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South by Southwest

The Future Is Not Real

Macro and micro-level trend analysis is a core component of many of our digital strategies. With that lens, I attended writer and thinker, former “Planetary Futurist in Residence” Alex Steffen’s session at SXSW, but it did more than help me think about “what’s next”; in effect, it helped teach me about how to think about thinking about what’s next. Understanding the nature of futurism is essential as we approach its practitioners. Steffen suggests it’s important for us to be deliberate as we recommend, and evaluate, a vision of the future. As marketers, it’s language we use often.

Here’s a radical notion for a purveyor of futurism: We are constantly being sold visions of the future that are thoughtless, designed to manipulate, or wrong.

The future is not real, Steffen says; it does not exist.

We use “the future” to mean different things that are not real:

  • Any time after now
  • A mythic time
  • The idea of change itself

Talk of the future often centers on the idea that some things are changing. Our skills tend to obsolesce. We generally pick up worldviews from the skills we have, as well as news and stories. Very few of us consciously set out to build a worldview. This leaves us open to what Steffen calls the “future industrial complex.” This is the reality that some people are charged with changing our worldviews in a way that is advantageous to them, or to their companies or institutions.


Whenever you see someone’s vision for the future, it’s worth asking: “what is the purpose of the future I’m being shown? Who made this, and why?” Being “of the future” is—in our society—a tremendous claim to importance. This plays off of all of our ideas in the past.

For example, it’s impossible to encounter a new watch without being influenced by a century of ideas about “gadgets”. If we see something as a culmination, we believe it to be inevitable. We are hard-wired for extending the line of the trend. Additionally, some things attach “futureness” as a major brand attribute (e.g., space tourism). The history of the idea of reaching into space brings with it an awesome amount of power.

There is also the reality in which most of us have grown up, where futurism has been an activity. There are professional futurists. One famous futurist, Alvin Toffler (FutureShock), said, “To survive, to avert what we have termed ‘future shock’, the individual must become infinitely more adaptable than before.” Steffen warned us: “infinitely” suggests hype. Futurists are trying to suggest that they can see something you can’t. Steffen mentioned current conversations around The Singularity as being one example that is rife with this thinking.

Futurism is, and should be, deeply concerned about itself. A lot of what we see around us has become shallow and manipulative grabs for attention rather than true future thinking. As practitioners, and as people, if you really want to know, you must know your futures.

The problem is that we mean different things by “future.” The reality is that there are other ways of imagining our relationship to time. Steffen outlines six:

  1. THE PAST. Character is history; character is destiny. We have a way of rewriting history to suggest what the future will be. To wit: The Alamo. It has been purposed and repurposed to be a lesson that substantiates Manifest Destiny, multi-cultural origins, and even anti-tax rhetoric. It positions where we’re going in the past. Steffen suggests that it’s worth knowing that there is often a huge gap between what professional historians think/believe and how retellers of these stories reflect these stories.
  2. SIMPLE PREDICTION. Most predictions are glaringly wrong. It is important to know the difference between predictions grounded on data and articulated as probabilities, and predictions that are simply personal opinion founded on a set of individual, qualitative beliefs. The latter is not always wrong, but the inquirer needs to be careful about them.

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One huge example: Climate Change. One side has assigned a set of probabilities, data, and created peer-reviewed work to predict our trajectory. Based on this scientific effort, the globe is on a track toward 7 degrees warming. There are very few predictions about what 7 degrees means because it represents such a profound change; there is no meaningful prediction. So academics and media talk about is 4 degrees and 2 degrees. “Business as usual” will land us at 4. But business as usual is not a fair way of dealing with the future.

The climate models accepted by the scientific community give us budgets, curves and timelines; these are effectively predicting our future scientifically. If we want to have a more reasonable task, we must start to lower our emissions on an individual and national level.

In fact, what we do now about carbon matters in a way that few moments have mattered. Impacts will be with us for thousands of years.

All of this is a direct read of the world’s largest peer reviewed process of prediction. This is very real.

We can look and feel despair, but Steffen believes that in fact there are many incentives aligning for the private sector to re-think its relationship to carbon. One of the reasons why change will happen is that the sheer size of the assets at risk from climate change, added to how much can be made from switching to new platforms and technologies, far outweigh the fossil fuel business.

Steffen maintains that, fundamentally, there is only one question: how long will politics allow this delay to continue?

  1. PREDICTING THE PRESENT. Building on William Gibson, author of Neuromancer, this way of approaching time suggests that we predict the future by looking at things that have already been built in the present. (Gibson’s famous quote is some semblance of: “The Future is here; it’s not evenly distributed.”) We can look for things in our current environs that suggest where change will take place.
  2. ANTICIPATION OR PROVOCATION. This relationship to time uses new products as provocation. Steffen put up a fake-product picture of “panda jerky” (lab-grown panda meat, made into jerky, and packaged like any other FMCG). Concept cars brought to the auto shows are an example of anticipation or provocation. The TV show “Black Mirror” is this sort of speculative science fiction; its construct is that it takes one unintended consequence of a new technology and “blows it out,” trying to see how technology would change the future if its taken to an extreme conclusion. Many other types of science fiction (e.g., Mad Max) are themselves provocations, and not all of them are silly. (The Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars Trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson is one such example. Its premise: What if we tried settling Mars and the people who settled decided to rethink society?). Provocation can become the grounds for more detailed and thoughtful examination.
  3. VISIONARY FUTURES. “Dune” is a detailed systems future using things that aren’t possible, but an excellent vision of a different reality. These works are often about “world building.” World building itself has become a popular cultural activity. It’s evident in role-playing games, and the way people look at programs like “Lost”. Often these visionary futures are pure entertainment. We can think of this as escapism being a future function of our society. We don’t necessarily believe in what this outlines, but we are entertained.
  4. MYTHIC OR RELIGIOUS SENSIBILITY. This is the very process by which we squeezed the supernatural out of lives and squeezed into technological thinking. Early developers of flight believed we would meet God by hitting the edge of the Cosmos. This can be captured in a notion of the “march to infinity;” whenever you hear people talking about unending cycle and engagement. Nowhere is this truer than ideas of human transcendence. There have been conversations like this through the ages that suggest we can transcend our bodily limitations. Steffen mentioned one academic report that suggested “by 2045 humans will be able to be formed into a hologram body.”

