We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future. The future of the future is the present.
This mashup of some of McLuhan’s most oft-repeated aphorisms highlights a particularly human dilemma. We are destined to view the future through the lens of the present – and more often than not, the past. In other words, we tend to imagine the future as an incremental extension of our own time, or of recent history. It’s hard for us to imagine things that don’t yet exist.
That’s because our brains are built to recognize patterns: we are naturally programmed to see things as we have already seen them. Conversely, we are naturally stressed by things we have never before encountered. Which is why many people fear the future, much less have the capacity to imagine it.
In developing strategy, the biggest mistake we can make is to design for the present. The brand you’re making now has to compete in the future. You have to design for what you don’t yet know. But how?
Our default when thinking about the future is to rely upon what foresight strategists call mental models, or “the deeply ingrained assumptions, generalizations or images that influence how one makes sense of and responds to the world”. Changing these mental models is a key outcome of strategic foresight. It’s key because these models tend to be biased towards the past and based on faulty assumptions about the future. As Idea Couture foresight strategist Jayar LaFontaine writes, “These faulty assumptions, framed by an uncritical belief in incremental change, give rise to a ‘default’ future designed to preserve the prevailing way of doing things.”
Strategic foresight escapes the pull of the past by imagining futures that could occur, based on weak signals from the present. It helps us use these signals in combination with other data to speculate on how a product or a service or a brand might behave in any one of several possible scenarios, a process akin to wind-tunnelling.
Why engage in this kind of foresight? Because we are already creating the future, whether we are aware of it or not. So why not deliberately imagine it, and test the brand against a range of possibilities? Why not find ways to escape the trap of the rear view mirror?
For those who wish to escape a bias towards the past, strategic foresight reveals opportunities for differentiation in the future. Most brands, like people, look ahead by looking back through McLuhan’s mirror. By baking strategic foresight into the brand building process, therefore, you are already several steps ahead of the competition.
As Jeff Bezos has said, if everything you do is on a three-year time horizon, you’re competing against a lot of people. But if you’re willing to invest in a seven-year time horizon, you’re now competing against a fraction of those people. By lengthening the time horizon, you can engage in endeavors that you could never otherwise pursue. wn
Image credits: All images from the archives of American industrial designer Norman Bell Geddes, designer of the General Motors exhibit “Futurama: The City of 1960″ at the 1939 New York World’s Fair
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