Posted by: James Atticus Bowden | February 11, 2009

Futures Tutorial 1


The cone of plausibility came from a civilian at the Army War College whose job really was “futurist’ in 1990.    I took his cone and rotated it from the vertical – ninety degrees – to have time go from left to right – as it does in the timeline in my mind.

The first assumption is that we can describe the world we are in now.  As we move to the right through time there is a limited number of plausible futures.  The range of futures expands as time goes on.  For example, the U.S. will not become a hereditary monarchy in 10 years.  But, in a thousand years?  Maybe.  Maybe there won’t be a U.S.A.

The lines that expand out to form the cone of plausibility are trend lines.  They are the trends that matter in the subject area.  In our study, Army 21, these trends included military science, economics, demographics, resources (inlcuded energy), education, geopolitics, society (included culture), technology, and U.S. politics.

Change drivers are what causes a trend line to change its shape.  For example, Christian evangelism mitigates the Muslim trend line of expansion across Africa.  The growth of Protestantism in Latin America should change the economics of the region because of the changes of ideas and behavior.  If nuclear fusion became commercially viable, the trend line for economics for the oil-producing states would change.

So, if you look at the circle any point in time, the area of the circle represents 100% of the plausible futures.

Within that circle you can construct a possible future that is shown with a smaller circle taking up, say, 5% of the area of the big circle.  That means that future has a 5% probability of happening.  Assigning probabilities to any future is less mathematical than mystical.  But, it is illustrative of how little certainty there is the further you go out in the future.

Which leads to the key point of this first tutorial in futures methodology.  Know the rate of change in your subject.

The futures horizon for tourism is about one year.  The rate of change for the United States Army in peacetime or low intensity conflict is about 10 years.  10 years to change the whole institution. In wartime, in extremis, the rate of change is about 2 years to change the organizations, operations, and technology of the institution – including the flux in personnel and training – the people business.

You set your long-range planning horizon for futures based on your organization – a business, government, religion, community organization, social group, family, etc.

History illuminates the future.   Look at what changes mattered  – when, where, how, why – in the past for your organization.   Consider the details that are the same and different for then and now.

When you know the past that is prologue to the future – and know it intimately, then and only then are you ready to work on the future.

Great reference to think through how to look at the past in regard to organizations and policy is “The Uses of History” by Richard Neustadt and Earnest May.  

May and Neustadt taught one of the best courses I had in either grad school.   During the summer of 1980 I did research on Defense transitions for Prof. May as an independent study credit  – for Harvard’s Kennedy School Presidential Transition Study, just in case Reagan won.  When Reagan won, he got a two pager executive study and a full report for his staff on how to take over POTUS.

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