Singing the future

If teaching foresight and futures thinking would be done through a musical, which songs would it include? What songs are there that either describe an image of a future or illustrate some key thought in futures thinking? Here’s my suggestion.

In the year 2525, if man is still alive

For an opening song and an introduction to futures thinking my choice is “In the year 2525” by Zager and Evans. It includes many important aspects of futures thinking. It has a (very) long term timeframe (10 000 years), making a clear distinction to short-term strategic planning. It describes a dystopian image of the future with warnings about where current practices could take us. This draws attention to the humanistic underpinnings of futures research, with its aim to to make the world a better place. As a bonus, it is published in 1969, around the same time that futures studies emerged as an academic discipline.

In the future no one will fight with anyone else
In the future there will be an atomic war

Now that the stage has been set, it is time to make one key point before going any further, and that is the difference between foresight and forecasting. Although forecasting lost much of its appeal to scenario planning during the 1970s due of its inability to predict the oil crisis, it is still a relatively popular practice, and one that some futurists use to get into headlines. The absurdness of having simple forecasts and predictions becomes evident in the song “In the future” by David Byrne. This is a song every futurist should listen before serving sound bites about the future. Through an endless stream of relatively unconnected and conflicting predictions, the song builds awareness of the plurality and diversity of futures. The point is not that we should seek out which of the predictions are true and which not, but that we should understand that there is no one shared future.

Ninety-nine red balloons
Floating in the summer sky
Panic bells, it’s red alert
There’s something here from somewhere else

Another key aspect of foresight is understanding surprises and discontinuities. For this purpose often one of the first steps in a foresight process is some kind of horizon scanning exercise, with weak signal analysis and wild card identification. The song “99 red balloons” by Nena illustrates both the idea of a wild card and the systemic feedback loops through which it operates. In the song a a bunch of red balloons cause an alarm to go off in a military base, eventually causing a massive and devastating war. With weak signals and wild cards, interpreting the consequences is far more important than identifying potential signals. And this requires understanding the system and its leverage points.

Tentative Tentacles are grabbing me
We’re making space love in zero gravity

With scenarios, trends, weak signals and wild cards in place, it is time to get a feeling of a future. What is it like to experience one scenario or the other. “Love in the year 3000” by B52 gives a intimate, experiential interpretation about the impacts and consequences of digitalization. Instead of focusing on robots taking our jobs, it focuses on a more human theme of love. It is an example of illustrating potential outcomes of a particular development, on the level of feeling and experience.

I never knew that you’d get married.

Future is surprising and things don’t often go as we expect. The hit song “Disco 2000” by Pulp illustrates this as well as introducing the topic of evaluation of scenarios. The accuracy of images of futures depends on how restricted is our mindset. Our image of the future is not necessarily shared and we may be blinded by our hopes and dreams. Reflecting back on the “past futures” is useful for understanding where the blind spots are.

I’ve been to the year three thousand.
Not much has changed but they lived under water

On the other hand the future could be surprisingly unsurprising. As illustrated in the song “Year 3000” by Busted, we might carry on living like we always have – at least on some level. The things that are surprising to us today – like living underwater – are perfectly normal in the future. New developments eventually tend to become mundane parts of everyday life. For example, flying around in airplanes is common practice and we tend to not marvel at how extraordinary way of traveling that is to a human (instead we complain about the lack of WiFi).

It’s all just a little bit of history repeating

This leads to the final song by Propellerheads & Shirley Bassett: “History repeating”. Hyped things, like platform economy or synthetic biology, could be seen as not as totally novel but merely variations of earlier ideas, like the bazaar or cultivation of plants. The point is not to downplay these new developments, but to think about what can be learnt from the past and what is different this time around. The future is a jazz version of the past. The song also introduces the concept of cyclical time to complement the dominant linear view (for more on the different views of time see Six Pillars by Sohail Inayatullah).

And thus ends my foresight musical. What songs would you include and why?