A mind map with a light bulb in the middle

Planning for the future in plural

At this time of the year we are already looking for the next year, if not longer – at the university, in companies and other organizations, and even among families and friends. The past and the present have made many of us worried for the future, regarding not only the Corona virus, Brexit and the US presidential elections. 

In fact, contrary to the one past and the ongoing present, there are many possible futures, and not merely in such famous movies as Back to the Future (1985), Part II (1989) and Part III (1990) in which the past, present and futures were happily mixed by Michael J. Fox and others. The many futures are outside cinemas dealt with futures techniques. These are handy means for both futurologists and other people interested in forecasting. They include, for example, anticipatory thinking, back casting, simulation, and visioning. Some of the best-known and most used anticipatory methods are the Delphi method, environmental scanning, and scenario planning.

The futures center of expertise in our country, the Finland Futures Research Centre, is affiliated at the University of Turku.  It focuses on “developing academic futures studies, critical interdisciplinary research, high quality education, strategic and business foresight and insightfully produced futures knowledge”.  Tarja Meristö, now with the Laurea University of Applied Sciences, was a forerunner as an industrial futurist in Finland, first with Partek and then at the headquarters of Rautaruukki in Oulu. Markku Wilenius, Sirkka Heinonen and the late Mika Mannermaa are other well-known Finnish futurologists, to name a few.

As opposed to the mentioned experts, we non-futurologists tend to stick with forecasting for a single future.  At a personal level, my godson Kalle Nuortimo defended his doctoral dissertation on futures forecasting at the University of Oulu in the context of the energy industry earlier this year. I have also been lucky enough to work with a trained futurologist and have taken part in quite many scenario workshops and strategy planning sessions indeed. However, I must admit that forecasting for different futures is not a routine activity at my desk, and the same seems to hold for most other people, whom I know. Why is that? 

"Forecasting for different futures is not a routine activity for most people - why is that?"

My experience from numerous planning sessions is that the “upper right-hand corner” view often prevents us from seeing other futures than the one, where both two dimensions in a fourfold strategic matrix change. Typically, this indicates simultaneous new opportunities and growing outcomes. In terms of the so called “Future cone”’ by Joseph Voros there are probable, preferred, plausible and possible futures. Often the probable future is the least interesting because it would just extend the present. Moreover, the preposterous alias absurd future is usually entirely omitted, despite that such have realized – think of a virus taking over the whole world in a few months. Therefore, we will mainly select between what we would like to happen (preferred), what does not sound entirely impossible to happen (plausible), and what could after all happen (possible). 

In general, planning for the future in plural would require that there is enough data on futures available. This might be made possible based on predictive analytics. Its most exciting feature is that it may help to associate the past, the present and the futures very dynamically – almost as in movies.  Predictive analytics deploys such techniques as data mining, predictive modeling, and machine learning, to analyze current and historical facts and make predictions for futures. In other words, it is used to extract information from data, to predict trends and behavioral patterns. And indeed, at its best it can calculate probabilities of future events online. 

As said, predictive analytics can be applied to any type of unknown whether it be in the past, present or future, as it captures relationships between explanatory variables and the predicted variables from past occurrences, and then exploits them to predict the yet unknown. Although the accuracy and usability of predictive analyses depend on the quality of assumptions made, the level of analysis is detailed: individual organizational elements, events, persons and alike. If analytics were used to successfully predict futures at this level, it might be possible to prevent emerging hidden problems and achieve a near-zero break-down situation in many operations. Furthermore, if predictive and prescriptive analytics were integrated, many decisions could be optimized. 

Computer code reflected on a woman's face and upper body

Is this all too good to happen in the coming futures? There are indeed more than a few skeptics around regarding our or more precisely data processing systems’ abilities to predict futures. One of the difficulties is that both we as people and our living environment influence each other all the time in innumerable different ways. Predicting accurately what will happen next would require that the influential variables be known and measurable – not in a laboratory setting but among us.

In any case, I am glad that the University of Oulu has decided to establish the new Business Analytics international Master’s program to start in September 2021, as a joint activity of the Oulu Business School and the Faculty of Electrical Engineering and Information Technology. Although I cannot predict accurately, who will be accepted to the program and how their futures will unfold during and after their studies, I am very optimistic. Maybe that is a sign of the “upper right-hand corner” dilemma of a well-seasoned planning person. However, I can point out that without the university having gathered and analyzed data to predict the future needs and opportunities in analytics, no decisions would be made to start the program – and that I already know for sure.

Author: Veikko Seppänen

Photos: Pixabay (CC0)

Last updated: 16.10.2020