Create your own deja vu of the future
“Imaginable: How to see the future coming and be ready for anything” is about creating deja vus for the future to help us prepare for what she calls the age of unimaginable events and unthinkable change. I am a fan of Jane McGonigal. Her first book about gaming is classic. This book is close.
How do you plan for the future in an age of seemingly endless shocks?
As all (good) futurists will tell you, you cannot predict the future. You can only prepare for the future. Multiple futures. That is why I am such a fan of scenario planning. Scenario planning prepares the mind and moves your company more rapidly to adapt and act resiliently when the future actually arrives. McGonigal calls it pre-feeling the future. A deep immersion into a possible future creates lasting mental habits, especially when it comes to watching the real world for evidence that the simulated possibility is becoming more likely.
In the book, she gives us perspectives on the future of learning, the future of work, the future of food, the future of money, the future of social media, the future of health care, the future of climate action and the future of government, all to give you a better insight in the risks, opportunities, and dilemmas ahead. To help you become more resilient to future shocks.
She always goes for the ten-year time horizon. The future is whatever time feels far enough away for things to really change. The purpose of looking ten years ahead isn’t to see that everything will happen on that timeline—but there is ample evidence that almost anything could happen on that timeline. Ten years helps unstick our minds, and ten years allows us to consider possibilities we would otherwise dismiss. Ten years even relax us a bit as we try to imagine preparing for dramatic disruptions or for a radical rethinking of what’s normal—because ten years gives us time to get ready.
Ten years also has to do with a psychological phenomenon known as time spaciousness. Interestingly, brains respond to abundant space the same way as they do to abundant time. So she likes to think of a ten-year timeline as a kind of cathedral or Grand Canyon for the mind. It lifts the ceiling on our imagination.
Stretch you brain
Your brain works significantly harder the further you stretch your imagination into the future. And ten years is a particularly tricky challenge compared with one year, or two years, or five. So instead of projecting confidently one possibility into the future, your brain opens up a blank space for you to consider multiple possibilities.
Create memories of the future
Imagine yourself waking up ten years from today. While you tried to imagine waking up ten years from today, your brain is forging new neurological pathways, making a brand-new memory of something you haven’t even lived through yet. After you’ve made this new memory, something amazing happens: what was previously unimaginable to your brain is now imaginable.
Scientists call this form of imagination episodic future thinking or EFT. EFT is often described as a kind of “mental time travel” because your brain works to help you see and feel the future as clearly and vividly as you were already there. This analogy captures the often highly visual and narrative qualities of EFT: you see possible events of the future unfolding in your mind’s eye as if they had already been captured on video.
Playing with reality
EFT is not a daydream in which you fantasise about living a completely different life or waking up in a world where all your problems are magically solved. It is a way of connecting who you are today with what you might feel and do in the future. EFT isn’t an escape from reality. It’s a way of playing with reality. EFT involves heightened activity and increased connectivity between eleven distinct brain regions. During EFT, you’re not only trying to simulate in your mind something that isn’t right in front of you; you’re also actively trying to make sense of it.
Three major kinds of sense-making happen when you time travel. First, your brain has to do what cognitive scientists call scene construction—mentally building the world of the future. Scene construction also means establishing basic facts of the world, or what scientists call semantics. During EFT, your brain goes on a kind of scavenger hunt for realistic details and plausible ideas. This means that whatever you see in your future will always come from the information your brain has already perceived and processed.
What happens next during EFT? After scene construction, your brain starts to do a kind of work that cognitive scientists call opportunity detection. This is why EFT is so important for every entrepreneur and CEO. You are in the business of predicting the future.
Deepest values and needs
When you apply EFT, your brain also fires up the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC), a region that’s heavily used whenever you set goals and track your progress toward them. One of the most interesting things about episodic future thinking is that the kinds of motivations that pop into your mind first are likely to be closely linked to your deepest values and most essential needs—especially when you think further into the future.
Whatever your future goals are, you still have to figure out the best way for future you to achieve them. At this point, one of the vmPFC’s biggest helpers kicks in: the putamen, which is also part of the motivation and reward system.
