About Nesta

Nesta is an innovation foundation. For us, innovation means turning bold ideas into reality and changing lives for the better. We use our expertise, skills and funding in areas where there are big challenges facing society.

Tell me a story of the future

In my last blog I looked at ways of thinking about trends and numbers, and how we can make sense of the quantitative shapes the future might take.

Here I turn to the role of stories.

Most people find stories much easier to grasp than numbers, trends or models. Our brains are just wired that way.

So it's not surprising that history has often been shaped by compelling stories of the future. Some were the stories of threats and dangers - warning of invasion or plague, punishment by a cruel God or the decline of civilisation (a good recent example was Dominic Sandbrook's piece for the Daily Mail gathering together all its readers' fears into a bleak picture of mid-21st century Britain).

Others were stories of hope that promised the City on the Hill, the coming of the Messiah or the arrival of communism.

Stories in politics

Modern politics is also saturated with simple stories about the future that are used to justify or block reforms.

Albert Hirschman called the latter 'rhetorics of reaction'- stories which warn of futility (nothing will work), perversity (reforms will have unintended negative consequences) and jeopardy (reforms will threaten things we care about).

Their mirrors are the rhetorics of progress which argue that reforms are needed to build on past reforms, to right past wrongs and to achieve a future golden age.

Stories are, by their nature, neither logical nor analytic.

But they do help to make sense of confusing information and, as the futurist Gaston Berger put it, some future stories usefully 'disturb the present'. That's the case with a lot of science fiction - from Margaret Atwood and Ursula LeGuin to Charles Stross.

So, apart from reading a lot of SF, how can we use stories to think about the future? Here I look at five different types of story that can help us peer into the crystal ball.

Scenarios and scenario planning

Many futurists advocate scenarios - plausible but coherent accounts of what might happen - in the form of scenario planning made famous by Shell and others.

They're certainly helpful at getting rigid organisations to think more flexibly; they acclimatise participants to potential surprises; and in theory they help organisations recognise whether their current strategies are robust against different possible futures.

Unfortunately they also have a few weaknesses. Many scenarios (particularly the ones used in big businesses and governments) are a bit dull as stories - too blandly broad brush to excite. It's very hard to get them owned by a lot of people but that's the only way they're useful. And too often the process gets in the way of the really tough issues rather than illuminating them.

'What if...' stories

Another approach to stories is deliberately more provocative than scenarios: the idea is to pursue 'what ifs', thinking through a possible trend, or taking an idea that exists in embryo and thinking through what would happen if it was generalised.

So in the first category we can ask: 'what if...' growth went into reverse for a generation; or globalisation was stalled by pandemics and cyber disasters.

What if technology and medicine continue to drive up life expectancy but make no progress in improving morbidity, leaving hundreds of millions with chronic conditions like untreatable dementia?

These are good mental workouts, but they can also be taken further.

Most of the really interesting shifts in history are shifts in categories as well as quantities and radical change nearly always involves changes in how things are seen or defined. Yet for that very reason these are the hardest changes to predict.

So another kind of 'what if' story looks at ideas as well as trends.

A good example is the sharing economy and collaborative consumption, which is growing all over the world, but remains rather baffling to conventional economics and is largely invisible in policy discussions.

So we can ask: what if it grew to 30 or 50% of GDP? What diversity of business and organisational models would appear? Would tax systems be adapted to promote it (perhaps rewarding leasing over purchase of commodities, incentivising multiple uses of things e.g. through discounts on vehicle tax for people who put them in sharing schemes)?

What would happen to jobs? Or trade?

New hybrids

It's possible to construct narratives which imagine the dynamics: for example, the battles which would be fought with existing industries (like the car industry) and how the politics would play out. We can also try to imagine the unforeseen effects on careers or financial returns or to urban planning.

Another example would be to imagine 'what if' all schools were replaced with online learning - so that school buildings were turned into flats and children spent their days doing Khan Academy-type lessons, attending MOOC-like universities, and absorbing personalised feedback from smart algorithms.

