Next year marks the 50th year anniversary of Future Shock. The upcoming milestone presented the opportunity to recently open my well-worn copy to revisit the epochal writing. As the anniversary of this bestseller draws nearer, we will have more opportunities to discuss the impact of the Toffler’s work. One important idea presented towards the end of the book seems very fitting to discuss now, however, especially given our fast approach to the 2020 election season.
Will this upcoming political event bring more polarization, or will it present an opportunity for healthy disagreement and debate about our collective vision for the future that is inclusive across society?
The Tofflers argued that, through the growth of the Industrial Revolution, we perfected the ability to measure economic performance. Using markers such as productivity, prices, income and investment, we can determine the overall health of the economy, the speed at which it is changing, and the direction of the change.
Those lenses have tremendous value but lack comparable social indicators to test the health of our civilization, the quality life of the aggregate, and our resilience to navigate future shocks. These are the measures that may help us to turn away from – or even prevent – the kinds of polarizing, divisive forces that increasingly are affecting our families, workplaces, schools, and neighborhood and stressing the fabric of our society. Adopting those social indicators will take positive discourse that accounts for the past while strongly considering the future.
Making future-informed decisions in the present
Through open, positive discourse, we systematically explore possibilities and how they might emerge. In doing so, we assess long-term impacts and implications toward creating a more inclusive future. That kind of conversation and perspective is relatively rare because it requires future-focused leaders and futurists who are passionate, pragmatic, and persistent. These are individuals capable of pushing against long-held belief conventions to inspire purposeful change.
In addition, as a collective, we must place more emphasis on scanning for changes and trends across technology, geopolitics, finance, and society to stimulate future-focused thinking and aid in decision-making.
“Can one live with a society that is out of control? That is the question posed for us by the concept of future shock. For that is the situation we find ourselves in. If it were technology alone that had broken loose, our problems would be serious enough. The deadly fact is however, that many other social processes have also begun to run free, oscillating widely, resisting our best efforts to guide them.”
Building a foundation for new discourse
Most of us studied history during our formal education. (I loved my ancient world history courses.) History offers us insight into how humanity (as a whole, over time) behaves on the individual and sociological levels. It reveals motivations behind how we act and prioritize decisions. It helps us understand the influence of technology and the role of beliefs and values in setting political directions or establishing legal precedence. It also allows us to understand the complexity of issues that vast perspectives within and across societies create.
Because history offers hindsight, it serves as a good source of evidence of why humans behave the way we do and of how the past causes the present and influences the future. In our studies, we see how things change, the factors that cause the change, and what persists.
But what about the future? If we know that history shapes the present and future, why do we only teach history – why not the future?
Radical change is happening at warp speed. History is shaping and reshaping almost constantly across social, geopolitical, financial, technological, and environmental spheres. Issues are more and more complex and interdependent. Decisions have profound impact on near- and long-term futures.
Of course, some of the problems we face are informed by the past, so history has relevance. The challenge is that is it is largely insufficient to spot solutions. We also need the capability to connect, analyze, and understand the future. That requires the capacity to do things like environmental scanning and monitoring, forecasting, backcasting, scenario development and gaming.
Taking the future into their own hands
Perhaps because of the democratic span of social media, we’re seeing growing activism at the youth level – efforts to solve the hard problems of today with an eye fixed on a better future for us all.
We’ve written in the past about Greta Thunberg. She joins contemporaries like Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai in using the tools at our collective disposal to solve the problems of the future. In Greta’s case, the problem at the center of her effort is climate change. For Malala, it’s education for all. Both are globally significant challenges. Both climate and educational changes constitute measurable outcomes – not behaviors.
When we look at the behavior of these young leaders, what we see is proof of care for the future backed by a capacity to think and act on it. These young leaders stepped out generational bias and beliefs. They are not fixated on what worked in the past and what would be a continuous best-case scenario. They are acting on a vision for the future that is better than what they know now.
If they are an indication of the generations to come, we could be poised for a future society that is better for all – provided we equip these thinkers with the tools and lenses they need to learn and lead from a place of good.
We do see some schools starting to teach what a future-focus looks like and to consider implications of decisions. Our students are familiar with their history-making contemporaries. They are more informed than ever about issues like geopolitical warfare, climate change, and global health. They are given a walk through history that begins in prehistoric times and has no modern endpoint.
What we need to add now is the framework to compare those time stamps and know the right questions to ask for a future we can all embrace.
 Future Shock, Alvin Toffler, 1970
Deborah Westphal is a passionate humanist who has guided our era’s top minds and leaders to challenge biases, ignite ideas, and build connections and resilience for a secure and sound future. Her career spans more than 30 years, government agencies and Fortune 100 companies, and virtually every continent. In 1999, Alvin Toffler tapped her as one of the founding members of his eponymous consulting firm, Toffler Associates. From 2007 through 2018, she served as the firm’s CEO and has since contributed her experience and knowledge as a member of the board. Through her work, she has guided notable organizations including Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Marriott, U.S. Air Force, Baxter International, Bayer, Heinz, Microsoft, Koppers, PPG, DARPA, National Security Agency, Loral Space Systems, NASA, Qwest, Verizon, and Westinghouse. Deborah’s empathetic and thought-provoking style helps readers spot patterns that signify future risks and opportunities. She’s a sought-after speaker and writer who provided the Foreword to After Shock. Deborah is a world traveler who enjoys time with her son and running in the mountains. Find her at deborahwestphal.com.
Toffler Associates is a future-focused strategic advisory firm. Our Future Proof® business consulting approach helps global leaders understand how future shifts impact current decisions so they can take advantage of opportunity, manage risk, and create future value.
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