On Monday and Tuesday next week I have the great privilege to be chairing the Inside Housing Connected Futures Summit in Manchester. Over the past few months I’ve been involved in helping to shape the event, which is a chance for change-focused people from across the Housing industry to gather together and discuss some of the challenges we face, with a particular view on the opportunities and challenges that technology provides us.
Upfront I have to set the scene with a few words. I’ve been musing on the conversations that I had earlier in the week with Tom Standage, and think what I will say is going to sound a little bit like this…
I’ve been involved in the world of technology, digital and change for the best part of 30 years now. In a way, it baffles me that we still talk about “digital” as being the future when it’s now well into adulthood as a concept. I was pleased when the organisers of the event changed the title of the two days from Digital Futures to Connected Futures as in some ways Digital and Future in the same sentence is now such an oxymoron. What isn’t, to some extent, digital these days?
Back in the 1990s, I was working in the world of broadcasting as that near century-old industry went through its first waves of digital transformation. Tapes became hard disks. Production processes became streamlined as editing went from razor blades to key presses. Indeed it’s now nearly a decade since the last analogue tv broadcasts were turned off.
In 1995 I bought a copy of Nicholas Negroponte’s “Roadmap for survival on the information superhighway”, Being Digital. Negroponte was one of the founders of the technology futures magazine Wired, and also led the MIT Media Lab, a hotbed of digital innovation for many years. The book captivated me with its vision of a digital future.
Looking back now, Negroponte was incredibly prescient in many of the ways in which he predicted the world would change. But in many others, he was terribly wrong. As we launch into two days of thinking about our organisations’ futures, there are two words of wisdom we can glean from some of the things he got wrong.
The first is that we need to avoid falling into futurist stereotypes. There are some things that always get predicted about the future that are invariably wrong. In Being Digital, Negroponte predicted that the Internet would bring the world closer together and therefore make it more harmonious. The conceit that new communication technologies will make the world more peaceful is nothing new. The electric telegraph was going to make the world a happier place but within a few decades, the Great War massacred millions. The aeroplane was going to make a peaceful planet but planes wrought devastation across Europe and Asia in World War II and ever since. The Internet has become an actual theatre of war for Russia, China and North Korea.
The second is that we need to realise when we are framing the future in the limited perspective of the present. Negroponte banged on and on in his book about how the future of Media was the future of non-linear multi-media content. His framing was the then incredibly whizzy CD-ROM. The reality today is that whilst media content is distributed in the blink of an eye across our high-speed connections, most of that content is still very linear, and single medium.
As a species, we are programmed to try to reduce anxiety in our lives. We look to prophets and sages, soothsayers and futurists to reduce our anxiety about the future by letting them tell us what it will be. The ones we listen to most, the ones with the most compelling views, are the ones most likely to be wrong, They get listened too because they exaggerate the most, and they tend to then fall into the traps of stereotypes or contemporary framing.
The secret with the future, though, is to understand that the most effective way to reduce your anxiety about it is to help to shape it. Over the next two days, we have the chance to do this in our own little ways. Go into this with curiosity about how the things we talk about can shape what you are doing, and how working with others can help that future be better.