Find The Future Today

Are you prepared for what’s coming next? Even a weird future might be plain to see right now.

Columns From: 6/10/2009 Modern Machine Shop, ,

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I am enjoying a book called “The Next 100 Years” by George Friedman. The author sees all nations as tending to pursue their self-interests no matter what, with demographics influencing those self-interests and geography shaping what they can do. Based on these premises, he develops a forecast for the geopolitics of the 21st century. One of the predictions he defends, strange though it sounds, is that the United States will find itself at war with Japan and Turkey around the year 2050. Another is that our country will reverse its stance on immigration so completely that it will begin to incentivize non-citizens to come seek work here. Though I am not necessarily persuaded by the forecasts, the book is interesting reading—in part because there is a precedent for this sort of weird-sounding prediction coming true.

In the 1830s, Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville looked at a world dominated by Western European powers and decided that things would not always be that way. He said two formerly obscure countries—the United States and Russia—would eventually dominate the world and divide it between them. Further, he said the United States would be the free country in this struggle and Russia would be totalitarian. The realities of population and geography made this clear. It took more than a century for his prediction to come true, which might be the amount of time he expected. Find his case for this prediction in the conclusion of Volume I of his book, “Democracy in America.”

The belief that both of these authors share is that the future, at least some of it, is there for us to see. While major events will occur that no one can foresee, the long-term structural trends shaping the future are already in place. Reasoned analysis can therefore see the future challenges and opportunities for a nation. Presumably, that same sort of analysis can also see the future challenges and opportunities for a business—including the businesses to which you and I give our efforts.

Unfortunately, we are powerfully inclined not to apply our reasoning this way. During good times, we get caught up in the “busyness” of business and don’t look past our situation. During bad times, the gloom casts a long shadow, leaving us wary of investing too much thought in the expectation of things getting better. So, even though it’s not the right time, consider taking time anyway to look at the realities surrounding your business today.

See if you can discern these long-term trends. Do they suggest ways that your customers, competitors or even your customer’s competitors might have to change? If so, how can you get ready?

Mr. Friedman takes pains to downplay his ability to predict with precision. He offers his book as a picture of what major trends look like and how they interact with one another. There is much that can’t be seen. Even so, he says he aims to avoid the failures that are typical of forecasting, which “imagines passing clouds to be permanent,” while not seeing the big shifts that are in full view.

The least likely scenario for the future is actually the one we tend to expect. That is, we proceed on the unfounded assumption that the way the world looks today will be the way it looks tomorrow.

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