Futures Impossible : a new methodology to study world events

The study of the future, as a scientific and intellectual endeavor, used to be driven by the careful extrapolation of trends, as in Herman Kahn's Year 2000, or the forecasting of complex interaction among many variables, as in the Club of Rome's Limits to Growth and Paul Ehrlich's Population Bomb. The technologies behind these studies relied on the mathematical tools of operations research developed during World War Two and on methods for the aggregation of expert opinion such as the Delphi Technique, developed at Rand and the Institute for the Future.

The scenarios and forecasts built on this technical base were supplemented by the study of a few extreme hypothetical situations known as "wild cards" or "black swans" (major earthquake in Tokyo, terrorist attack in New York, asteroid strike in Western Europe) designed to stretch the borders of the crisis management maps and to stimulate our collective thought process—while remaining within the domain of the Possible.

Such techniques for describing the future and anticipating its opportunities and dangers have largely become obsolete because of the acceleration of technology itself and the increasing vulnerability of our society to chaotic processes that are not well behaved under most classic models.

In the world of the 21st century, the situations faced by decision-makers in government and industry are of a wholly different nature. In an economic environment where General Motors could go bankrupt in one week, and Lehman Brothers in one afternoon, the extrapolation of trends and the wisdom of experts are still relevant, but a new methodology is needed to deal with unforeseen discontinuities. Neither of the above catastrophes was a "wild card" in anyone's scenario. No classical futurist could imagine such discontinuities because the tools to anticipate and describe them were not available: they were truly "impossible," just as the Fukushima nuclear disaster was deemed "impossible" by the General Electric experts who built the plant and the Japanese authorities who managed it. Similarly, as a society, we seem to be incapable of imagining healthy, positive "impossibilities" such as reconciliation in Palestine, an end to terrorism, or a world without starvation.

At the Institute for the Future, a team headed up by Bob Johansen, Kathi Vian and myself has begun to develop a typology of Impossible Futures, starting from four classes of events:

A. Some futures are deemed impossible because they would require an extraordinary convergence of several scenarios, each of which has very low probability. The bankruptcy of General Motors (Fortune One!) in one week is a case in point.

B. Some futures are deemed impossible because they would require the convergence of several scenarios on time scales that violate our knowledge of reality. The failure of the Madoff funds, for example, was deemed impossible by his investors, all of whom were successful financial experts. It happened because two low-probability events converged: (1) regulatory authorities repeatedly refused to act every time the illegal scheme was brought to their attention, and (2) the subprime crisis dried up sources of funds overnight, exposing the fraudulent structure.

C. Some futures are deemed impossible because they would require the convergence of several scenarios, including forces or components that do not exist within accepted knowledge. In A.E.Van Vogt's novel The World of null-A (for non-Aristotelian), a secret agent named Gosseyn is repeatedly assassinated. Each time, he is reincarnated in a new body held in reserve by his masters in special sarcophagi, endowed with increased abilities. A future when Gosseyn could exist lies outside the natural limits of our scientific knowledge and culture.

D. There are futures that are deemed impossible because we simply cannot imagine them. In Saddam Hussein's culture there was no scenario in which U.S. forces could see the movement of his forces even at night, through clouds or through dust storms. Most nations still have no concept for devices that could detect underground cavities invisible from the air or from space. Even in modern American culture, the fact that remote classified facilities can be detected, visited, and accurately described by mental powers alone remains beyond accepted concepts.

To a decision-maker in business or government, simply describing such impossible future scenarios is not helpful in the absence of a methodology for detecting, understanding, and mitigating their practical effects. What is needed is a deeper grid that can be used as an overlay to highlight radical discontinuities in technology, geopolitics, social behavior or economic patterns. We believe that such a tool needs to be developed if we want to survive the new realities where worldviews collide at an accelerated pace.