Hired hands who know the future

They don't use crystal balls, yet futurology is thriving and making cash, says Sheena McDonald

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Noriko Hama is confident in her forecast: no European Union, no single currency. Fifteen years from now the tormented writhings of Euro- sceptics, -realists and -philes, all attempting to persuade us, White Queen-like, to believe the unbelievable before breakfast, courtesy of Humphries and Naughtie, will seem as distant a likelihood as Chamberlain's piece of paper now looks to us. This morning Ms Hama will upset late-breakfasters with her controversial but clear-eyed view of the future of Europe.

Futurologists are a cheerful bunch. Their day has come. As the techno- nerds have claimed their set at the head of the commerce and development hierarchies, so the futurologists graciously accept society's belated acknowledgement of their role - as prophets for a secular age. You won't find their writings on the New Age/Tarot/Massage shelf any longer. Their disciplines now accept their expertise, and pay well for it. Even their business cards confidently claim the title, without fear of smirk or raised eyebrow.

But what are the credentials of this end-of-millennium elite? And how did the science of futurology graduate from the wacko Californian corner to represent a badge of honour?

The dignifying of futurology ironically owes more to superstition than deliberation, and the title of our radio series - Beyond the Millennium - shamelessly acknowledges that fact. It's illogical, it's arbitrary - but the anniversary of the supposed birthdate of one Jesus, in occupied Palestine 2,000 years ago, has undoubtedly encouraged interest in the focused and specific concerns of those men and women who plot the paths ahead -- and who, for all their empirically-based calculations, will take great care to factor in human emotions when they make their predictions.

Producers Clare Csonka and Chris Stone and I invited six men and women who earn their living making the unknown future knowable to justify their predictions for the year 2010/11. Why 15 years ahead? Because it's long enough for profound change to be a new norm, but also for life as we know it to have retained a nostalgic foothold. Fifteen years ago the icy security of the Cold War seemed unbreachably intact. The Prince of Wales had finally tracked down his virgin-bride.

We were not looking for household names. But if Noriko Hama, Clem Bezold, Sadie Plant, Ian Pearson, Linda Grattan and Olara Utunu have correctly calculated the probabilities, risks and likelihood in their respective fields, they will be. And those fields are precise - in this first series were looking at Europe, healthcare, social and sexual relations, telecommunications and their impact, work and labour, and global power relations.

What we were looking for was certainty, if not categorical conviction. What our futurologists have in common is an authority rooted in expertise, and a willingness - they would say a duty - to call it as they see it. Unlike a similar interview series I recorded last summer for Channel 4, The Vision Thing, these thinkers do not claim to be visionaries, in the sense that they are not hired (by those whose investments depend on second- guessing the future) to indulge their idealism, or indeed their pessimism.

Whether they have indulged themselves you may judge, and we shall see - they can't all be right. If there isn't yet a collective noun for futurologists, may I suggest a "contradiction"?

Sadie Plant, research fellow in philosophy at Warwick University, foresees a technology-driven liberation from centuries-old patriarchal structures. For the first time in the history of humanity, women will be able to be themselves. What will that mean? "We don't know. Women have never been able to be themselves. Like machines, they've been the tools of men. Now women and machines will be autonomous - and men, too, will be able to explore their identities and live fuller, more expansive lives."

Will they want to? Clearly a foolish question. Futurologists are not starting from here. They've pitched their responses 15 years forward. "We're looking at mutations - the collapse of the old means of identity. As we lose our obsession with sex, then the possibility of using that for purposes of identification will itself go. We will not only lose our moral sense, but also our sense of self." Won't we miss the old days? "What we'll miss is the homogenous wold of fixed procedures, policed lives...." I begin to understand, and like what I hear. The glass ceiling? "Irrelevant - it will disappear, not because women have achieved equality, but because management positions and political life will not be where it's at."

I turn to Linda Grattan. As Professor of Organisational Behaviour at the London Business School, she sees things very differently. In 15 years' time, she sees no fundamental change in our sense of self in the world of work, except perhaps a diminishing confidence. She identifies critical and massive shortcomings in UK plc's CV - inadequate language skills, IT skills and networking skills will leave Britain gasping on the grid as our partners and competitors surge ahead - not least because our employment relations are still old-fashioned.

Olara Utunu is the Ugandan-born director of the International Peace Academy in New York. She raises a different new reality. "For the first time in human history we will see the rise of a group of states not drawn from European stock. Up until now non-European people were brought to the table by courtesy. Now we see decolonisation via merit and performance. The West must be prepared to accept non-European partners, who do not come from the Judaeo-Christian tradition, who have brown skin. And this will have a positive effect on other parts of the previously colonised world. If Asia can do it - why not us?" And women? Ah - globally, Sadie Plant's future may take a little longer to materialise.

I begin to understand that futurologists are only human. However objective their analysis, they are reassuringly vulnerable to their personal hopes and fears. When Sadie Plant explains that real knowledge and understanding of ourselves, untrammelled by gender-identity, is part of the necessary protection against fascism, I hear the echo of the traditional voice in the wilderness. And when she warns of the "danger of softer, gentler attempts to reimpose order", the evangelist walks with the seer.

And what about the futurologists themselves? Beyond the millennium, will their own job security - a neat paradox of our uncertain times - have deteriorated, as the messengers suffer the traditional fate, whether proved right or wrong?

`Beyond the Millennium' is broadcast on BBC Radio 4, Mondays, 8.45-9am, from 15 April for six weeks.

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