Tag Archives: futurology

I’m not a green futurist. I’d rather be right.

Since 1998 I have written and lectured occasionally on environmentalism and often criticise its green, pseudo-religious sub-community. I care about the environment just as greens are supposed to, but I see dogmatic, poorly thought through green policies as a big part of the problem facing the environment. With the greens as its friends, the Earth needs no enemies. Today, I read that solar companies are leaving Spain, where it is usually sunny, to come to the UK, where it usually isn’t, because our previous and existing governments were very keen to demonstrate their green credentials by subsidising solar power. Clarification: they are increasing installation in the UK instead of Spain. This is obviously counter-productive, as are many other policies thought up by the green community. 

So while many other futurists and futurologists advertise themselves as green, I am very proud to be on the other side, that of clear-thinking, full life cycle, system-wide analysis. I am certainly not a ‘green futurist’. I am an engineer and a proper futurist, looking at the future objectively and logically to try to work out what is likely to happen, not caring whether the news is popular or not. I’d rather be right. Of course I want to do my best to help ensure to a sustainable world and where a practice makes good sense I follow it. Greens are meant to do that but they often end up doing the opposite. Many greens think of science and technology as the problem. They want to go back to the dark ages, reduce standard of living, even reduce population. They advocate policies that disadvantage many of the world’s poor and prevent many from being born. I couldn’t ever live with such an ideology. I see advanced technology as the main foundation for living sustainably. As my own contribution to environmentalism and sustainability, as well as inventing quite a few things that can help, I also wrote a book last year on system-wide sustainability, where I contrasted the application of green dogma against the far better approach of positively applying science, engineering and logical systems thinking instead of negatively trying to undo progress. The book is called Total Sustainability.

Nor am I an AGW (human-caused global warming) catastrophist, also in contrast to many other futurists. I am not taken in by the poor quality spun science that suggests imminent AGW-based catastrophe. There is far too much deception in the ‘climate science’ and politics community which then recommends diverting trillions onto ineffective or counter-productive policies that could be spent far better elsewhere. The most important skill a futurist can have is the ability to distinguish between sense and nonsense. 

The climate has always changed, and always will. Humans have some impact, but not so far or likely to be a catastrophic impact. CO2 is a greenhouse gas, a warming contributor, but the CO2-centric climate models that have predicted catastrophe have almost all greatly overestimated warming to date, and none predicted the 17.5 years of no warming that we have now seen, so they are wrong. Much is made of arctic melting, but little is mentioned about the record ice in the antarctic. The theories about why this or that happens seem to change every month. In the UK, seasonal predictions using the same theoretical base have got it wrong almost every time for years. We are meant to listen to a group who tell us a very distorted picture of what is going on, who claim competence and understanding far beyond what they demonstrate. As any real scientist understands, if a theory disagrees with observation, the theory is wrong. We need a new theory. The fact the ‘climate science’ community conspicuously ignores that fact, and spends an enormous effort to make excuses for poor models, or even changing the data, rather than admit that they simply don’t know what is happening puts them in opposition to the most basic principle of good science. While a lot of good science is undoubtedly done, many others disqualify themselves by that principle, and that pollutes the entire field, bringing science itself into disrepute, and damaging the ability of future science and technology to help protect and improve the environment. So I am skeptical when they say the sky is falling. It doesn’t look like it to me.

Other scientists often suggest reasons why the models may be wrong – the full influence of various-term ocean cycles and the full effects on cloud seeding from sunspots via galactic cosmic radiation deflection. These are better correlated through history than the outputs of the models. Many factors that can influence climate such as agricultural practices and socieconomic reactions to trends or subsidies are not included in the models. Much of the warming we have seen can be explained mostly by natural cycles overlaid on the continued warming as we recover from the last mini ice age. Some, but we don’t know how much, can be explained by a wide range of natural effects that are poorly understood and quantified – soil chemistry; forestry emissions; biological, chemical and physical environmental feedbacks and buffers. Some of it, but we don’t know how much, can be explained by changes in human originated CO2, changes in high atmosphere water vapour from aviation and space missions, CFCs, black carbon, and dozens of other human contributory factors, which are still not fully understood or quantified. Now, as we head into a likely prolonged solar minimum, some scientists are suggesting that a lengthy cooling period now looks to be as likely a short to medium term trend as further warming. I don’t pretend to understand all the science, but I don’t believe the AGW catastrophe people do either. I am a skeptic. I don’t deny that CO2 is a problem, nor that we have had warming, nor even that humans may account for some of that warming, but I sure as hell am not convinced we’re all about to cook if we don’t do something really big really fast.