Even when predictions come through the way we think, they don’t mean what we think. Look at any of the rhetoric used in the early 20th century about “atom” technology and insert “biotechnology”; the promises are remarkably similar.

A lot of the futurism we encounter weaves together these strands. Futurism makes claims about the past, about transcendent ideas, about predictions. Steffen suggests we need to take responsibility for forming our own opinions about the future. How do we do that?


Build yourself an inquiry. Stop reading those things and cull your feed from every Buzzfeed futurist site. Most futurism is wrong. Obsolete. In the same way the hippies used to say, “Don’t trust anyone over 30”, don’t trust any future over 10 years out. All of us have heads full of obsolete information. There is a tremendous amount of “sunk cost” investment on what we know. (Sometimes I’ve heard this described as the “ladder of inference.”) If you rely on other people, they will tell you about how to do futurism. There is a much more sensitive, intelligent way to begin this inquiry.

Look for people who get what’s going on, but don’t want to predict. Seek out people who rebel against certain futures. Find skepticism among trends.

Seek credibility; credibility is important, and reports by scientific bodies are more credible than opinion and anecdotal-based predictions.

Futurists have an issue: there is no penalty for being wrong. No one gets drummed out of futurism. Ultimately, you will start to understand there are different lenses we can have. Steffen offered several concepts he is tracking in his own inquiries and analysis.


We are surrounded by systems. Systems are much more important than individual actions. The knowledge of those systems is something that takes a long time. In general, if you want to know, ask an old timer.


This describes an attempt to live into the future, and attempt to “feel like” what it will be in the future.

Steffen mentioned his book Carbon Zero. In this, he tried to summarize cities and carbon neutrality (this was just prior to his stint at IDEO as Planetary Futurist in Residence).

For this inquiry, he tried to occupy a beginner’s mind. The reality is that our habitable space is small, and getting smaller. There are estimates that the population of the planet will be 11 billion in the year 2100. This is immediate. There are people who sat in our SXSW audience who may live to see that date; there are most certainly children of the people in the audience who will.

Steffen talked about the fact that the population is not growing because of reproduction, but because of longevity increases. We are adding about 250,00 people a day.

We have a rising global middle class; 5 billion people by 2050. Meeting the needs of this growing global middle class is different. We can’t meet those needs the way we have without running of the cliff. But the way that we’ve been thinking about how they will approach the middle class is likely wrong.


The way we have structured and supported our infrastructure has made us vulnerable. We engineer projects that can withstand a series of shocks. We need to think about ruggedizing our infrastructure for a new range of climate and norms. Climate change means we will get huge storms and decades-long drought. These induced disasters will require us to rethink systems. We have engineered systems around us but we engineered them for a different time. We will see a lot of remaking systems for different tolerances. Steffen showed the Hamburg Hafencity, an area by the famous Hamburg wharfs that have built resilience against storm surges:


Failing to aim for zero means we can’t “ruggedize” enough. Energy demand is still increasing, globally. We simply can’t meet that level of demand. We can’t replace every bit of energy for clean energy in 35 years. What is in our capacity is to change the way energy demand functions in our lives. This will ripple through many sectors.

We simply must pay attention to systems that will be built to drop energy demand. The way we build our cities will have an effect. The denser the city, the less energy we use.

We are going through a serious change in the way young people think about cars. Car ownership is decreasing among Gen Y in the US, and in China as well. The car as a symbol of prosperity has changed. More places are designing transit that leverages the desire not to have cars. The minute you have a large percentage of people who don’t own cars, you’re in a different city. When we have that many without cars, you have a different world.


How far are you willing to walk? For most Americans, it’s ½ mile. For most cities, this becomes the prime building block for design (and community).

As people are living in denser walksheds, the demand for very small units has exploded. So many people want to live in small units that they are more expensive. This isn’t living in a small unit in 1900; this is made possible by the affordances of the city around us. No one owns a home gym because there is one down the street.


You don’t need to have things any more if someone is willing to get it to you. Car2Go, Kusenklutz are examples of this. The increase in the popularity of delivery vehicles and Amazon lockers are examples of this. Package pickups are another example.


Streets and parking lots are actually real estate that cities can commandeer for better and more effective use. What would happen that half of the street space should be put to other uses? There are many incarnations this could take: Transit on demand, flexible streetspace, land of parklets, self-driving delivery vehicles.


And, so, what does it mean to be a citizen of these places? We must own them.

Romantic Age poet William Blake said:


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