Predicting the future is a core skill for policy makers and budget controllers – but how do you do that when traditional prediction methods are losing effectiveness? Developing a new way to predict future events isn’t as hard as you might think.
Drawing on 20 years of public sector experience, futurist and trainer Georgie Smith explains why this shift is happening, uncovers what local governments can expect in the future, and shares three surprising new methods you can start using today to painlessly increase your foresight.
Does it feel like you’re flying blind?
Here’s a sentence that’ll sneak up on you:
“The past is no longer a predictor of the future.”
This statement, from the Bushfire Royal Commission’s 2020 report, sounds benign at first. But for local government leaders, those 10 words telegraph a seismic shift in public policy. Why?
Because the past is fundamental to our view of the world, hindsight is the gold standard for public servants (and everyone else, but enough about them). It puts the “evidence” in “evidence-based policy”.
Australia’s 2 million public servants develop foresight – the ability to predict and pre-empt future risks – by relying, directly and indirectly, on hindsight. It’s how we know to screen women over 50 for breast cancer, and that washing hands slows the spread of germs.
But in this century, we’re seeing more and more disruptions – seismic changes in the ecological, social, technological, and economic spheres – that upend our ability to rely on the past as a predictor of the future. The US thinktank RethinkX’s Rethinking Humanity report and its accompanying video is a great starting point.
The closer you are to deciding how your council’s resources are allocated, the more you need to ensure the tools you use to predict the future are reliable. Given the accelerating pace of change, now is the time to pre-empt disruptions by developing foresight that doesn’t rely on hindsight.
So disruption means new tech, right? I’ll leave that to my Chief Technology Officer…
Not so fast! Consider this: in 1900, local governments across Australia employed street sweepers by the thousands. Why? Because horses – the ubiquitous form of human transportation for millennia – generated lots of excrement. It was better for everyone if municipalities employed people to clean up all those droppings, rather than bear the health and amenity burdens of wading through manure all day.
Figure 1- Melbourne, circa 1890. Horses, humans and the odd bike.
By 1920, however, horses were nowhere to be seen. The dominant form of transportation since Tutankhamun vanished overnight. And so did the street sweepers. Cars were better in so many ways, but at the same time, the shift created thousands of unemployed gents with few transferrable skills. One of the many seeds of the Great Depression had been planted.
Figure 2: Melbourne, 1920. Nary a nag to be seen.
The point is that disruptions may start in one sphere, but they won’t stay contained there. The advent of the car affected manufacturing, communications, commerce, and even war. A hundred years on, Airbnb changed the face of the global housing market, not just tourism. And did anyone think even five years ago that Facebook would lead to protesters at your 15-minute-city meetings?
Why your crystal ball is broken
In the past, the past was a great predictor. So what’s changed?
It’s become apparent that we humans have grown so plentiful that we’re altering the systems of life on earth. Geologists refer to now as “the Anthropocene” – the age of humans. Our vast scale is fuelling disruptions (and altering geology).
As we reach physical limits to humanity’s current growth patterns, pressure from one part of the system bleeds into others, in weird ways that might not seem connected but are.
Take potholes, for example, on my local Facebook group, people are forever complaining about them.
But they forget, in 2021 our LGA had 20,000 towering eucalypts come down in savage winds. Whole towns, running on diesel generators for weeks. Roads, water, sewage – gone.
It is no shock then that the council infrastructure budget has been deployed to the task of reconnecting cut-off towns. Potholes have fallen by the wayside, but the complaints haven’t.
These lateral pressures will only continue to mount. Public policy makers intent on staying ahead of the tsunami of change heading our way need new methods of detecting changing tides.
Time to get yourself a new crystal ball
If hindsight is no longer a great substitute for foresight, what’s the alternative?
We can look to futurists for guidance. Futurists, if you haven’t heard of us before, are people who spend our time horizon scanning, seeing disruptions coming, and warning others. We crunch insurance data, prowl tech conferences, trawl social media for social movements in the making, and much more.
As a busy public sector manager fielding operational delivery issues at light speed – I remember only too well – there’s little time for such detailed analysis.
