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How Do We Define the Future?

Samuel Kim (Harvard MPA), Founding President of the Center for Asia Leadership

There isn’t just one way to understand and define the future, as the paths leading us on from the present are numerous. Reading through dozens of articles and analyses that offered a wide range of views about studying the future, I’ve found that the following three points seem to hold true across the board.

First, no prediction is definite, but some measure of foresight—a deep and clear understanding of likely futures—will help us to prepare for upcoming events in advance.

Second, there are multiple likely futures ahead of us, and we need to make strong efforts to learn what they are and the impact they may have on us.

Third, learning about these futures must be accompanied by a clear call to action that asks this question: “What do these likely futures tell us we should do now?”   

The “Cone of Plausibility” below helps us to visualize the relationship between where we are now and the likelihood of events that may take place in the future.[1] This diagram builds on the idea that the more we study the future in order to prepare and plan for it, the more possibilities we can identify.[2] Let’s take a look at the four main types of futures:

Figure 1: Cone of Plausibility

1.       The “possible” futures shown on the outermost layer are ones that we think could theoretically happen sometime in the coming days reliant on the future knowledge that we currently don’t yet possess.  In other words, they may be unlikely for now, but they lie within the bounds of possibility. It’s okay to think about such futures, but for our own benefit we should focus more on the immediate and urgent changes likely to be coming to us.

2.       The “probable” or expected futures are those that individuals and organizations looking ahead believe are likely to happen, based on our current knowledge and continuing trends, and assuming no unexpected interruptions or influences. There is a high certainty that one or more of these futures will occur, but we must be careful not to plan our actions based solely on these probable developments, as humans are often surprised by unforeseen upheavals, such as Covid-19. Surprises like the pandemic can take place anytime and anywhere, upending our assumptions, plans, and strategies. Living with such surprises has become a new normal for all of us, so we must consider possibilities beyond just the probable.

3.       The “plausible” futures are more feasible than the “possible” futures but require changes and action in the present in order to occur. What might happen, factoring in both the worst- and the best-case scenarios? What are the known unknowns, unknown knowns, and unknown unknowns? Are our known knowns up-to-date? We need to factor in all of these variables in order to mobilize our current tools and respond in better ways to the changes that could happen. We need to test our narratives, assumptions, and ways of doing things, abandoning those that are outdated and working to make the good ones survive and even thrive in the range of plausible futures. Preparing for all the plausible futures as best we can will be vital to our survival.

4.       The “preferable” futures are those we hope to see happen—and these futures cut across the other three types of futures. A preferable future arises mainly from the emotions rather than from cognition. People desire certain futures and will pursue them based on their specific contexts and needs.[3] Individuals and organizations pursuing a particular future will actively strive to close the gap between their current reality and their aspirations, applying all of their capabilities and resources.

Given this array of potential futures, frequent and honest “reality checks” are crucial to surviving and thriving in the approaching era. We must (1) carefully observe current trends, discourses, and policies, (2) perceive changes taking place now and in the coming days, (3) decipher and interpret what they mean and what they imply about how we should act, (4) communicate our plans with key stakeholders, (5) generate milestones and small-step plans, and (6) take action in the present toward our preferable future.

Of course, we will need to be adaptable and amend our plans along the way. But contemplating the full range of our potential futures will certainly assist us in achieving greater success as we proceed.

This article is part of a chapter in our latest publication Rethinking Asia 7 “The Future of Work: How to Prepare for It”. To learn more about how to prepare your organization for the future and build a future-ready workforce and leadership team, visit our Signature Program Page