I am quite pleased with my track record on environmentalism and green stuff. In my 2006 report Carbon, I laid out some of my views and I still stand by them. In it I said that increasing CO2 is an important issue but not a reason to panic, mainly because it will eventually take care of itself. We are not faced with imminent AGW catastrophe. The default future migration to other energy sources as they become cheaper will limit CO2 emissions in the long term, so we will be absolutely fine, provided that the proven ongoing damage from green policies can be limited. I analysed a lot of policies advocated by greens and found them likely to be counterproductive. I have sadly been proved right on many of those, but thankfully, some of the engineering solutions I recommended have since gained traction. I was blocked from publishing my 2006 report since it was seen as too controversial at the time. I published it almost unchanged when I went freelance at the end of 2007. I later used much of it in my book.

You can read it here: http://www.futurizon.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/carbonfeb08.pdf

Unlike catastrophic global warming advocates, I haven’t had to change my story every month. I first lectured at the World Futures Society conference on the pseudo-religious nature of green environmentalism way back in 1998 , and I am still saying the same now.

Green usually means wrong and usually means harming the environment by doing something that hasn’t been thought through properly but is based on dogma. I’d rather be someone who helps the environment and helps sustainability by doing proper engineering. I’d rather not have to make excuses in a few years when the historians analyse what was going on today and ask why so many people were taken in by predictions of AGW catastrophe, and why they advocated wasting so much money and impoverishing so many, damaging so many economies and so many lives to make so little impact on a problem that has in any case been exaggerated greatly.

I’m not a green futurist. I’d much rather be right.

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Useful backgrounds for futurology: systems engineering

I wouldn’t swap futurology for any other career. It is superbly enjoyable, nigh on impossible to get bored, and you can make a decent living. I get emails sometimes asking how to become a futurologist. Actually there are lots of routes. A futurologist is just someone who studies the future. Some backgrounds may be more suited to that than others, but many work well. I know good futurologists with a wide variety of backgrounds. In this entry, I will argue the case for systems engineering as a background, because that’s what I know about from personal experience. I’d invite guest articles from other futurists on their experience and recommendations, what they think are the skills or experience that help them most.

So, my own background:

Under my futurologist wrapper lies an engineer. I did a maths and physics degree and then went into my first job in missile engineering, first doing simple mechanical engineering of aircraft brakes and tank turrets, then some mathematical modelling of heat shields, springs and all sorts of things, then aerodynamics, lethality, reliability, then onto guidance systems and finally systems engineering, which brings all of them together into thinking about the design of the overall system, bringing the many parts together into a working whole. Once a systems engineer, always a systems engineer, it isn’t reversible, it reprograms your core attitude to anything so that you automatically think about the rest of things will be affected by the thing you are messing with right now. It requires clear thinking and a heavy degree of scepticism. You learn to spot flaws quickly, how things might fail, but also how they could be fixed or made to work.

I later migrated to BT where I did systems engineering too, with computer protocols, network simulation, OS design, chip modelling, fibre optics, mobile, security, cybernetics and biomimetics, network design, and forays into just about every other IT field. Futurology is actually a natural progression but to me it is still systems engineering, just modelling a very big system with a lot of interactions. I started specialising in IT and gradually migrating into other fields as I learned how they interact. Connections among things in the real world are so numerous and complex that it is rarely possible to treat topics in isolation. Change anywhere eventually ripples through into change everywhere.

Everyone has had some experience of things that don’t work as planned. If a system is assembled and one or more bits of it don’t work as planned, the whole thing eventually can fail. It is easy and indeed quite common to design systems that will work initially but are doomed to fail. Bad design won’t necessarily stop a system being implemented, but it does mean failures are likely. Systems engineering includes a lot of spotting problems that arise when you combine different parts into a system. Systems engineers are also generally wary of claims by other people until they have analysed them at least a bit to spot obvious flaws in reasoning or basic science.

This all makes systems engineering a good starting point for futurology. Experience in lots of strands of engineering helps guess how something might be achieved, and how long it might take. Seeing potential systemic problems helps narrow down the solutions quickly, and also helps spot what might happen if a system is implemented poorly, and then helps think through potential solutions. I think it also helps with forming a decent world model that includes society and politics too. Altogether, it allows you to think a particular issue through, see how it may interact with everything else, and the consequent system-wide developments that might result.

