«Predictions are a question of reception, of interest, of mindsets. In a way – of marketing strategy!»
Matthias Horx, Futurists and founder of the Zukunftsinstitut, about futurists monkey traps, recurring events and what can or rather cannot be predicted.
In the past two decades technology has evolved at a rapid pace. In what way has this affected the role of the futurist?
Well, we have a much, much better access to information and data today then ever. We have a giant database, based in the internet. But his does not solve the problem of «model building», which is still, the main challenge. And that needs more than technology. It needs a special intelligence, in which we combine sciences like anthropology, game theory, evolutionary theory, systemic economy and so on.
Are we truly capable to predict more today than yesterday?
With scientific futurology we know much better today what we can predict and what not. And what we can predict, we can describe and be more precise. But, to be honest, a lot of people in the «Future Business» do not care about methodology. They are either driven by their customers to «predict» something, which is good for profits. Or they are caught by «futurists monkey traps». They just love some aspects of the future, which they want to have for themselves, and then they predict them. Like immortality or flying cars or automatic homes, the old utopias of yesterday. Or negative visions like the climate doomsday. I´m often ashamed about how unscientific and under-complex trend- and future-research is today.
To what extent do predictions have the effect of a self-fulfilling prophecy?
It depends on the system they are «embedded» in, and the surrounding reference system. When you have a sect of followers, you can create a lot of self-fulfilling prophecies. If the media belongs to you, you can probably «make» trends – a kind of Big Brother job. I prefer the function of «critical reflections». Like the oracle of Delphi, which never gave easy answers, but used sophisticated questions to «educate» its customers.
What use do predictions have in a time of financial turmoil, the feared return of the Cold War, religious fundamentalism and global terror?
I don´t believe so much in «predictions», at least not in the ones nobody asked for. It is more interesting, that we understand systems as a whole. Terrorism for example is a system, which we can describe. It has rules, conditions, growth rates, and failure rates. To understand this, and to make a clever prediction about the future of terrorism, you have to know a lot about «Genes, Memes and Systems», as we say. Fear is the only real weapon of terrorism. If you understand this, you can help to cool it down.
The financial crisis with its melting point at Wall Street has reached historical proportions. What are the effects of such an event on predictions and estimates regarding our future?
Not much. The event itself was very much predicted. For years we have seen this crisis coming. It will end a model of profit, but not much more. Banking and speculations crises are very old. You could find them in Egypt and Mesopotamia 5000 years ago. They are, in a way, boring and quite predictable. It just means: People tend to be greedy, and the economy sometimes has to correct itself.
Which current events will have the largest effects on the intermediate future?
I do not think in terms of events. I think in terms of trends.
What circumstances and conditions must be present to make an accurate and reliable prediction?
First of all, there must be a «realistic question». Then you have to have loads of precise data. Thirdly you have to understand the underlying system. For example we can predict that the world population will peak around 2050-60 at 9,2 billion people. After that the world population will shrink. This is very reliable, because the data is very good, and we understand the «human system of fertility» now. But in the public eye, and even in the futurist scene, the old alarmist numbers of the Club of Rome – 15 to 20 billion people in the year 2100 – are still believed. Why? Because it’s more frightening and sensational, and you can tell the old story of the sinful human race – good old Malthus is coming out of his grave. What does this show us? Predictions are a question of reception, of interest, of mindsets. In a way – of marketing strategy!
Where lies the difference between the scientist and the dreamer when it comes to a vision of the world in the year 2050?
I think the world of 2050 will be pretty much the same as it is today. Wouldn’t that be an amazing thought? Wouldn’t it have been interesting to ask what stays, what is continuous, which trends are the evolutionary constants? The whole propaganda of «ever faster change» is nonsense. It´s the disease of futurists, who always have to legitimize their jobs by threatening people with sensational stories, which never come true. Maybe the development of our world – change of technology, access to wealth – is a much more continuous «story» then we think. It’s not so much about «events», it´s about very resilient megatrends.
What can we look forward to hearing from you at the European Futurists Conference Lucerne?
I want to talk about the subjects we discussed here.
Matthias Horx is considered the most influential futurist in the German-speaking world. In 1993, he founded the Trendbüro Hamburg which rapidly became the nucleus of German marketing orientated trend research, and five years later Matthias Horx founded the Zukunftsinstitut (www.zukunftsinstitut.de). The Zukunftsinstitut’s main mission is the analysis and presentation of fundamental future developments in society, the economy and everyday culture. With headquarters near Frankfurt (Kelkheim) and branches in Vienna and representatives in London, the economic and political think-tank is now very much in demand throughout Europe.
Keynote «The Futurist's Paradox»,
Culture and Convention Centre KKL, Lucerne, Switzerland
October 28, 2008; 15.15 h