Futures literacy in Malaysia


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Talk given at the launch of the myForesight project, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on 30 July 2010.

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  • First, I want to thank our hosts for inviting me to such an important event. I’ve followed futures work in Malaysia for the last couple years, and I think it shows great promise to become a laboratory for new practices, as I’ll explain later. Others will talk about more technical stuff later, but I’m going to talk in broad strokes about futures and the challenge of developing a literacy in mining the preferred future. Futurists don’t often talk about “preferred futures,” so I appreciate the opportunity to do so. I want to start by talking about the term "literacy,” as a way of introducing you to the challenges of understanding and responding to the future.
  • At its most basic, literacy is an ability to read. But of course there's more to it than that. Literacy is a social skill. It allows you to make sense of things, and to share that knowledge with others. It’s both a practical skill that helps you read street signs and maps, and it’s an entrée into new worlds of ideas–worlds nicely illustrated by places like this old bookstore in Vienna. At a personal level, literacy is critical for having a good life. As several scholars of economic development have argued, literacy programs– particularly ones aimed at girls– have a greater positive impact on economic and social development in the Third World than any other single kind of program. Literacy gives you access to ideas, but it also changes the way you think. As anthropologists and archaeologists have shown, peoples and cultures that are literate have a different sense of time, a greater capacity to develop and do complex things. In today’s world, and in the world of the future, a “futures literacy” is something well worth cultivating. What I want to do with the remainder of my talk is explain how to develop it. I’ll organize it this way:
  • First, I’ll talk a little about futures itself. The modern field of futures developed over the forty years, and in recent years has been changing a lot, because the nature of the future itself is changing: the challenges we face, the way change seems to happen, our capacity to sense and analyze it, and the people who are involved in shaping the future are different than they were a generation ago. Finally, I’ll talk about the methods and tools we’re developing to reach preferred futures, and how institutions like MiGHT and projects like MyForesight can play a role in creating preferred futures.
  • So let’s talk a bit about what futures is– and what it is not.
  • Efforts to predict the future are as old as civilization. (In fact, in China, the patterns on oracle bones may have inspired the development of Chinese characters.) But this is not what modern futures is about. We are not, in other words, more sophisticated versions of psychics and palm readers. Traditionally, attempts to predict the future focus on specific events: who would win the upcoming war? Would my child be a boy or a girl? Today, in some areas, this kind of near-term specific prediction works pretty well– most of the time. For example, over the last decade hedge fund managers got rich developing wonderfully sophisticated computer models for predicting the short-term movements of financial instruments. These models worked really well, and hedge funds made a lot of money– until it all went suddenly, catastrophically wrong. Today, models can work well, and then fail spectacularly.
  • They fail this way because the world has become a very complex place. The future is not what it once was: it comes at you more quickly, and it brings more instability. The forces that are shaping that future are already here, and already shaping our world. Let me outline a couple of the most important.
  • The first is the rise of what Nassim Taleb calls “black swans.” Taleb argues that the growing interdependence of and traffic between economies, financial systems, populations, and nations has created systems that generate order and wealth in the short term, but are very prone to catastrophic failure. A thousand years ago, a famine in one part of the world didn’t directly affect the rest of the world; today, a fire in a single factory in China can disrupt a global supply chain, or a badly-behaved volcano can disrupt global trade. To make things more complex, the same trends can create different futures in different parts of the world: for example, globalization has yielded both tremendous cosmopolitanism and a backlash against modernity– both of which came together in 2001 in New York City.
  • The 9/11 hijackers had been followed by different U.S. intelligence agencies and law enforcement, but no one was able to put all the evidence together in time to get a clear picture of the impending attack. Indeed, today it turns out that nearly every catastrophe, act of terrorism, or economic panic is clearly seen by someone. Tragically, however, they can’t get the attention of people who can stop it. Here’s the problem. We live in a world of real-time information, but it’s not necessarily making us much smarter. We have more information to deal with, but we have more noise. Much of that information comes to us in ways that encourage immediate action and snap judgments rather than reflection. Real-time information has already had a powerful effect on financial services, on security and military action, on politics, and in science. The proliferation of technologies like smart phones, sensors, wifi, and RFID chips will bring about what computer scientists call “ubiquitous computing,” in which every built object has the ability to be tracked, to communicate, to sense its environment, and to respond to new information. Ubiquitous computing will generate vastly greater quantities of real-time information, generated by everyday objects and everyday activities– a volume of information about the world that may weaken, rather than strengthen, our ability to make sense of the world.