Starting in a particular field and growing expertise from there into adjacent fields lets you eventually cover a broad area, but there is a future for everything and one person can’t know about everything  so some focus is inevitable. I stay within the field of technology and its  impacts on other aspects of life. I rely on others to cover other important issues and to some degree, if they look reasonably well thought through, I can build their conclusions into my own world view without having to understand them in detail. The penalty is that the further from my own areas of expertise I go, the less I truly understand the analyses, and the more likely I am to ignore some important aspect and to make errors. Your own predictions rely on your own world model, and the more dodgy equations there are in that, the less well it will work.

Still, I think systems engineering provides an excellent basket of core skills and knowledge from which to start futurology. I’d recommend it.

As I said, I would invite guest pieces from other futurists/futurologists to argue the case for other backgrounds, appropriate skill-sets, or even potential pitfalls.

Why the blog title change? The more accurate guide to the future?

Well, it is part blowing my own trumpet, and part realisation that my futurology skills have improved over 21 years and the new title is a fair claim, since I can now claim 90% accuracy. There is a lot of rubbish going round out there, but I like to believe I see through most of it and rarely get taken in, and my results are the evidence.

Until recently, I frivolously claimed to be accurate about 85% of the time, but that was based on a simple right/wrong count in the technology timelines I used to do.  I don’t do them any more because they take so long. They were not really serious predictions, more a list of what will be technologically feasible by the stated date, as much media tools as serious contributions to the futures field, and they were always produced in time in between projects so never got much real effort, so the 85% was pretty good, all things considered. Each entry probably only got a minute or two of analysis. On the other hand, technology is pretty easy to predict, so 85% isn’t all that good. The 15% I got wrong should maybe have been lower.

My more serious work, such as papers in professional journals and commissioned articles receive much more effort and consequently have better scope, depth and insight than the timelines. Now that sufficient time has passed, most of the stuff I wrote about in those has either come to pass or is at least much more mainstream and well on its way.

After 10 years working in far future engineering projects, I have now been doing futurology 21 years full time, and have developed a good sense of what is realistic and what is just marketing hype, what is catastrophist nonsense and what is a real problem. I use systems engineering skills honed over 30 years in front line engineering and can usually spot garbage a mile away, and what is important. And I now cover a much broader scope than IT, extending into most sectors.

Futurology should be far more than just pointing at new gadgets or recent discoveries or developments, though that is a valuable activity in its own right. So, I use those same systems thinking and engineering skills to add insight, and often propose solutions, many of which have since become real or at entered mainstream discussion. I am no entrepreneur, but that does at least mean I get to say “I told you so” more often than I used to, and that is all the more fun in those areas where so many people were so emphatic that I was wrong. It is very satisfying watching others having to fall in line and trying to hide or dismiss their errors. That may be a personality defect but so what? Just occasionally, everyone else IS wrong.

Anyway, I had a good check of how the word is now, and where people are going, even where the futurist community is now making lots of noise and checked against what I have been saying over the years. As a result, I have revised my estimate of my track record to 90% accuracy at the 10 years horizon. More accurate. So, 90% of the time I will be pretty close to the mark, 10% I will still be talking rubbish. I think that’s pretty darned good. I hope you agree.

Thanks for reading ‘The more accurate guide to the future’. Seeing through the fog just a little more clearly. I will put my trumpet away now.

Why won’t our leaders pick the best future?

Like most democracies, we elect leaders every several years on the basis of an overall package of promises, which are too often later forgotten or given lip service.

I can easily understand leaders mostly doing what they want, and only doing enough of what we want to get elected. What I don’t understand is why they seem to make so many choices that are bad for everyone, and why we can’t find leaders who would make better ones. It seems as though the choice of leaders we currently have is among awful, terrible, and really bad. It isn’t obvious with 63 million people why we can’t find better leaders, but then again, the USA doesn’t do much better with over 300 million.

Governments are not short of advice. They have access to huge quantities of data and research, and ready access to many supposedly smart people and consultants. They even have their own futurology departments, so they really should have a reasonable idea of what is coming down the road. So why is that with all the possible futures to pick from, they so often pick the worst? I am UK-based so will use UK examples, but I feel confident that most readers will find equivalent examples in their own country, especially in the USA and down under, where many of you are.

Starting off with a few recent errors (please forgive me if I stray into the occasional rant):

Road deaths in the UK are the lowest in the world, while our health service has one of the worst records in a developed nation. Some estimates put the numbers of deaths caused by poor NHS hygiene, negligence and errors at over 50,000 a year, compared to 1800 deaths on the roads. So you might have expected that a government wanting to save lots of lives would focus on fixing the NHS rather than the roads. Furthermore, only 10% of deaths on the roads are caused in significant part by excessive speed, so the most that can be expected to be saved by reducing the rural speed limits to 40mph is a couple of hundred. Compared to the inconvenience caused and cost to the economy, the savings of lives for both time and money spent would be far higher by addressing NHS problems.

