Looking Into the Crystal Ball with Futurist Jacob Park

As the sun set over Huntington Beach on the last night of BSR, I sat down with the organization’s new Director of the Sustainable Futures Lab, Jacob Park, to better understand the point of five- and ten-year time horizons in a world of quarterly returns and continuous social media updates. This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for space. 

TriplePundit: Futurist is basically the coolest job title ever. What does it mean? 

Jacob Park: It’s truly fascinating work. We take complex, disruptive ideas and break them down to see how change happens, what the possible uncertainties and implications might be, and how to respond more strategically.

What I do is called ‘scenario planning.’ It provides a framework for thinking about the unpredictable developments in the future. The point of scenario planning is to make better decisions today based on the various possibilities that might unfurl in the future. It teases out those game-changing shifts that entirely reshape the landscape. Scenario planning gives us the tools to uncover ‘what could be coming that would be really disruptive.’ Once we have a set of possible outcomes we can prepare for them.

3p: How far out do you look? 

JP: At least 10 years. 2030 years is a good waypoint. We want to get far enough out to allow for big change. Big, complex global organizations need to be thinking that far ahead. We set our scenarios there. We explore what might be different, politically, technologically. We then backcast, walking back from the future to see what we’d need to do in, say, 2025, 2020, and next year to prepare. This allows us to make decisions in the present based on what might happen down the road.

3p: How do you set the scenarios? 

JP: It’s a combination of research and informed speculation. We do as much research as we can, but we don’t limit ourselves to experts because they can have their own blind spots. Trends are useful up to a point but over the long term the trendlines always break. They can show us a pattern of what has happened in the past but by definition they cannot signal disruptive change ahead.  For example, the solar boom. No one would have predicted costs falling as quickly as they have, all the trend lines were more conservative than the actual rate of price decline.

The global adoptions of renewable energy — the booms in China, India and Chile — were also unexpected.

In China, there became a political issue around air pollution. The government said, ‘we need to deal with air pollution,’ and solar expansion was the fastest approach to manage the local air pollution issues with fossil fuel powered energy. Similarly, India had a ton of coal and a large number of people without access to electricity. The government wanted to focus on powering up the nation, they saw access to electricity as their main sustainability issue. Their greenhouse gas emissions were accelerating quickly. But then they joined the Paris Accords, which was huge and by no means guarenteed.

Now India and China are talking about outlawing gas-powered cars. And California’s political leaders are considering following this path. It’s revolutionary.

Scenario planning helps us spot the weak signals before they become mainstream. It helps us anticipate unlikely events that could reshape the whole landscape.

3p: Why think so far out? Most companies are focused on quarterly returns. 

JP: Of course there are some companies like Unilever that are taking a longer view, but yes, this is a challenge. One of my favorite writers on this subject is neuroscientist Iain McGilcrist. He uses a great analogy I like to borrow. Look at a bird pecking for food in a field. The left side of the brain is focused on distinguishing food particles from rocks. The right side is scanning up and around, watching out for approaching predators or mates. We need both — the focus on the immediate, which is basically what a quarterly return is, — and the focus on the long term context, which could change everything. Businesses are over-invested in the left brain and futurists advocate for a more balanced approach.

3p: Does scenario planning turn you into a pessimist? 

JP: [laughs], no. Futurist Jay Ogilvy calls it the tragic-comic perspective. Scenario planning gives us a realistic perspective. We do spend lots of time thinking about the scary stuff, so we do make a point to do hopeful scenarios as well. We’ve weathered an awful lot as a species. Imagine being alive in Europe at the end of WWII, it must have felt like the end of the world.

3p: And here we are 75 years later and Angela Merkel is the conscience of Europe. 

JP: Exactly. There’s also been an increased conscience around eating meat, animal welfare, marriage equality, good change can come super fast too.

Giving stakeholders space to speculate allows them to move more closely together in perspective.

Scenario planning was actually key to ushering in a peaceful resolution in South Africa after apartheid. The Mont Fleur scenarios process involved key political actors from across the spectrum in exploring possible futures for South Africa. There was only one peaceful scenario and they all decided to throw their weight behind that.

3p: Are the robots going to get us? 

JP: Probably not the robots but the fast advance of artificial intelligence (AI) is a concern. There are a lot of real benefits. For example, Google used AI technology DeepMind to massively reduce the environmental impact of data centers. However AI is a “dual use” technology which could be used to hurt people and things too. This is an area where scenario planning is especially useful because we can see all the attributes of a particular technology and trace it through the second, third and forth orders of implications to see surprising impacts. With uranium, it’s quite obvious what the good (nuclear energy) and the harmful (bombs) implications are. With AI technology interacting in a complex sociopolitical world there are a lot of unexpected outcomes.

3p: Like what? 

JP: Well, take Facebook’s facial recognition. It’s nifty, it can tag your friends for you. But what happens when people can be tagged by race or gender? There was some spurious research that claimed to be able to identify a person’s sexuality from a photograph. Now, imagine that in use in a country whose government thinks all gay people should be in prison.

And what happens to the people who opt out? The data refugees?

Our opportunity with scenario planning is to anticipate the unexpected so we can adapt, not so we can stop it. With multistakeholder collaborations we can also the envision the future we want to work together to help bring into being.

Image credit: NASA, Wikimedia 

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Jen Boynton

Jen Boynton is editor in chief of TriplePundit and editorial director at 3BL Media. With over 6 million annual readers, TriplePundit is the leading publication on sustainable business and the Triple Bottom Line. Prior to TriplePundit, Jen received an MBA in Sustainable Management from the Presidio Graduate School. In her work with TriplePundit she's helped clients from SAP to PwC to Fair Trade USA with their sustainability communications messaging. When she's not at work, she volunteers as a CASA -- court appointed special advocate for children in the foster care system. She enjoys losing fights with toddlers and eating toast scraps. She lives with her family in sunny San Diego.

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