Podium: A fertile time to think about the future

From a speech by the Tomorrow Project director as part of the Bristol lecture programme of the Royal Society of Arts
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The Independent Culture
THERE IS a world of difference between predicting the future and thinking intelligently about it. Prediction is a hazardous business, littered with embarrassing failures - like the observation of the then Astronomer Royal in 1956 that "space travel is utter bilge".

We need to think about the future to understand today. In the early part of this century, electricity, which we now take for granted, was thought of as highly dangerous, open to abuse, expensive, and only for the rich - not very different to attitudes to the Internet at this end of the century. And yet it's pretty certain that in 20 years' time the Net will be just as established a part of all our lives as electricity is today.

People often say there is no point in thinking about the future: we can't influence it; it's just too complex; it's in the hands of a few powerful people; it won't be very different from today. We challenge that. If we have a reasonable knowledge of the facts and choices before us, and if we have enough time to prepare, we have a huge opportunity to make our lives and those around us better.

One of the best ways of doing this is through "What if?" thinking - what all of us do in our daily lives. What if we decide to change the date of our holiday? What if we decide to sell our house, pay off the mortgage and rent a flat instead? What if we do the shopping today instead of at the weekend? All the time we are asking ourselves questions like these, playing out possible results in our imaginations and making decisions accordingly. It is a much wiser and safer approach than going to a fortune- teller.

It is too easy to be pessimistic about the future. We may not any more need many telephonists or stock controllers - but we'll need lots of real people to operate helplines, and as carers, as personal trainers and as tour guides. Not many of those jobs are exposed to foreign competition.

Technology gives us a chance to focus skills on things humans do best. We may think of it as a threat, but US experience tells us that, when information technology has gone through teething problems, it'll create many more good jobs than it destroys.

When we ask how we shall be governed in future, we see something strange. Slowly and steadily, tasks we have always thought of as belonging to central government are being delegated: to Europe, to the Scottish Parliament, to the Welsh and possibly the Northern Ireland assemblies, to a mayor for London, to local authorities and to the private sector. How will government as a whole be effectively held to account when it is so disintegrated? Will people be any more interested in how we are governed than recent election turnouts suggest?

Perhaps we can hope for a new model, in which Westminster does the things only central government can do, and then sets the framework for the rest of government at other levels. But to work, it'll need to give us more real choice and more of a sense of connection with decisions that affect us.

This is a fertile time for thinking about the future. The millennium is creating a vacuum of opportunity, expectation and resolve that needs to be filled - with people feeling a real sense of renewal and change.

Technology means that businesses can now meet people's demands through mass production and with economy of scale, but in ways that offer people what they want as individuals - personalised and made to measure.

Let's not get too hung up on technology. Computers and the Net are tools that makes things possible. What they cannot do is what only we as humans can do - to manage our relationships with each other. Technology is to organisational success as sex is to marriage: a good and exciting start, but dodgy as a permanent foundation.

We look at the future with hope. There are opportunities ahead to use scientific and technological progress to bring about real improvement in our lives - and they're largely in our individual and collective hands. "The problem about predicting the future," said a wise professor, "is that we ourselves will decide the future - and we haven't yet made our choices."