There are lots of environmental policy examples.

Our UK governments of late have fallen fully for the anthropogenic global warming doom-mongering, and as if that isn’t bad enough, they have then gone for the worst possible ways of fixing it, assuming it were a problem in the first place. By concentrating solely on CO2 emissions, and then choosing solutions that provide the most expensive, least environmentally friendly, and least effective ways of reducing them, they have managed to delay CO2 emission reductions while costing taxpayers and bill-payers a fortune during the worst recession since the 1930s, and causing many manufacturers to leave the UK just as we need to get expansion of the manufacturing sector. Related policy decisions such as introducing carbon trading have already increased crime and caused environmental and social devastation in many countries. Predictable, but not taken into account by government.

By contrast, while the UK and the EU as a whole have chosen to use carbon credits and hold back shale gas development, and thereby perversely incentivised the resurgence of dirty coal, kept and even reinforced the problems of high gas prices, hostile suppliers, poor energy security and disadvantaged industry, the USA avoided such errors of commitment, encouraged shale gas, and has seen its carbon emissions fall enormously by adopting shale gas while seeing economic boom (apart from California which has copied the EU’s error). It is now likely that the EU will burn US coal.

Even the alternative energy policy is wrong. If we do want to use alternative energy, it make sense to get as much as possible for the money. By insisting that we have to rush, we are paying top prices and huge subsidies, transferring money from the poor to the rich. With any sign of global warming on hold now for 15 years or more, there was clearly no big rush, the government sponsored climate models got their predictions spectacularly wrong time and again because of the perverse way that government pays for its research. In the real world, we have plenty of time to wait for prices to fall, at which point we would know the science behind climate much better, having filtered out the worst of the nonsense, and could plan our actions with fewer disastrous unexpected side effects, and when we do invest we would get far more bang per buck. So if  there was a Nobel prize equivalent for stupidity, this and the last government would be joint winners. Other polices connected to the environment seem almost as dumb.

Fisheries policy over the last decade has forced fishermen to throw a lot of their catch back into the sea, dead, apparently to preserve fish stocks. Dead fish don’t breed well, and their bodies have instead created great unbalance in the ecosystem. The number of lobsters has rocketed, the number of sea-birds too, and also seals. The demand of the increased seal population for fish has rocketed by 100,000 tons per year, and they and the extra sea birds and lobsters will still want to eat once the dumping policy is terminated.  This isn’t a case of hindsight, it should have been obvious to all concerned that this would happen. It was entirely predictable.

Also obvious to anyone with any common sense, and without any need for hindsight, you shouldn’t build homes on flood plains, they might flood. However, two successive governments have allowed builders to put many new homes on flood plains. Now, government response to the inevitable flooding is simply to force more sensible buyers (who choose not to live on flood plains) to share the cost of flood insurance for them. You couldn’t make it up!

At a time when disposal of plastics is a problem, and landfill sites are filling up fast,  government regulations prohibit waste plastic bales from being used to prevent coastal erosion. Instead, concrete blocks must be used, which also adds hugely to CO2 emissions.

Changing topic, to remuneration policies for senior civil servants, BBC celebs and doctors, these too seem to be illustrations of lack of foresight (as well as lack of application of sensible market principles, by which the rate offered should be tailored until there is only a modest number of applicants – many public sector jobs get thousands, a clear indication that they overpay).

When Labour sent morons to the negotiations with doctors, the doctors emerged with far greater pay for less work, and bonuses for many things they had previously done as part of their normal jobs. Not surprisingly, many of the wealthier doctors chose to work fewer hours and enjoy life, instead of working extra hours for a little more, achieving the opposite of what was intended. A bit like the England football team. Pay peanuts and get monkeys for sure, but pay too well, you get people more eager on spending than training or working.

Other top-level pay is too high mainly because it is simply unnecessary. The argument is always that you need to pay more to get the best staff, but in fact, each advertised post almost always only sees tiny differences in quality among the candidates, and any of those who didn’t get the job would probably gladly take it the minute it is vacated and do just as well. If each level of promotion only offers a few percent more than the level below, it will still be filled just as well. This is the everyday sort of foresight that most people just call common sense, but which seems nevertheless seems to escape policy makers.

