Friday, May 26, 2023

Finding useful distinctions between different futures


This blog posting is a response to Joseph Voros's informative blog posting about the Futures Cone. It is a useful contribution in as much as it helps us think about the future in terms of different sets of possibilities. Here is a copy of his edited version.

Figure 1: Voros, 2017

My alternative, shown below, was developed in the context of supporting explorations of alternative futures. It has some similarities and differences. For a start, here is the diagram.

Figure 2: Davies, 2023

I will now list Joseph's explanation of each of the terms he used, and how they might relate to mine (in red)

  • Possible – these are those futures that we think ‘might’ happen, based on some future knowledge we do not yet possess, but which we might possess someday (e.g., warp drive). I think these fall in the grey area above.
  • Plausible – those we think ‘could’ happen based on our current understanding of how the world works (physical laws, social processes, etc).I think these fall somewhere within the green matrix
  • Probable – those we think are ‘likely to’ happen, usually based on (in many cases, quantitative) current trends. These probably fall within the Likely row of the green matrix
  • Preferable – those we think ‘should’ or ‘ought to’ happen: normative value judgements as opposed to the mostly cognitive, above. There is also of course the associated converse class—the un-preferred futures—a ‘shadow’ form of anti-normative futures that we think should not happen nor ever be allowed to happen (e.g., global climate change scenarios comes to mind).These probably fall within the Desirable column of the green matrix
  • Projected – the (singular) default, business as usual, ‘baseline’, extrapolated ‘continuation of the past through the present’ future. This single future could also be considered as being ‘the most probable’ of the Probable futures. As suggested above, probably at the most likely end of the Likely row in the above green matrix
  • (Predicted) – the future that someone claims ‘will’ happen. I briefly toyed with using this category for a few years quite some time ago now, but I ended up not using it anymore because it tends to cloud the openness to possibilities (or, more usefully, the ‘preposter-abilities’!) that using the full Futures Cone is intended to engender. Probably also at the most likely end of the Likely row in the above green matrix
Preposterious events are not really covered. Perhaps they are at the extreme end of the Unlikely events with known probabilities i.e zero likelihood.


Though lacking in alliteration my schema does have some more practically useful features

The primary additional feature is that for each different kind of future there are some conjectured consequences in terms of likely appropriate responses. Some of these are shown red:

  • Organisational "slack" i.e. uncommitted resources or reserves that could enable responses to the unforeseen (though, of course,  not every kind of unforseen event)
  • Fringe investments, such as blue sky research, can be appropriate where a possibility is in sight but its likelihood of happening is far from clear
  • Robust responses are those that might work, though not necessarily be the most effective or most efficient, across a span of possibilities having varying probabilities and desirabilities
  • Customised responses are those more tailored to specific combinations of un/likely and un/desirable events. The following more detailed version of the green martix describes some major possible variations of this kind
Figure 3
Where to next?

I would like to hear from readers their views on the possible utility of these distinctions. And whether any other distinctions could be added to or replace those I have used.