So, here then are my top three easy-to-adopt habits that, when done together, will give you a much better crystal ball (for not much effort).
Tip 1: Borrow brilliant brains
New media (e.g. YouTube, podcasts, blogs) offers a world of approachable wisdom in your pocket. While the output of some brains can be questionable, other brains are troves of insight. If you’re not already gobbling up new media, start.
Graze indiscriminately; technology, fashion, global culture, sci-fi: the lot. Insights abound for a curious mind. The more eclectic your tastes, the more likely you are to see left-field patterns emerge.
Borrow some of LGIU’s brilliant brains with these collections – hand-curated resources on key issues for local government:
- Collection: Democracy, devolution and governance
- Collection: Environmental governance
- Collection: Local government finance – international lessons
- The council and the car
- Collection: Cost of living crisis
One caution: this tip does take time. But, done well, it’s painless, which is why I call it an easy habit. Nerd out over whatever takes your fancy, and you’ll soon find yourself doing this for fun.
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Tip 2: Spot ‘so-what?’ curves
If you follow Tip 1, you’ll widen your view. Here’s how to make the most of what you learn.
This graph shows the uptake of various technologies over the last century. Don’t sweat the detail; instead, notice the shape of each uptake curve. They look a bit like the letter S – slow uptake at first, then a huge surge before tapering off again as everyone who’s going to buy the new tech has done so.
Figure 3: Steep technology S-curves.
These curves are called S-curves and they’re everywhere, not just in tech. Look at Covid-19 spread rates (and vaccination rates) or the consumption rates of organic food. And next time you make popcorn, listen – even the distribution of the pops forms an S-curve!
Start by spotting fully formed S-curves. Then, over time, you’ll start recognising them as they emerge. The earlier you can spot one, the more warning it gives you; that’s foresight.
I like to think of S-curves as ‘So-What?’ Curves because once you learn to see S-curves forming, they can prompt you to ask that all important question – ‘so, what does this mean for my area of responsibility?’
Read on to Tip 3 for a simple way to make answering that question easier.
Start spotting S-curves using LGIU’s latest statistics, research and findings:
- Local Democracy Research Centre
- Global Local: Migration
- Global Local Think Tank Review – September 2023
Tip 3: Kevin Bacon
Ever played Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon? It’s where you link any movie star to any other via films they’ve been in with the prolific actor.
Figure 4: Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.
Well, once you get good at spotting ‘So-What’ Curves, the final piece of the puzzle is to connect what you’ve observed to what it means for your area of responsibility. A quick and easy way to do this is by using a Causation Map. Think of it like Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, for policy wonks.
Say you spot a ‘So-What’ Curve in your infrastructure maintenance data that indicates an uptick in cracked pavements. Well, what might be causing that? And what might be causing that? And so on, until you can see a regional or even global trend that can help you predict where your local effect is likely to be headed.
Figure 5: a causation map tracking a local trend up to a global trend
Or what about in reverse? Let’s say you listen to a podcast about projections on Australia’s population increase, and wonder what it might mean for your local government.
Causation maps are also great for when you’ve got more time, say in a planning session, to consider the wider web of cause and effect that may fall within your local government’s remit.
By thinking out these more detailed causation maps, you can hunt for upstream interventions that your local government can enact, which could solve more than one problem at a time. Find the solvable problems worth solving.
In conclusion: don’t panic
These famous words were plastered over the cover of the fictitious Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and serve as author Douglas Adams’ great legacy to humanity.
Figure 6: a real-life Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
So, colleagues – don’t panic.
Whilst the past is becoming a wistful memory, and the future can seem as weird as a sperm whale above an alien planet, all is not lost.
Seeing the future coming isn’t actually as hard as we think. It’s just that you weren’t trained for it. You can build these skills. Remember to borrow other peoples’ brains, practice spotting ‘So-What’ Curves, then work out the ‘So-What’ for your local government by asking Kevin Bacon for some help.
It’s tricky work to outpace change, but that’s what it takes to thrive in our century. None of us will live a quiet life. By increasing your foresight, you’ll help your municipality weather the coming storms. And that’s what you’re here for, isn’t it?