Article: The future belongs to those who can describe it

By Flemming Wisler, Futureorientation February 2007

The struggle for the future is very much about communication. They who manage to set the agenda will also be those who dominate the decisions and behavior of many others. So we see more and more messages about the future that go hand in hand with media expertise. Even so, we have never been more shortsighted in our view of the future.

” I have a dream.” You certainly need to hear no more before a stream of images passes before your eyes. Dr. King’s fantastic speech before the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 stands as one of the strongest examples of envisioning the future in modern times. A political speech that not only made the American civil rights movement stronger than ever, but that also changed the future of Afro-Americans.

In that decade, in 1961, Kennedy gave a speech that also set great events in motion, when he proclaimed to Congress his mission to put a man on the moon – and bring him home safely – by the end of the decade. That was the opening shot of the conquest of space, seen by many as the most fruitful technology race in human history.

There have been countless political speeches that changed history – not least before and during the Second World War, when both Hitler and Churchill, with magnetic oratory, and for better and worse, mobilized millions.

But Dr. King and Kennedy today stand as notable examples of the ability to conquer the future with outstanding communication and media coverage, even in the infancy of global television.

But why do we remember the futurist visions of that time in particular?

The future’s Y2K problem

Much indicates that our perception of the future as something far ahead has changed. Studies show that about 60% of companies define “long term” as one or two years.
Interest in the future peaked in many ways in the 1970s, with the publication of a number of epoch-making books about the future. In 1968, the ultimate story of the future came to the screen: 2001: A Space Odyssey, followed in 1982 by another great classic, Blade Runner, set in 2019.

The postwar era’s great interest in futures research cooled during the 1980s and 1990s when the profession lost a number of its greatest figures: Herman Kahn, Margaret Mead, John McHale, Donella Meadows, Kenneth Boulding and Buckminster Fuller, all of whom had helped start the discipline after the Second World War.

Many have speculated about why we have seen this development, and one possible simple explanation could be that, as we approached the new millennium, we began to feel as if we were already living in the future.

We built a bridge to the 21st century, as Bill Clinton put it. The future began in 2000 and now we are in the middle of it.

The great collective

In the years after the Second World War, the globe faced a collective project: rebuild and begin again. Soon, that collective project became the Cold War and the struggle to avoid a nuclear confrontation. Later came the population explosion and, in the early 1980s, AIDS.

There was a period after the collapse of the Soviet Union when the great collective project was not so obvious. Globalization and the IT revolution suddenly were realities, and toward the turn of the millennium, the collective projects became personal projects. Individualization has driven us the past many years, but individualization makes it hard to create visions that inspire a nation. The future became, therefore, countless personal visions.

Paradoxically, it was the shift to the new millennium that gave us the first collective concern. Would our computers, and the world we had learned to know, be smashed when all the digital clocks reset at the start of 2000? As we know the answer was no, perhaps because of the massive investments made to avoid a global IT meltdown.

This massive investment and focus on the problem, however, was also the start of the dot-com crash, and the start of temporary halt in the continued commercial speculation in the Internet’s explosive development and future.


The new millenniums individual future had barely started before terrorism replaced the Cold War as the new collective challenge. Some would say that it was Huntington’s future scenario from 1993, Clash of Civilizations, that is happening with a religious and cultural confrontation in the global village.

The interesting thing is that Huntington’s theories first became a hit almost 10 years later after they were published, and so did not manage to prepare us for the conflict that today overshadows the millennium’s otherwise shining future perspectives.

Such a negative and uncomfortable description of the future did not manage to conquer the future in the wild, self-realizing 1990s.

New responsibility of media icons

Journalists, scientists and politicians no longer have the power to break through with a message. Instead, we should look for that power in the media and style icons of entertainment, sport and business.

We increasingly see that it requires rock-star status to set in motion a great movement. In the beginning, the initiatives from Bob Geldof and Bono were looked at askance, and we smiled charitably at the hippies at Apple, with Steve Jobs in the lead and Alan Kay’s ideas in the background. At Richard Branson of Virgin or, most recently, Robert Scoble who, in Hawaii shirt and shorts, suddenly became Microsoft’s official nerd blogger and spokesman from the web 2.0 underground.

But it is precisely here where the power of penetration can be created because these people are driven by idealism and media consciousness, and don’t need to prove anything.

Those who capture the future have access to the media beacons of entertainment, either directly or indirectly – through the network and an understanding of the media’s built-in power of contagion that can prompt new global themes.

The winner is

Maybe we people are just now entering a new relationship to the real future: the future that is more than two years distant.

Literally, there are some indications that a part of the futures research that for the last twenty years has been opposed most intensely is about to capture the agenda: climate. Right now, the ice is actually melting, and a measurable rise in global temperature is a fact.

In record time, energy use and CO2 releases have become politically current, hippie talk about sustainable energy has become cool business, and corn has become the new gold, convertible to ethanol and fuel.

It is now time for a comeback for futures research and visions, because we stand before an insecure world where vision and hope are just as much in demand as corn.

Who will conquer this future? Who can communicate, cooperate with (futures) researchers and navigate politically and media-wise on the international stage?

Some have taken up the torch and taken off. For example, former US vice president Al Gore. With his project An Inconvenient Truth, Gore, in a mix of popularity, media awareness and a fantastic network to progressive business leaders, politicians, journalists and entertainment has, in a short time, pushed the climate debate to a political tipping point in the USA. To where it means the most for us all.

He has a dream.

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