When the Obvious Future Doesn’t Scare Us into Action

Failures often stem from our unwillingness to act to prevent a future we can anticipate-- rather than from surprises blindsiding us.

Organizations can be eager to have futurists help them identify weak signals or potential wild card events, when their greatest risks are the screamingly obvious issues. Even recurring events and early warnings do not compel people to act.

The best example of this state of denial is climate change, but the list is quite long.  Bridges, roads and mass transit systems continue to erode despite landmark reports estimating the urgency and cost of needed infrastructure repairs in the US.  When pandemics or the threats of new public health risks like Ebola and now Zitka arise, our public health system must once again scramble to put funds and processes in place to prevent thousands of deaths and disability.

Our public education system struggles generation after generation although solid research demonstrates that a strong start from the cradle will shut off the pipeline to prison and low-wage jobs. We have high dropout rates in high school, and also unacceptably high rates of students who leave before completing a postsecondary degree that prepares them to secure good jobs. Instead we lament the census data proving that under-educated people are losers in our changing economy. Studies show that violence and political instability increase where poverty thrives. 

Futurists have heartfelt discussions about why foresight doesn’t automatically lead into prevention, risk management, or bold and innovative solutions.  Helping people anticipate what the future might hold proves to be easier than getting them to intervene in significant ways—doubly so when the challenges are society’s truly wicked problems.

For my part, I cherish the small victories when organizations decide that they will take even small steps to make things better in their part of our world.  They do this recognizing that alone they do not have enough power and resources to unwind these tangled challenges.  

My hope comes from this fundamental insight: You never have to convince everyone to see the future and change; a small critical mass of people can shift the momentum.