Expert Opinion

How will Automation and Climate Change Affect our Future?

October 27, 2019

Words by Sebastian Rumore | Images Credit London College of Fashion

In the past, reading the future was seen as more of a religious or supernatural experience. These days, we turn to data instead of the crystal ball to uncover patterns and make predictions about the future. As the Executive Director of the Centre for the Future, Dr Richard Hames is an expert at reading such data and many of his previous predictions have come true. Such as the time in 1998 when he warned that a plane could be hijacked and flown into the World Trade Center, and in 2005 he spoke about patterns that would lead to the GFC before it happened (unbelievable). He also made accurate predictions about the rise of Trump, the Arab Spring, and the success of companies like Apple and Telsa. Once described by Forbes magazine ‘as one of the smartest people on the planet’, Richard has written seven books, published 350 essays, and writes regular posts for his blog, The Hames Report. One thing’s for certain: he has a better idea of the future than we do. This week Dr Richard is talking to us about the future of work and the science of reading the future, including a startling prediction about climate change. It gets interesting, so read on!

HE: What are your predictions for how automation will affect the workforce over the coming decade or two?

DRH: Automation will have a profound impact on everything, not simply production and workplace design. For instance, education is being impacted even today as schools and colleges begin to realise they are training young people for jobs that probably will not exist in a few years time. The real worry is that artificial super intelligence (machine intelligence post 2030 or so) will mean that most “work” which exists today will be done more cheaply, reliably and quickly by machines. So the real question is what we do when “work” is not available to fill the hours of the day.

HE: What skills should young people be investing in to future-proof themselves against a changing job market?

DRH: Relational skills, creative and critical thinking, tasks requiring empathy, compassion, and even altruism; applications for their inherent ingenuity; human-centered design; creative and performing arts; etc.  Things that machines can’t do.

HE: In the past, fortune tellers might have used intuition to come up with credible predictions about the future. Now data and reason give people enhanced ability to read the future more accurately. Do you think that intuition still has a role to play in predicting the future?

DRH: There is no doubt that intuition frames our moral stance, and reasoning is often used to reinforce any intuitive moral responses we believe. This is the problem with climate science. No reasoning in the world is going to change the emotional response of those who cannot bring themselves to face an alternative truth. So in foresight, when we try to persuade others of the seriousness of their situation, we should try to appeal to their moral intuition rather

than convince them with logic or data. This also explains why the Climate Council in Australia is failing to get traction. They are singing to the choir and until they change the way they communicate (especially from a dystopian to a more pragmatic utopian vision) they will remain on the sidelines of irrelevance. Of course we cannot convince them of this because they believe reasoning comes before emotions.

HE: Out of all the predictions you’ve made over past decades, has there been any which have really surprised you, either by missing the mark or by leading to other events which you did not expect?

DRH: Because of the our rigorous research methods, as explained below, I have not been unduly surprised. And because of the systemic patterning we use to envision trajectories in complex systems, their relationships and their speed, we are routinely able to “see” what else might be triggered in the future. So, for example, the widening gap between the mega-rich and the poor is the result of two major factors; socio-economic stratification and an extractive (or exploitative) economy. I predicted several years ago that attempts to “democratize” economic power via shared ownership would happen at some stage.

HE: What is your process for coming up with predictions about the future?

DRH: A rigorous and inclusive process – commonly triggered by a strategic question. First step is to frame the question in such a way that it open up an expansive inquiry within a framework we use called the “expanded now”. We then use a proprietary algorithm to scan millions of documents that are available online and in the public domain. The resulting raw data we sort into between 5-8 themes. This is then sent out to around 3,000 trusted sources for their comments and insights. Usually we get around 250-300 responses which we then use to craft “anticipatory narratives” within each of the 5-8 themes. The research team summarise the main features of each story in an immersive environment that allows us to see complex patterns unfolding. If, as sometimes happens, we get the same “red flag” across all themes we issue a prediction that if some kind of action is not taken we can expect “something” to happen along the lines indicated.

HE: What are the main challenges or pitfalls for anyone who’s trying to make accurate predictions about the future?

DRH: Firstly, the lack of a rigorous method is vital – especially when we are predicting events or situations for clients whose future might depend on our accuracy. Second, scanning the future must not just rely on present day opinions. By studying an “expanded now” we can find decisions that were made decades or even years ago that are still impacting current patterns. For example, the possibility of hijacked planes being flown into the twin towers was actually canvassed in a report by the Pentagon several years preceding 9/11. Lastly, the trusted sources we use are from all walks of life and work across many disciplines. This means we are always getting unbiased views and not simply opinions from

“Western” media and authorities.

HE: Out of all your predictions, is there one in particular which you hope you’re wrong about?

DRH: The collapse of our civilisation by 2100. I am predicting that various patterns will converge to reduce the human population to around 2 billion people or less by the turn of the century. Declining fertility globally; the impacts from the current extinction and ecological collapse (that includes factors like global heating for example); climate refugees will be abandoned by the wealthier nations in a last ditch attempt to avoid catastrophe. I will only be proven correct if we make urgent and profound changes over the next decade to the choices we make in terms of how we live our lives. Action will be needed to change the endless cycle of desire and consumption. Action will be needed to decarbonise the earth and the economy. Action will be needed to lessen conflict. Action will be needed to reduce economic inequality and injustice. At the very least, these changes need to happen – probably many more. Otherwise collapse is inevitable.

HE: A lot of people probably feel overwhelmed or helpless in the face of some of your predictions. What are some practical steps individuals can take to safeguard themselves against issues which often play out on a global level?

DRH: A good question and one for which I have few answers. Obviously, it is impossible to keep up with the truth, given the nature of all media these days to distort what is really happening or to use it as propaganda in some form or other. I do not suggest for one moment that everyone should try to do what I am doing. Knowledge is a burden, and that burden is increasingly weighty and existential. Obviously many are reacting to ”the news” by dropping out or going off the grid, it’s only natural. I do see the current youth activism and civil disobedience as critical in terms of getting government attention. I suspect that will only increase over the coming years until we are able to totally re-envisage human purpose by shifting more to a communitarian view rather than the dominant “individualism” that is prevalent in Western culture.

HE: You describe yourself as an anticipatory futurist. If a person was interested in becoming a futurist themselves, what steps would you recommend they take?

DRH: I would not recommend that they do. It takes an emotional toll that is increasingly difficult to manage. It’s only human nature to believe the future will be much like the present, so one of the challenges we have to overcome is the inherent belief that we cannot be right – especially when we are predicting something that flies in the face of present-day reality. So my warnings about the collapse of capitalism, for example, although there are clear signs that this is happening now, are unlikely to be taken seriously until it becomes obvious to the public at large. For these reasons I have been dubbed a latter-day Cassandra and, in some cases a latter-day Nostradamus (far worse!). You can read more about Richard’s work on Medium, Stage, LinkedIn and Twitter.


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