Strategy in a crystal ball: A tour of top futurist trendspotters and consultants paints a picture of tomorrow that is almost universally optimistic, but Peter Day believes that may be because the principal prognosticators are speaking from America, home o

Strategy in a crystal ball: A tour of top futurist trendspotters and consultants paints a picture of tomorrow that is almost universally optimistic, but Peter Day believes that may be because the principal prognosticators are speaking from America, home o

by PETER DAY
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Across the bay from San Francisco, Global Business Network is on the other side of the tracks. It operates in a former International Harvester tractor factory in what used to be old-fashioned California metal-bashing territory. But these days the weightless economy is all, and knowledge-based organisations can be headquartered anywhere under the sun.

This is Emoryville, a suburb of the city of Oakland, the place of which Gertrude Stein said, despairingly, 'There is no there there.' (It was her home town.) It is quite a symbolic place to base an organisation that harnesses an international network of very bright people to peer into the future on behalf of multinational companies anxious about where they stand on the brink of cyberspace.

The GBN centre was one of many symbolic places I visited on a recent pilgrimage across America into the future, on a commission from the BBC World Service. I had picked a handful of the best-known crystal-ball gazers, and spent a week or two looking over their shoulders. Global Business Network was an obvious place at which to start: it supplies subscriber companies all over the world with a stream of observations and ideas about the future - generated by a clutch of experts in a pudding of disciplines from demography to music trends. (It was GBN, for example, that first spotted, on the streets of south-central Los Angeles, the fashion for wearing baseball caps the wrong way round.)

The organisation is created around the concept of scenario planning, which GBN chairman Peter Schwartz had organised for Shell in London in the 1980s. Over the past two years, GBN has been identified with a singular and controversial view of the future - the Long Boom. This optimistic scenario devised by Schwartz and his team is based on the idea that global integration and waves of new technology are kicking in to produce a remarkable, sustainable tide of growth that will stretch out over the next 20 years.

The last wave of growth involved about 500 million people, says Schwartz, but this one will embrace two to three billion people in China, Japan, Southeast Asia and parts of Latin America, as well as Europe. It's big stuff. The Long Boom prognosis has even caught the attention of film-maker Steven Spielberg, who is building some of its assumptions into the landscape of a film based on Phillip K Dick's story Minority Report, which takes place in the year 2080. It's due for release next year.

As I travelled across America in pursuit of the future, I discovered that GBN's benign outlook was not as singular as I had thought. Many of America's futurists are looking on the sunny side of the street. Their optimism may be wrong-headed, and may come as a shock to European businesses still mostly mired in a grudging, constipated caution, but it also may be worth bearing in mind when business leaders grab a few moments from the day-to-day hustle to think about their futures.

Another stop on the pilgrimage was at a calm office building tucked away in the trees a few miles from the jostling innovation of Silicon Valley.

The Institute for the Future, a non-profit-making organisation, has been monitoring trends for over 30 years. It works for companies, public bodies and foreign governments (it recently forecast the prospects for a province in China) but its main mission is to try to persuade people that it's actually worth thinking systematically about the future.

One of the Institute's most quoted directors is Paul Saffo. An anthropologist by training, he's keen to emphasise the importance of building human understanding into any analysis of the way technology trends affect society. Naturally he's enthusiastic about the networked world which Silicon Valley is making ever more possible. But he's also got a weather eye on the difference between predicting the future and what may actually happen.

'A forecast,' he says, 'has to be internally consistent, plausible, logical, believable. Reality operates under no such limitations. So often so-called 'wild cards' end up being very important forms of peripheral vision to alert you to what might happen.' Modestly, he says that what he does is merely apply common sense, like looking out of a window in the morning before you decide whether to take a coat. But Saffo is looking out of a window in California where almost anything can happen. He has some hands-on advice for business people who are perplexed by the future and don't live in Silicon Valley, where so much of the action seems to originate.

'What we have right now is a lot of middle-aged, middle-level managers feeling very overwhelmed about how to try to keep up with all this technology change. There's no substitute for keeping your own counsel. If you're trying to make sense of the internet today, get on the web, play with it. In periods of rapid change, intuitive understandings about what the future holds, in terms of product possibilities, come from the heart, not the head.'

But of course, in California, good ideas - and bad ones - can tap into the huge and instant investment money available a few minutes away from the Institute for the Future, in Sand Hill Road, Menlo Park, home to the greatest concentration of venture capital in the world. Optimism is a way of life there.

In sober-suited Washington DC, it comes as a surprise to see Lester Brown's bare knees in an office not far from the White House. But his shorts fit the place. For this is the Worldwatch Institute, where Brown has been crying woe about the state of the world and its resources for 25 years. A former official at the US Department of Agriculture, he set up the Institute in the hope of waking up the world to the threats to sustainable life posed by climate change and the long-term threat to our food supplies. And world water supplies are still the main worry at Worldwatch.

Earlier this year, however, Brown detected a change in the way the world is now thinking about the environment. He thinks the change has implications as large as those from the fall of international communism 10 years ago. A full generation of environmental campaigning is bearing fruit: the people who grew up with it are coming to power. Business leaders who long have paid lip service to the ideas of the conservationists are beginning to ask the questions that may lead them to change the way their industries use resources and recycle them. If Big Oil is listening - and it appears to be - then others will follow, says Brown.

A discussion with husband-and-wife team Avory and Hunter Lovins is exhilarating - and not only because of her cowboy hat, which is quite appropriate for riding the range in Windstar Valley, the ranch the couple managed to save from development near the Snowmass ski resort in the Rockies. This is where they've based their Rocky Mountain Institute, which for 20 years has pioneered a dramatic vision of conservation aimed specifically at business.

