Foresight and Fear

By Jeff De Cagna, AIMP FRSA FASAE • July 31, 2018

“We did not come to fear the future. We came here to shape it.”

– Barack Obama

It is not hard to understand why many people feel at least some fear about the future. Current conversations on the topic in print and online publications, as well as in both social and mainstream media outlets, typically present only the most frightening possibilities, especially when it comes to technology. As an example, consider the ongoing discussion of the impact of automation and artificial intelligence on our society. Various research reports, and more than a few prominent observers, describe a dystopian future in which automation is widespread and intelligent machines take over every aspect of work, displacing millions of human beings from their jobs and leaving us with nothing to do except collect universal basic income (UBI) from national governments to sustain ourselves. It is a disquieting story, to say the very least.

It is not the whole story however. The automation/AI worst case scenario is plausible and we need to take it seriously, if only to ensure it does not happen. Other plausible scenarios include a future world in which AI fails to deliver on its promised impact and robotic automation is a targeted rather than a pervasive phenomenon, and a world in which the integration of human and machine intelligences amplifies the unique capabilities of each and produces a powerful and positive collaboration with beneficial impact throughout society.

We also must keep in mind that these plausible futures do not necessarily incorporate connections and interactions with other cultural, demographic, economic, environmental, political, scientific, social and technological shifts that may influence their direction. Foresight enables us to imagine how these complex futures could conceivably unfold over the next 120 months and beyond and helps focus current organizational decision-making on both preparing for them and identifying the best ways to contribute to creating preferred futures for our associations, stakeholders, and the broader industry and professional systems in which they participate.

The work of foresight is not about making predictions. No one knows what the future will be and I think most people feel a great sense of gratitude and relief at not being forced to carry that impossible burden. Unfortunately, there is still fear in not knowing what the future holds, which is what attracts us to predictions as a tactic for reducing our anxiety. When predictions do not come true, as is frequently the case, our distress returns and may be amplified by the unforgiving realization that there are limits to certainty.

Instead of giving into that fear of the unknown, we must choose instead to invest our energy and attention into intentional learning so we can understand what could happen, anticipate what might happen and prepare for whatever does happen.

For better and worse, fear is an inherent and necessary part of the human experience. When it comes to the future, the question is whether our fears are reasonable or unreasoned. The former condition can inspire the quest to learn and unleash the desire to act, while the latter can lead to ignorance and paralysis. In the 21st century, making a genuine commitment to foresight is the antidote to ignorance and our shared opportunity to shape the future with purpose and confidence.

About The Author

Jeff De Cagna, FRSA, FASAE is executive advisor for Foresight First LLC in Reston, Virginia and a respected contrarian thinker on the future of associating and associations. Jeff consults with and has served on association and non-profit boards, and he has pursued executive development in both the work of governing (BoardSource and Harvard Business School) and the work of foresight (Institute for the Future and Oxford University). Jeff can be reached through online chat, on Facebook or on Twitter @dutyofforesight.