Finally, as your brain works to transport you to the future, feelings will kick in. The insula and amygdala, both emotion centres in the brain, fire up to give you a preview, or pre-feeling, of how you might feel in the imagined scene: Crucially, these aren’t simulated feelings. They are real feelings.
The God formula
In some ways, this is a version of the God formula. V + E + R = M. Visualisation + Emotion + Release = Materialisation. Read “The power of the subconscious mind“. There is also a distinct quantum element to EFT. Read “The reality revolution“.
EFT is strongly linked with mental well-being. Researchers believe this is because when you practice EFT, you learn to control your imagination. Imagining literally anything you might experience in the far future, as vividly and realistically as you can, increases your motivation and likelihood of doing anything that has a longer-term benefit today.
Become a better person
When you imagine your future self, your brain does something weird: it stops acting as if you’re thinking about yourself. Instead, fMRI studies show that it behaves as if you’re thinking about a completely different person. Studies show that the more our brains treat our future selves like strangers, the less self-control we exhibit today, and the less likely we are to make pro-social choices, decisions that will probably help the world in the long run. We’re less able to resist temptations, procrastinate more, exercise less, put away less money for retirement, give up sooner in the face of frustration or temporary pain, and are less likely to care about or try to prevent long-term challenges like climate change.
Looking back to go forward
As you construct this ten-years-ago scene in your imagination, pay close attention to what was true about your life then that is no longer true today. At the Institute for the Future, we call this technique “looking back to look forward.” “When you don’t know how much things have changed, you don’t see that they are changing or that they can change.” When you need to look far ahead, try looking back at how far you’ve come. Read “Lead from the future“.
Apply scenario planning
A future scenario is a detailed description of a particular future you might wake up in, a future in which at least one thing is dramatically different from today. “Now that you’re in this future, what decision would you make if …?” This decision point, or moment of choice, will be different for each scenario. A future scenario gives you a specific destination for your imagination. Scenarios need to be thought-provoking. To convince our brains to do the hard work of imagining hard-to-imagine futures, we have to move out of a state of boredom, distraction, or indifference and into a mindset of high interest, curiosity, and attention. The more vividly we imagine the worst-case scenario, the more motivated we feel to try to prevent it. Professional futurists often classify scenarios into one of four kinds of stories or archetypes: growth, constraint, collapse, or transformation.
Scenarios from the book
The book has several intriguing scenarios, from asteroid forecasting, challenge-based education, face recognition software implications, the breakdown of the internet, the launch of the Digi-dollar, howling at the moon, half the population allergic to meat, a new social network called FeelThat (sharing feelings), organised mass climate migration and no more garbage. So also suggest adding the digital divide, youth disillusionment, and mental health deterioration to one of your 2035 super-scenario. And to consider economic inequality, broken health system, extreme political divisions, racial injustice, brittle supply chains and overworked workers and the climate crisis as pre-existing conditions that should inform these scenarios.
Dator’s law is so fundamental to future thinking. “Any useful statement about the future should at first seem ridiculous.” Any scenario that you instinctively dismiss as impossible or outrageous reveals a potential blind spot in your imagination. What do you think is true about how the world works today that you believe will definitely still be true at least a decade from now? In that context, study the Lindy effect.
The book is full of interesting stories/statistics/perspectives to help you to go wild.
- In Germany’s Using farming region, they do something remarkable every ten years. Each year that ends in a four (for example, 2024), the community gathers to conduct the “Osingverlosung,” a lottery in which all 213 local lots of farmland are randomly redistributed. If you live in Ossining, whatever property you owned and managed for the past ten years is now given over to someone else for the next decade.
- Young people are increasingly opting not to get a driver’s license.
- Air pollution from burning coal, gasoline, and diesel kills an estimated 8.7 million people every year, four times as many as COVID-19 did in 2020, accounting for nearly one in five deaths worldwide.
- 1.5 million people die from drinking contaminated water each year, and 1.5 million people are killed in roadway accidents.
- Reproductive epidemiologists have found that over the past fifty years, the total sperm count of men worldwide has dropped by more than 50%, and the DNA carried by sperm is increasingly damaged.
- The UAE says it wants to build a massive Martian city of six hundred thousand inhabitants by the year 2117
- In China, a company called C-Space has opened up a simulated Mars colony in the Gobi Desert.