  • Another factor that makes the present more complex and the future harder to predict is that there are simply many more people in a position to shape the future. It used to be that the future was determined by kings and ministers; that innovation was driven by scientists and companies; and military power resided with armies. Today, though, democratization, the growth of civil society and NGOs, and the rising economic clout of middle classes around the world have expanded the number of people who want to shape their own futures, and have the means to do so. Technological innovation is also no longer confined to R&D labs. As the picture above reminds us, innovation– particularly in IT and computing-- is being democratized. And of course, all sorts of non-state actors can acquire and use military power. This is already happening, thanks to ubiquitous computing. Two new technologies will enable even more innovation by users. One is desktop manufacturing, which will allow us to print objects. The second is inexpensive genetic engineering, which will let anybody experiment with genetically modifying organisms. (If you think this is science fiction, think again: there are already high school students competing in international genetics contests.)
  • Finally, human-driven, anthropogenic environmental and ecological changes have been accelerating. At this point, even if we turned off every carbon-producing technology in the world, it would take 30 or 40 years for climate change to slow down. We’re in for generations of ecological and climatological instability, and unfortunately, these are likely to have the biggest impacts in parts of the world that are already unstable, and most strongly affect the lives of people who are already on the margins.
  • Now what I’ve just outlined are a few factors that are strongly affecting the present, and will have a powerful effect on the future. This what futurists do, and what we try to do better all the time. The challenge futurists face is not to make predictions– to understand what is known– but to help identify those trends that can break the models and cause disruptions. Put another way, our job is not to improve the precision of forecasts, but to map the shifting boundaries of uncertainty– to help clients understand where their conceptual and cognitive blind spots are; how to correct them; and how to keep the future visible in a world that values short-term thinking and reflexive responses at the expense of the long term. To go back to the comparison with literacy, it’s the difference between reading to people– looking at tea leaves, reading oracle bones– and teaching people to read for themselves. This is a relatively new way of thinking about futures: it builds on traditional tools like scenario planning, but I think it’s evolving into a new paradigm for futures.
  • Let me explain what this new paradigm tries to do, and what value it creates.
  • One of the critical tools for making sense of the future are scanning platforms. Scanning– the regular, systematic search for new trends and disruptions– is an old feature of futures work, but it’s recently gotten a boost, thanks to the development of online tools that are allowing us to more easily assemble and analyze trends and wild cards. Just as with real-time decision-making, the problem you have in making sense of the future is not that there’s too little raw unstructured information, but that there’s too much. So rather than presenting a long, unfiltered list of possible trends, these systems add value by either going to experts who know what’s happening in their fields, or by encouraging users to rate the importance, impact, or likelihood of trends and wild cards. This way, you can cast a wide view of the future, and gather a diversity of views about significant trends, AND use the analysis to identify gaps in a group’s current perspective– blindness to certain trends that foresight can help correct. Online scanning builds futures literacy by taking what was once a solitary activity and making it public. It becomes a bit like reading aloud in a café– an activity that is the beginning of a conversation, rather than a resource for private contemplation.
  • This kind of thoughtful scanning is better than giving clients access to the raw material, but you can generate a lot more value by working with them to understand what trends are most likely to affect their own futures, and how they can respond. This is where futures turns into a literacy– where it goes from just being a list of trends, to a vision and strategy and mind-set. These kinds of exercises are valuable because while futurists know a lot about many different things, they don’t necessarily know about a particular company or ministry and its specific needs: we’re networkers, not specialists. Putting together our knowledge with a client’s can create a product that’s better than anything we can each do alone. These collaborative spaces are also a place in which clients can learn how to think about the future for themselves. They also help groups build a common vision for the future, and a sense of ownership of it– something that can be very valuable when doing more conventional planning or making difficult choices.
