“It’s very easy to imagine how things go wrong,” says futurist Peter Schwartz in the video above. “It’s much harder to imagine how things go right.” So he demonstrated a quarter-century ago with the Wired magazine cover story he co-wrote with Peter Leyden, “The Long Boom.” Made in the now techno-utopian-seeming year of 1997, its predictions of “25 years of prosperity, freedom, and a better environment for a whole world” have since become objects of ridicule. But in the piece Schwartz and Leyden also provide a set of less-desirable alternative scenarios whose details — a new Cold War between the U.S. and China, climate change-related disruptions in the food supply, an “uncontrollable plague” — look rather more prescient in retrospect.
The intelligent futurist, in Schwartz’s view, aims not to get everything right. “It’s almost impossible. But you test your decisions against multiple scenarios, so you make sure you don’t get it wrong in the scenarios that actually occur.” The art of “scenario planning,” as Schwartz calls it, requires a fairly deep rootedness in the past.
His own life is a case in point: born in a German refugee camp in 1946, he eventually made his way to a place then called Stanford Research Institute. “It was the early days that became Silicon Valley. It’s where technology was accelerating. It was one of the first thousand people online. It was the era when LSD was still being used as an exploratory tool. So everything around me was the future being born,” and he could hardly have avoided getting hooked on the future.
That addiction remains with Schwartz today: most recently, he’s been forecasting the shape of work to come for Salesforce. The key question, he realized, “was not what did I think about the future, but what did everybody else think about the future?” And among “everybody else,” he places special value on the abilities of those possessed of imagination, collaborative ability, and “ruthless curiosity.” As for the greatest threat to scenario planning, he names “fear of the future,” calling it “one of the worst problems we have today.” There will be more setbacks, more “wars and panics and pandemics and so on.” But “the great arc of human progress, and the gain of prosperity, and a better life for all, that will continue.” Despite all he’s seen – and indeed, because of all he’s seen — Peter Schwartz still believes in the long boom.
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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.