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Invisible futures: what's most profound may be unseen

Ahead of the last FutureFest I wrote a series of blogs on how we can think about the future. I looked at the possibility of mass futurism, at the limits of prose as a way of understanding the future and at the virtues of encouraging very specific predictions.

We want people to think hard, and rigorously, about the future so that they can act more effectively in the present. Malcolm X wasn’t the only person to warn that the future belongs to those who prepare for it today, and it is possible for anyone, and any organisation, to get better at understanding, anticipating, sensing and exploring what lies ahead (which is one of the reasons why we host FutureFest).

Here I want to emphasise an intriguing aspect of thinking about the future: the role of the invisible. Much about the future is tangible, about things and stuff: cities with columns of driverless cars; implanted memories or sensors; nanobots roaming around our bodies; sexbots; new weapons.

Material change dominates how we think about the future, and thinking in material terms can be very helpful. Some of you will remember the 100 objects of the future which we showed at the first Futurefest. Changes to how we move, how we manage energy or transmit information, influence all of our lives.

But it’s possible that in the long-term the changes which affect us most are immaterial and invisible. They happen in our heads and hearts and become so much part of common sense that we barely notice them until we stand back and appreciate just how much the past has become a foreign country. These are the changes in how people treat each other; love each other; listen to each other; or show respect. They are changes in how we hope or dream, and what we value.

These are harder to track precisely because they are immaterial. But a futurology of the invisible might be the most interesting of all, and the pioneers who, through ideas, change our immaterial lives have as much influence as the engineers and technologists who provide the visible hardware.

Nietzsche once wrote that the future may influence the present as much as the past does. If we listen carefully we can sense echoes bouncing back from things that have yet to happen, and we can deliberately learn to amplify those echoes.

If that’s true, what are the invisible changes that might be on their way over the next few decades that we can already, dimly, hear? How will children born today think and feel differently from us?

Consciousness does change, and evolve, sometimes in quite predictable ways. But how can we distinguish the more accurate answers from our own wishful thinking?

I’d love to know.


Geoff Mulgan

Geoff Mulgan

Geoff Mulgan

Chief Executive Officer

Geoff Mulgan was Chief Executive of Nesta from 2011-2019.

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