Who Has the Crystal Ball to See the Future?
Updated: Jul 27
The Canadian historian Margaret MacMillan’s recent op-ed on the ramifications of COVID-19 caught my eye. But not for the reasons one might expect.
Dr. MacMillan remarked in passing on a subject that demands our attention: who is qualified to ‘predict’ the future. Like many of her colleagues, Dr. MacMillan shares a healthy dose of skepticism about the historical profession becoming entangled in such a … speculative undertaking: “Historians do not like to predict the future. We know how many variables go into creating events or trends, and we have a healthy respect for the role of accident.”
Yet that sentiment didn’t prevent Dr. MacMillan from joining a long list of historians who have recently taken it upon themselves to comment on past, current, and future affairs with a surprisingly high degree of fluidity between these temporal markers. Other, equally thought-provoking, explorations were offered by Adam Tooze in The Guardian, by Yuval Harari in the Financial Times, or by Niall Ferguson’s inexhaustible Twitter feed.
Historical fever tends to peak during or immediately following times of conflict, disaster, rebellion, conspiracy, or pandemic. Whether it’s to strengthen authority, offer inspiration, or simply provide comfort food for an anxious present, the issues and problems of today usually represent the stimuli for forays into the past.
But what about the other way around: should historians cast their analytical gaze forward to help others better ‘manage’ the future?
In my opinion, absolutely. Eric Hobsbawm once wrote:
“…all prediction about the real world rests to a great extent on some sort of inferences about the future from what has happened in the past, that is to say from history…history cannot get away from the future, if only because there is no line which divides the two.”
Unlike modern social science, history has enjoyed a rather constipated relationship with the future. Though I would caution historians from adopting as self-confident of an attitude as other disciplines, there are ways the profession can gradually lower its inhibitions, as MacMillan, Tooze, et al., have already done with great success.
One option is to look at existing strategic planning models and complement them with a historical toolkit.
Take, for instance, scenario planning. Below I offer some suggestions for why companies should consider granting historians a seat at the table:
A mirror image – Historical research is scenario planning in reverse. Practitioners of both disciplines attempt to paint a plausible picture of events that often fall outside the bounds of their lived experiences, and have to do so by relying on limited qualitative and quantitative data. What is more, their work is deeply influenced by present biases and perceptions.
Bound to the present – Scenario planning aims to rewire the behaviour of decision-makers toward risk and uncertainty. The more convincing the scenario, the more likely leaders will abandon the business-as-usual philosophy when planning for the future of their organizations. Similarly, good history is written with an eye towards both the past and the present. Historians craft stories to help their audiences frame the present in a new light.
Upgrade the GPS – Futurists try to glean the many paths an industry, an organization, or even a specific product will take. For the consulting historian, the question of ‘How did we get to where we are today?’ is of the utmost importance. A combination of the two approaches produces a comprehensive road map for prospective clients. Put another way, history lends scenario planning authenticity and added authority; scenarios offer historical knowledge immediacy and relevance.
Language matters – Whether future- or past-oriented, even the most innovative research fails to impress when it is not communicated in an exciting, persuasive, but also accessible manner. For strategists and historians to successfully connect with their intended audience(s), deep expertise in storytelling is required.
Tim Mueller, a Senior Consultant with Saybrook Partners, is currently at work on a study of the Ford Foundation. This post originally appeared on LinkedIn.