  • Finally, futurists are starting to borrow from two relatively new sciences– neuroeconomics and behavioral economics– to understand what prevents people and organizations from acting with their long-term interests and future plans in mind. The human brain is designed to respond to the kinds of immediate, familiar threats that our hunter-gatherer ancestors had to face to survive: as a result, we’re poorly-equipped to handle wickedly complex problems that generate torrents of ambiguous data, and we have a hard time keeping to long-term goals. However, we now understand where those limitations come from, and are learning how to create tools that help individuals and organizations figure out how to overcome those limitations. So what can futurists help you reach a preferred future?
  • First, it can help organizations understand what already-forseeable trends that they haven’t paid much attention to are going to shape their future. A few years ago, I did a lot of work with companies that needed to update their product lines and strategies to account for the fact that Baby Boomers were starting to retire. Today, I’m amazed at the number of companies that do NOT think about climate change in their strategic plans.
  • Another is to help raise awareness of new disruptions– to help make organizations become more aware of potential Black Swans, and better-prepared to respond to them. I think the evidence from national foresight efforts is that central government projects can be especially good at raising awareness of both important trends and potential dangers. Good government already takes a long-term view. Governments can make investments in infrastructure, human capital, and security that have very long-term payoffs, and so they need foresight to help make those investments wisely. Governments can also act as more neutral players in strategic warning. One of the difficulties the current economic crisis revealed is that the people who most clearly saw the crisis coming were in a position to make a lot of money by shorting the market: consequently, they had no incentive to sound the alarm, and stood to gain if everybody else didn’t believe that the market would fail. Government foresight, in contrast, can insulate itself from such pressures, and act in the public good.
  • Finally, we can help organizations stay aware of what game theorist James Axelrod calls the “shadow of the future”– the impact that preferred futures should have on current decision-making. Acting on long-term future plans can requires making investments or changes in the present that pay off very slowly. You may not get much feedback: it may not be clear how your present actions will translate into a different and better tomorrow, but you’ll probably be very aware of the short-term costs. It can require making decisions in the face of ambiguous information. Futurists are learning to design tools that help keep organizations aware of the long-term consequences of actions they take in the present– and the things they should do in the present to realize long-term plans. This doesn’t mean that we’re doing things FOR other organizations, though. It’s not a paternalistic model. We’re still surrogates rather than parents, and it’s still critical that people make their own futures. All these tools do is give leaders and organizations a greater capacity to follow through on the futures they’ve identified and want to pursue.
  • I’ll close on this note. A year ago I wrote an article about futures in Malaysia, that argued that Malaysia was well-positioned to take advantage of the paradigm shift in futures, to use that shift to become a world center for futures, and to use its tools to create its own future. Malaysia is one of the first nations that could become a world player– a First World country in terms of its standard of living, its social and physical infrastructure, and the opportunities it will have to influence global affairs– in an age of Black Swans and radical discontinuities. It will have to build a future in a very different kind of world than countries like Britain and the U.S. faced when they became world powers. But I think Malaysia has the capacity to develop the tools to shape its future in a complex world. The graph above shows why. It’s from Mansour Javidan, a business professor who studies future orientation in different countries, and the impact of future orientation on GDP, global competitiveness, and other good things. You’ll notice that the most future-oriented country in the world is Singapore– no surprise. Next come Switzerland and Netherlands, again not a surprise; nor are the presence of other Scandinavian countries, the US, and Japan in the Top Ten. Notice also where the BRIC countries– Brazil, Russia, India and China– are: in the bottom quadrant. This suggests that their long-term prospects are not so good. But look at number four: it’s Malaysia. What Javidan argues, and this graph shows, is that there is a great opportunity here to tap into a culture of future orientation, and to use it as a foundation to build a futures literacy. It’s an opportunity to build a futures community that can respond quickly and intelligently to global challenges. It’s an opportunity to build a futures literacy among Malaysian companies and the Malaysian population, helping them develop the skills necessary to choose their future. Finally, it’s an opportunity to build the tools necessary to facilitate common visions of the future; to identify trends and threats that will shape the path to that future; and to help keep the shadow of the future visible in the present. In short, you can help create the place that Malaysia wants to be– and the place in the world that it wants to claim.
  • Thank you very much!
  • Futures literacy in Malaysia

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    2. 2. Literacy Bookstore, Vienna, Austria, 2009
    3. 3. What Is Futures? How the Future Has Changed From Futures to the Preferred Future Hidden Villa, California
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    18. 19. Nations of the Future Rothko Tower, National Gallery of Art
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