Paying top pay when it isn’t needed is stupid and reckless with other people’s money. The argument that you have to compete always ends in a price war where no-one gains any long-term advantage, so extra is spent by all for no gain. As for BBC celebs, I just don’t see a problem if someone trained up as a star by the BBC wanders off to another channel, or indeed if you have to push a different button to watch a football game. The same viewers watch those channels too, and can still see them if they wish. There will be no shortage of volunteers to be made into new stars, and football associations will still have to sell the rights to broadcast their games at whatever price they can still get. And anyway, the mandate for the BBC is to produce good programmes, not to compete. Forcing prices up by competing unnecessarily is stupidity. Again, a failure of everyday foresight common sense.

Banking is a rich seam in which to find government incompetence of course. I don’t think I really want to go there, we all know the issues and are sick of reading more each day. Ditto the Euro.

The Olympics foresight is actually rather amusing, not only the estimates of costs that followed the usual error factor of 2 or 3 in any government cost estimate, but especially security, looking at it from safe outside London anyway. Giving the main security contract to G4S with their history has got to be award-winning idiocy with predictable, even inevitable result. Surely we all expected that not to work? You didn’t need much futures expertise to know G4S would screw it up. The rest of the incompetence is just day-to-day stupidity though rather than foresight failure, so I’ll ignore that.

Thanks to poor foresight, the recent 9Bn investment in rail will mostly be wasted on the wrong technology, as I just blogged for Business Weekly – I won’t repeat it here:

http://www.businessweekly.co.uk/blog/futuretech-with-ian-pearson-of-futurizon/14305-a-modern-railway-for-the-21st-century-really

Immigration policy over a few governments seems also to have lacked foresight. Surely, they should have understood a big difference in importing people from Middle Eastern (and some African) countries where terrorism has been a huge problem for decades, and where the people seem to hate us, compared to other countries. We have now imported large numbers of people into the UK that are intent on bringing us harm.

The arguments over national debt and austerity measures and even cuts in the army are party political, and although I do think foresight is lacking here across the spectrum, it is too mixed up with value sets to cleanly separate, so I’ll leave it for now.

I think I have listed enough examples where governments of all flavours have made decisions that show an alarming lack of foresight, or at least of taking any notice of it. There is no need for yet more examples. The important question remains. When it is obvious that there is a choice between two or more possible futures, and the differences in outcomes are entirely predictable, why should governments pick the one that looks worst? (Let’s ignore any potential bribery and corruption and lobbying and feathering of nests. Those are just too hard to prove in any particular case).

In some cases, notably Labour’s immigration policy, it is aimed at securing a direct political advantage, by tilting the playing field in their favour. There is a safety net assumption that the consequences will largely appear in another term, hopefully when the opposition is in power.

Another contributor is short-term marketability. In each of these cases, even though the government may know the policy will not be a good long-term idea, there is an obvious way in which the policy can be spun to the public for short-term political gain. Doing something easy and conspicuous about a small number of road deaths nicely deflects attention away from the far great numbers in the NHS, which are harder to deal with, and the negatives can easily be concealed behind emotionalism. Much of the Conservative’s green policy also falls into this category, holding back positive things like shale gas and pushing negative ones like wind farms even when the evidence is stacked heavily against them, because they perceive that voters want them to be green and those are perceived to be the green badges of honour at the time.

In areas like fishery policy, again, the need to be seen to be ‘doing something’ far outweighs the advantages of taking time to do the right thing, so legislation is reactive and badly thought out. There is always a long list of short-term things that fall into this category and so government rushes through lots of bad things rather than a few good things or indeed even tidying up the mess from the last batch of bad ones.

This short-termism is really no different from private sector abuse where top management run a company for short-term profit at the expense of long-term well-being to maximise their own remuneration. Although there are ways of ensuring the bonuses are linked to longer term results, and this is starting to happen, it isn’t as easy to force politicians to take responsibility for the longer term consequences of their actions. Indeed, they rarely have to. Any government coming in can blame things on the last one for a year or so, but after that, they get the blame and any attempt to blame it thereafter is counter-productive. So at worst, governments are protected from the long-term harm done by their policies and yet reap the short-term gains. It reminds me of the banks.

So, when we look at the availability of foresight and assume a modicum of common sense, we are left with the unavoidable deduction that short-termism is a much more powerful force than foresight. Our leaders know what is best, but choose to do something else because they are rewarded for doing so. It is as simple as that. If we want to fix that, we need to change the ways in which we implement democracy. Don’t hold your breath.