Wolf Lotter

What's happening.

"We don't need euphoria or visions of gloom and doom for tomorrow, but rather facilitators with expertise. A plea for cautious optimism for the future." (Wolf Lotter)

There are people who believe that everything was better back in the day. That's wrong, especially where the future is concerned. It's easier to understand why when we understand what the future is. It's the sum total of our hopes, dreams, expectations and even our fears. The future is possibilities. Decisions must be made now for what is to come. The future begins once we start thinking about it. Now.

And that's just one reason why everything wasn't better back in the day. Most people were happy just to make it through the day; only a very few thought about what might be possible beyond that. People were subject to the destiny meted out by higher powers. Why should they go to a lot of trouble about what lay ahead when the gods had already decided their fate?

The future as we know it was an invention of the early modern era, when people ceased to be content with the old concept of destiny and sought something new. People looked to the future, wanting to know what would happen and what could be. Curiosity was no longer a sin for which people were cast out of paradise, but rather the foundation of innovation and discovery. It was a time of awakening. But it was also when lasting misconceptions were born that continue to distort our view of the future today.

The reason is intensely human: we love certainty, clarity and safety. But the future is open. Possibilities are not certainties. And so the door to fear is opened. That was the business model of the French apothecary Michel de Nostredame, known as Nostradamus. In the mid-sixteenth century, his dark prophesies made him one of the first best-selling authors in the history of the world. Even today many people employ Nostradamus's model of selling visions of the apocalypse, and allegedly 'sure-fire' ways to prevent it.

The second model of the future that still survives today also dates back to this era. It is derived from the title of the novel Utopia, which was written by the advisor to King Henry VIII of England, Thomas More, in 1516. In it, More outlines an ideal society and an ideal world that can be planned on the drawing board. The word 'utopia' became a magical phrase for people set on shaping the world, and it remains so to this day. However, this is hardly any less dangerous than the fear and superstition propagated by Nostradamus. For utopia can descend from a well-meaning desire to improve things into a dogma. If it doesn't fit, it's made to fit – by force. Reality is made to conform with a concept, inescapably, unavoidably. That is why we often find tyranny and violence in the wake of utopia.

The models of the future of Nostradamus and Thomas More – apocalypse and utopia – are two variations of a single misconception, namely that everything has to happen the way it has been imagined. But future is not simply a projection of the present. People who put their faith in that idea will be caught out by inventions, innovations and 'black swans', as Nassim Nicolas Taleb dubbed unusual yet momentous surprises. Disruption clouds the vision of those who don't pay attention in times of upheaval.

The solution is reason. Stay cool. Objective. Pragmatic. Don't join the camp of doomsdayers or Pollyannas. Approach things with expertise while listening to and observing the needs and problems of the people you serve. It becomes apparent quite quickly that most people don't want any utopias or visions. They want a better solution. Practicable, understandable and comfortable. We need expertise when trying to achieve that solution because it makes us smarter, and actually makes the world a little better.

The future isn't something that comes off the peg in one piece. It is part of a complex process of development. It's not something that can be called into being. It requires work. It is the culmination of small steps, the 'piecemeal reform' that Karl Popper described in his masterpiece The Open Society. This work doesn't require heroes or swashbucklers, it just takes people who are interested in other people's questions and problems. People who like people. Facilitators, in other words. They weave the stuff of tomorrow.

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