If it works, the idea is a simple: redesign industrial processes from top to bottom so that business becomes more environmentally friendly and productivity increases enormously at the same time. Waste is reduced and recycled, heat loss eliminated, goods (such as carpeting) leased instead of sold, then reclaimed by the makers when they need replacing. The ideas are potent because of their optimism - business being used as an agent of change to the benefit of society as well as of shareholders. An agent of change much more powerful, they say, than government regulation.

It can be done, they contend, and the movement is growing by the day.

In line with several of the futurists I met, one business leader was singled out as a notable embracer of the quest towards a sustainable future: Sir John Browne of BP Amoco. An oil company might not be the first place one would look for environmental awareness, but Browne's efforts to change the direction of his company towards renewable energy are winning him acclaim at the Rocky Mountain Institute and with other US commentators.

Even in America, optimism can be exhausting. A good man to temper it is Robert McMath, proprietor of a remarkable shed tucked away along a rough track in the town of Ithaca, upstate of New York. Failed fortunes are what's celebrated inside McMath's shed. He calls it the New Products Showcase and Learning Centre. Its shelves are lined like a supermarket's with thousands of packs, cans and bottles of goods that are no longer for sale anywhere, having failed an acid test - that of the marketplace.

Some 25,000 consumer products are launched every year in America, and 80% of them will fail, says McMath. And he will end up preserving many of the failures for the enlightenment of posterity.

Who remembers the smokeless cigarette? Or microwaveable ice cream? Or clear Pepsi? Or Stinkers, the garlic dog biscuits? McMath does, and he charges visitors a lot to learn about other people's mistakes and how to avoid them. It ought to be grim but the New Products Showcase is a great place to sober up a little after a drenching in American optimism.

The great baseball player and unwitting philosopher Yogi Berra once said that prediction was difficult, especially about the future. He also uttered the phrase that sums up the cheeriness of current American futurism, persuasive in part but also slightly unhinged: 'When you come to a crossroads,' he said, 'take it.'

Peter Day is BBC Business Correspondent and presents In Business on Radio 4

PAUL SAFFO

'We all tend to feel out of control today, but I think that's a product of our anxieties, not a statement of actual fact. Even today, it turns out that the things that don't change are greater in number than the things that do. It's human nature to think we're always living in the most interesting moment in history; it's a sort of chronological chauvinism. Some people have compared the coming of the internet to the discovery of fire, but that's absolute balderdash. Probably the closest comparison is what happened in the 50 years following the invention of the printing press four centuries ago. But fire, it is not. It's almost embarrassing how easy my job is, because if you look back at the last couple of decades, what lies ahead in general terms is pretty easy to identify. We tend to ignore history, and overestimate the short term. I call it micro-myopia. Our hopes and expectations about some new technology lead us to overestimate its short-term impact on our lives and, when reality fails to live up to our expectations, our disappointment leads us to underestimate its long-term implications. When something doesn't happen in the immediate way that's expected, everyone says it's never going to happen at all. That's the point at which it takes off and blows the doors off our houses.'

Paul Saffo, director, Institute for the Future, Palo Alto, California

PETER SCHWARTZ

'The Long Boom scenario means a doubling twice of income over the next 20 years. It means a huge expansion in lifespans; they will rise to 150 or 200 years. China will be able to industrialise and have cars. And the Long Boom probably means a reduction in large-scale conflict. In the last year or so, we have been clearly seeing the productivity gains influenced by information technology that everybody has been waiting for for so long.

They are finally showing up in the official statistics. And this is not too good to be true: it's actually pretty much what we have been doing over the last couple of centuries. This is really a continuation of the deeper Long Boom that's been going on for the better part of a century and a half.' Peter Schwartz, chairman, Global Business Network. When Good Companies Do Bad Things, by Peter Schwartz and Blair Gibb, is published in the UK by John Wiley

AMORY AND HUNTER LOVINS

'Natural capitalism, as we call it, is a new approach to doing business that enables companies to behave as if the natural capital on which all life depends - and thus all economics - were properly valued on company balance sheets. 'Natural capital' includes things such as the climate being stable, so that agriculture can endure. It is making sure the Gulf Stream continues to flow - you people in the UK wouldn't like it if it was turned off. These and many other examples are the natural capitalism on which all business depends, yet they are not on anyone's balance sheet.

There have been valiant efforts to figure out what this stuff is worth.

Recent estimates have put it at the same size as the world economy or larger, yet no one counts it. If we wait for accountants to figure out how to value it, and legislators to implement it, it will be too late.

Instead, we're inviting business to change its ways - there are other approaches which are more profitable and which enable businesses to behave as if natural capital was properly valued. Businesses can use resources four, 10, 100 times more efficiently than they are currently doing. In nature there is no waste.'

Amory Lovins, director of research, and Hunter Lovins, chief executive, Rocky Mountain Institute, Snowmass, Colorado. Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution, by Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins and Hunter Lovins, is published by Earthscan Publications

LESTER BROWN

'We're beginning to see more and more people concerned about the future, and this is most evident in the business community. There are younger chief executives on the scene, and many are heads of multinational corporations - almost all the big corporations these days are multinational. And they are much more attuned to what's happening in the world than most people are, way ahead of US congress people, for example. They have to pay attention to what's happening in the rest of the world, because that's where they do business. Corporate leaders are beginning to look at the environment in terms of how it affects their investment decisions. For example, the increasing intensity of storms in places such as southeast America is rendering many properties uninsurable - and if you can't insure property, corporations don't like to invest. What we're beginning to see is the realisation in industrial economies themselves that the traditional industrial development model will not work over the long term. Governments round the world are changing their attitude to the car. People are beginning to realise it's not working. When I run past the vice president's house here in Washington at night, I see the Secret Service patrolling on bicycles.'

Lester Brown, chairman, Worldwatch Institute, Washington DC.

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime