Coffee and croissants on the lawn was off the agenda: a May downpour put paid to that notion. 'We can't even predict the weather,' noted Flamingo director David Burrows ruefully as he introduced Addiction to Prediction, the latest in a London-based series of Big Ideas Breakfasts from the brand and insight consultancy.
The weather is but one of the many forecasting activities people undertake every day, pointed out the event's main speaker, Daniel Franklin, The Economist's executive editor, responsible for its annual 'World In…' reports and editor of the 2012 book Megachange: The World in 2050. Predictions are an essential part of life: consider the setting of government, corporate and household budgets, infrastructure planning and political punditry, to say nothing of entire industries built around trend spotting and futurology. 'We're condemned to be addicted to prediction,' Franklin observed.
But rather than discuss the details of tomorrow, this morning was given over to considering how we think about the future. As humans we have an inherent 'recency bias'. Historian Niall Ferguson has written that those people looking at the future are 'consciously or unconsciously reflecting on the present'.As a result, we're unprepared for Black Swan events – those things that come at us out of the blue, impossible to foresee but often devastating.'Unknown unknowns,' in Donald Rumsfeld's famous formulation.
'We need to be humble about the future,' said Franklin, admitting that in The Economist's The World In 2009 he'd had to apologise for not foreseeing the global financial crash in 2008. At the same time he played down some of the more cataclysmic scenarios that have gained traction in the media – the 'dirge of dire doom' as author Matt Ridley describes them – as many of these predictions have proved completely wrong in the past. Remember the "Millennium Bug"?
Wrong or not, the important thing in Franklin's view is that thinking about the future is useful, in that it can give new perspectives on the present. And he urged people to take time out to do that thinking. In the Q&A session following Franklin's presentation, Adam Chmielowski, Flamingo's Head of Trends and Foresight, agreed, suggesting that having a chief cultural officer at senior level to can facilitate long-term thinking within corporations.
As an example of very long-term thinking, Franklin gave an example of a "1,000 year perspective". Asia accounted for more than half of global output until the industrial revolution propelled the West to economic primacy. But with the rise of China the pendulum is swinging back: the Chinese economy is set to become the world's largest by 2018 and Asia is forecast to constitute half of world output by 2050.
Franklin also offered a list of techniques to help build a picture of how the future might look. These ranged from straightforward linear extrapolation to increasingly sophisticated data mining and modelling methods, as well as expert opinion, horizon scanning and scenario planning. Crowd sourcing via social media such as Twitter is another area that is being developed.
Flamingo's Adam Chmielowski and Josephine Shaw also had practical advice for forecasters. They argued that 'spectatorship' is a big danger, with companies that concentrated on the short-term alone likely to be 'carried like driftwood on a flood tide to the future'.And they pinpointed language as one route to change the cultural vision.
Asking 'What's next?' leads to 'coolhunting' and a focus on the shiny and ephemeral. Better to ask 'What's neglected?', which prompts longer-term thinking, an approach taken by Mohammed Younis, founder of the microfinance Grameen Bank. Similarly, rather than asking 'What if…?', which tends to be associated with bad things happening to you, ask 'What if we…?', which implies taking control.And that in turn leads to the power of 'ambitious optimism'.
And it is this ambitious optimism that Chmielowski and Shaw see marketers wielding in the future: instead of just responding to the world as it alters around them, they should be asking what change their business wants to see and questioning how their brand can make that change happen.After all, brands can be agents of change, as they're already embedded in people's lives. The ability to make accurate weather forecasts, however, is another issue altogether.