Thinking this through quickly reveals that much of what schools do isn't easily replicated in the virtual world - it's more about socialisation or even just providing children somewhere to be while their parents are at work.

So even if digital education worked brilliantly for maths and science, some other institutions would need to fill in all the gaps. The pressures to get results would soon force educators to act on the evidence that most successful digital tools work only when they are combined with offline elements- so new hybrids would emerge.

The Singularity - promoted by Ray Kurzweil - is, or at least should be, another good 'what if...' story.

What if automated intelligence outpaced and took over from human intelligence?

Thinking through the dynamics can be invigorating, though unfortunately it's often used (particularly in Kurzweil's own writings) as a linear, rather mindless story that manages to ignore almost everything that's known about how technologies and societies interact. But that's a topic for another day.

These are scenarios but very different from the ones found in scenario planning. They aren't well suited to guiding a big organisation into uncertain waters. Instead, they can be interrogated, deconstructed, and played with as prompts.

Backwards stories

A third kind of story looks backwards. Leadership training programmes sometimes ask their participants to write their own obituaries. It's a morbid thing to do - but its virtue is that it makes you think about what really matters to you. It prompts a conversation with an imagined version of yourself in a few decades' time.

What would your future self wish you had done today?

A similar device works for nations. Imagine if our politicians could meet their counterparts in the year 2043 - what would they wish had or hadn't been done? The challenge then is to write a story you might be proud of, which describes what you did and why it worked.

This can be embarrassing. But it brings to the surface the emotional aspects of the future that otherwise get ignored - the role of love, pride, glory, care. And it can show you just how much your life is diverted to what's urgent rather than what's important.

Compensating our story biases

We are well designed to listen to the stories. We also respond better to certain kinds of story - ones with drama, conflict, big personalities and sudden twists.

You can see this clearly in relation to threats.

The threats we respond to best are fast and visible (like a car coming towards us). They may involve people (because we are highly attuned to social feedback) and have a moral component (because we are good at taking moral offence).

So child abuse, climate change and the threat of terrorist gangs with nuclear weapons all generate big responses - the effect of humans having evolved in highly social environments full of physical threats.

If you wanted to kill humanity, you would design threats which were the opposite. Invisible, slow moving, detached from human agency and visible moral calculus. Perhaps a slow disease or even better a self-inflicted one would do the trick.

The implication is that it's useful to learn how to spot the threats and issues that we are most likely otherwise to ignore - the weak signals, the slow burn trends, the issues without moral colour.

Stories that ask why and offer answers

The American historian and sociologist Charles Tilly wrote brilliantly on the role of stories in social science (in particular in his book 'Stories, Identities, and Political Change'). He saw that coherent, compelling and detailed stories of how things change could connect the rigorous work of social science to a public audience.

Stories always simplify and "omit a large number of likely causes, necessary conditions, and especially, competing explanations of whatever happened... and particularly omit direct, incremental, interactive, unintended, [and] collective" factors.

But their virtue is that we can distinguish more or less convincing stories of how change happens - the best ones are clear but also rich, nuanced, attuned to sequencing or the interaction of interests, cultures, and beliefs.

The same is true of possible futures - we shouldn't be afraid of stories but should demand better ones. So if we're told that robots will destroy millions of jobs, a story futurists have espoused for fifty years, we should ask in detail about causal patterns and dialectics.

For example, about potential political responses, productivity effects or about why past forecasts of this kind were so wrong (if you're interested I tried to do just this in a blog a few months ago).

Charles Tilly was an unusually engaging academic because he repeatedly asked why: why did inequality persist? Why did events like 9/11 happen? It's not a bad strategy to adopt when faced with stories of the future - whether Pollyanna-ish promises that technology will solve everything, or apocalyptic predictions that we're all doomed.

Just keep asking why. From the pieces that are left, we can try to construct stories that do a better job.


Geoff Mulgan

Geoff Mulgan

Geoff Mulgan

Chief Executive Officer

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

View profile