- We now have the first generation of young people who can realistically expect to have the opportunity to live on another planet.
- Researchers are already working on ways to edit our genes so that humans are “fit for Mars.”
- A fruit and vegetable prescription program that reached one in three Americans would prevent 1.93 million strokes and heart attacks and 350,000 deaths and save $40 billion in health care costs over eighteen years. One example is the nonprofit Wholesome Wave’s fruit and vegetable prescription (FVRx) program. The FVRx program deposits funds of an average of one hundred US dollars per month in low-income households’ shopping accounts to cover fresh produce purchases.
- From the US to Spain to China to Morocco, public health and police departments used drones to enforce stay-at-home orders, to disperse groups not obeying distancing rules, and to remind people to wear masks.
- In 2021, in Shanghai, 1,500 drones created a massive illuminated QR code in the sky; onlookers could snap a photo of the code, which opened a website for a popular video game—perhaps the world’s first example of drone constellation advertising.
- The first pizzly bear was discovered and confirmed by DNA tests in 2006. Today’s hybrids may signify more than just the erosion of biodiversity. They may signal a kind of resilience in the face of sudden environmental change.
- Youth disillusionment is a force gathering strength. A truly radicalised young generation could destabilise democracies and economies worldwide.
- As of 2020, roughly one hundred universities worldwide are approved as GCSP schools; they offer scholarships and custom learning paths to students who commit to focusing their education on grand challenges like “provide access to clean water,” “reverse-engineer the brain,” and “prevent nuclear terror.”
- What if, by law, you had to use 75 per cent less water per day than you currently do?
- What if a megacorporation will be using its smart devices to potentially counter internet shutdowns in the future.
- In the future, money will be programmable to do all sorts of new and surprising things. In some ways, the future force of digital currency is already quite far along in shaping society—it’s now almost inevitable that every major government will pursue this technology.
- Gamers set higher goals for themselves in their everyday lives and are less likely to quit in the face of real-world setbacks. Gamers are, essentially, unlearning the freeze instinct and learning to fight, flee, or help others more effectively every time they play.
- Playing with a future scenario, it turns out, can be a uniquely therapeutic practice. It can give us a chance to practice the opposite of learned helplessness: learned helpfulness.
- 10 per cent of the entire US population already has an increased allergic sensitivity to the alpha-gal sugar molecule, most likely from a single tick
- Less than half of what people put in their bins actually got recycled, including less than 10 per cent of the plastic.
- Rotting trash now accounts for 5 per cent of total carbon emissions worldwide, which is more than the entire aviation, rail, and shipping industries combined.
- Research shows that people living closer to landfill sites suffer from medical conditions such as asthma, cancer, chronic fatigue, and other long-term health problems at a higher rate than those living far from landfills, a result of continuous exposure to chemicals, toxic fumes, and dust.
- It’s expected that there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans by 2050. Toxins from dumped plastics are already entering the oceanic food chain today, killing more than one million fish, turtles, birds, and sea mammals yearly and putting our health and global food systems at risk.
- In South Korea, all food waste must be separated from other trash and weighed in community “smart bins” equipped with scales and radio frequency identification (RFID) readers. Individuals must scan an RFID card to open the bin and throw something out; they are automatically charged per pound of trash.
- In high-income countries, 5 per cent of all municipal budgets is spent managing trash. It’s 10 per cent in middle-income countries and 20 per cent in low-income countries.
- In the Kamikatsu, Japan village, residents are required to bring all their waste to a community sorting facility, where they sort their trash into forty-five garbage bins. Most uniquely, Kamikatsu has a swap shop in the centre of town, where residents leave all their unneeded items that can’t be recycled for others to take for free.
- There are already a growing number of local Buy Nothing groups on social media platforms like Nextdoor and Facebook that allow neighbours to post items they want to give away and to ask for the items they need.
- Zero-waste lifestyles may become more popular in the coming decade.
- Geoengineering, once considered a fringe idea, is becoming a serious scientific discipline.
Apply strange sight
Instead of being drawn to people, information, and ideas that fit with your expectations, you become increasingly drawn to things that challenge your assumptions, that feel unusual or surprising in a way that can be unsettling or hard to understand at first. Strange sight is a precursor to foresight. Look for the weird and wonderful. What’s the most bizarre or most surprising thing going on right now?
