Predictions for 2017: why we believe in optimism

Why do we predict things? It might be as a warning - look what the consequences will be if we continue this way. Malthus is perhaps the best example of a predictor who created huge discussion of solutions to what many felt was an inevitable impending crisis, which was averted through invention and economic progress.

Many pieces of science fiction have predicted devices that inspired later developers to realise their imaginary creations: think of the Hitchhiker’s Guide being brought to life by creations such as the Apple Newton and the iPad. Or the Star Trek communicators that inspired mobile phone designs.

Each year when we make this series of predictions, we are asked "how good are you? When have you been right?" But should we predict to be right? Is it important to be accurate in your predictions? It’s a question that has been asked of pollsters and pundits throughout this year. And when attempting a straight numerical forecast, as of votes or temperatures, accuracy is important.

It is tempting to treat all predictions in this way, as right or wrong: it's such a simple and obvious way to check their quality to see if they have come true in the way described. But we feel it can miss the point. We make these predictions, as well as doing futures research and hosting Futurefest, not to be right about them, but to provoke thinking, to introduce new ideas, to question the direction we are heading in.

Predictions can illustrate a current trajectory, or imagine a sudden shift. They help us to imagine what might be different if they came true, and whether that is a desirable future or not.

Antimicrobial resistance is an example of how predictions and forecasts can create awareness of an issue that galvanises support for action and potential solutions. In 2015, Nesta commissioned a series of short stories “about a future facing up to the challenge of AMR as part of a much larger effort to publicise, educate, and enrich the conversation around AMR”.

In 2013, Nesta published ‘Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow: a modest defence of futurology’. In that, we outlined some of the reasons to engage in predictions and foresight methods. Governments around the world have used foresight studies to examine possible future scenarios, and then make plans for them, as with the UK Foresight report on flooding, which led to improved investment in flood defences.

Moore’s law (that the number of transistors in a chip would double every two years) evolved from an accurate prediction to become an industry standard, guiding long-term planning and setting performance targets for semiconductor companies.

We hope that this year’s list of predictions are all possible, even plausible futures. Not all of them are desirable. But they are all unwritten - we have the capacity to change these futures. Predictions of this sort do not mean that the future is inevitable.

Over the last three years, we have been growing and expanding the work of futures at Nesta. We have started to use foresight and futures methods such as scenario planning, personas, three horizons and quantitative methods to examine the prospects for new technologies and their potential impact on society. They help us to explore alternative futures, ways to influence the direction of development, and to combine multiple perspectives into a rounded view of future impact.

In the last weeks and months, it has been tempting to stray into pessimism, and to treat predictions as inevitable and unchangeable. But a more creative look at the future can pay dividends. We hope that you will find some inspiration and hope in this list, and resolve to take an active part in creating the future of 2017.


Louise Marston

Louise Marston

Louise Marston

Director of Innovation Policy and Futures

Louise was Director of Innovation Policy and Futures within the Policy and Research team. She managed Nesta's work on innovation policy and technology futures. She previously worked on…

View profile