanger the safety of its future satellites in and around the same orbit. Each company accused the other of trying to sabotage their respective satellite internet plans.

We call this new flag ‘crowded space’. At present, there is only one law governing outer space: the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which has been ratified by 111 UN member states, including the United States, the UK and Russia. It establishes the principle that space is free for exploration and use by all nations, but no nation may claim sovereignty over outer space or any celestial body.

With all the activity now taking place in space, more laws will no doubt be in the offing, particularly since private companies are now starting to argue about their share of space. The flag also pinpoints our dependence on satellite systems to communicate with one another. What would happen if the internet went down worldwide because two satellites crashed and the resulting debris caused widespread damage to crucial components of our international communication network?

This scenario of cascading collisions between objects in low earth orbit was proposed by NASA scientist Donald J. Kessler in 1978, and it’s known as the Kessler syndrome. You can see a depiction of it in the 2013 film Gravity, which explores the fate of an astronaut stranded in space after high-speed debris destroys a space shuttle in mid-orbit.

We currently feel that the crowded space flag will lead to a whole new raft of international legislation governing the use of space, and that this process will not be without its challenges for international relations. It would be wise to start playing scenarios on that eventuality now.

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