Look for signals of change
A signal of change is a concrete example of how the world could one day be different. You can find signals of change in the news and on social media, in scientific journals and in TEDx talks, in podcast interviews and at protests. Investigating a signal of change is like being on a quest. The signal can be “weak”—you can find only one example. Or it can be “strong”—the more you look, the more examples of change you find. Burrus calls it hard and soft trends https://www.ronimmink.com/to-be-the-disruptor/. Interpreting a signal of change isn’t a straight line. The word “clue” comes from the archaic word “clew,” meaning a ball of string. Signals of change are like brain candy. You can subscribe to my mind candy here.
Apply what if
If you want to turn a signal into a scenario, the next step is to do a little analysis of the signals by asking these questions:
- What kind of change is it an example of?
- What’s driving, or motivating, the change?
- Why is it happening? What does this signal make me worry about?
- What does it make me excited about?
- What would the world be like if the signal became common?
- Do I want to wake up in that world?
- Is it a future I want?
Choose your future forces
A future force is a significant trend or phenomenon that’s likely to make a disruptive or transformative impact on society.
- It might be a quickly advancing area of scientific research.
- It might be a social movement.
- It might be a new technology entering the mainstream.
- It might be a shift in consumer behaviour.
- It might be a growing threat.
- It might be a major demographic shift.
- It might be a long-term regulatory effort.
- Or it might be a widespread cultural change.
If a signal of change is like a tantalising clue that can take you to surprising places, then a future force is like a giant neon blinking arrow pointing you in one unambiguous direction. Whatever you do, know that you will never be in control of a future force. The more uncomfortable a future force makes you feel, the closer you should look at it. One of the most important sources of foresight we all rely on is the World Economic Forum’s annual Global Risks Report. Have a look.
They’ve discovered that the most effective method of teaching humanlike intelligence to machines is to give computer programs their own kind of dreams. These dreams called “noise injections,” make the programs more flexible and adaptive in their thinking. Then, when the program is working well, it gets fed purposefully weirder versions of the same data. These new data sets are dreamlike by design. The purpose of noise injections is to ensure that an AI program learns how to handle stuff it has never seen before, things that are harder to make sense of. In other words, they safeguard the machine version from future shock: they teach the AI program to expect the unexpected and not freeze up when never-before-seen data comes in. Dreams must be weird, he posited, because all brains benefit in the same unique way from that weirdness.
Dreams counterbalance normalcy bias
Dreams, it may turn out, are an ingenious method of counterbalancing the brain’s other most important hardwired, evolutionary adaptation: the pattern-recognition capacity that leads to normalcy bias, or the expectation that the future will largely be like the present. The normalcy bias, on most days, is helpful. It lets us expend less mental energy trying to figure things out, so we can react faster to predictable events. Dreams counterbalance this bias.
We imagine in vivid detail what we would do, think, feel, want, and need in a future scenario by superimposing that imagined future onto our real-life events. In this way, the simulation purposefully blurs the line between our present real lives and our imaginations. In other words, a mental simulation is a waking dream of a possible future.
Other techniques she writes about are fact flipping (another version of assumption smashing, free writing, storytelling, artefacts of the future, social simulations and, of course, gaming.
Create the future deja vu
A bit of déjà vu when you face a new challenge is a good thing. That experience of precognition gives you a boost of confidence. You saw it coming. You felt it coming. You’re more likely to feel prepared to rise to the heroic occasion, ready to help yourself and others. You have imagined a moment as strange as this. You have trained for a world as unthinkable as this.
McGonigal believes, among many others, that the next decade will be the most significant opportunity most of us have in our lifetimes to create long-lasting positive change in society. The shock of the pandemic has caused many of us to question how the world could have let so much suffering happen, despite so many resources and so much advance warning.
That is why thinking about the future is important
All the mental time travel you will do, all the scenarios will play, all the ridiculous, at first, ideas you will come up with, all the signals of change you will collect, all the future forces you will track, all the social simulation skills you will practice. These habits and exercises are the essential building blocks of this optimistic future. Read “Technosocialism“, apply the techniques in this book and apply the God formula. Let’s create that future and take the quantum jumps we need to make.