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Local, Simple, Varied, Connected

September 15, 2010

Predicting the future is always risky. That is if you expect to get it right.

Thinking about the future and the varied forms it might take usually takes one of two forms. The first involves preparing for the alternatives. This approach emphasizes the uncertainties. The second involves deciding how to influence factors within our control. This approach focuses on the drivers of change. Successful strategists cannot afford to overlook or emphasize either approach or dimension of change over the other.

Recently, I was asked to prepare a forecast for the next 10 years. The objective was to identify key trends that would shape emergency services in the coming decade.

Before attempting to imagine what the future would look like, I had to ask myself, how has the past shaped where we are today? This is very different from looking to the past as evidence of how the future might unfold. Instead, it asks what story arcs present in our current narrative are likely to project themselves into the medium-term future.

If these arcs or trends represent recurrent themes in human history, it may be worthwhile to look to the past to see how they play themselves out over time. This is not the same as looking to the past as a predictor of the future, which is what most of us are inclined to do. Thinking about why things happened as they did is quite different from asking how they turned out and expecting them same to happen again.

Much of the concern about the future these days focuses on what the world will look like if trends like climate change, urbanization, globalization, and radicalization continue to play out the same way they have over the past decade. Concerns about resource scarcity, especially petroleum and water, only compound anxiety about alternative future scenarios and the instability the factors driving them seem to suggest.

Could it be though that enough of us have already recognized and begun responding to these factors in ways that alter our future trajectory for the better? How will we discern this, especially if some of the undesired things we fear come to pass? A positive view of the future may not be widely recognized or reported in the popular press, but it has gained currency in many quarters as evidence of small, dispersed and very committed efforts to remake life beyond the current Industrial Era have begun to emerge with increasing frequency, urgency and intensity.

Many enterprises in the public, private and non-profit sectors have adopted triple-bottom line methods to measure their performance. This approach asks organizations to consider their environmental and social performance alongside their fiscal results. Looking at these three factors to the exclusion of technological and political developments is somewhat intentional. This approach assumes that these developments are in large measure artefacts of the other three. As such, the rise of radicalism, globalization and so on are directly related to how people experience and express (respond to) these underlying conditions.

Looking at the future through this lens, if only to align it with the way many organizations and institutions are now assessing themselves, therefore seems appropriate. Looking at economic, environmental and social performance provides us with a prism through which we can shed light on the political and technological changes we might experience.

Alongside these variables, I see four larger trends, which we might consider drivers, that will influence how we experience effects in each of these areas: I refer to them as local, simple, varied and connected. You might see other drivers in play, but I consider these four for the value they offer in looking at how individuals relate to communities and how communities relate to one another.

In each instance, we have to admit the uncertainty of arriving at any single, definable end-point associated with any dimension or variable. Looking at the extremes gives us a chance to consider the full range of plausible scenarios for each.

In most instances, individuals and communities will prefer a value somewhere between the two extremes represented by each diagonally opposite pairing presented in the matrix above. To the extent that this is true, the challenges to shaping the future to arrive at such conclusions are many. Not the least of these is our tendency to look to the past for answers rather than looking for new options and consulting others.

When I look at this table for opportunities to leverage key strengths of emergency services that can shape the future for the better, I see many opportunities. Thinking about the strengths emergency services bring into this environment — adaptability, tolerance for ambiguity, commitment to service — I see opportunities to approach problems with greater creativity and collaboration.

What does this analysis suggest to you? For which alternative futures should we prepare? How do you view our capacity to shape the future?

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