Editor’s Note: Dr. Patrick Noack is Executive Director, Future Foresight and Imagination at Dubai Future Foundation, and policy fellow at the Centre for Science and Policy at the University of Cambridge. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion on CNN.
I recently saw a compelling graphic on the timeline of the far future – an outlook for the future until the end of time, in a sense – and I shared it through our workplace groupchat.
The timeline concludes with the end of the world in 100 quintillion years (that’s 100 billion billion years), if all goes well. A colleague commented: “guess I’ll have that second doughnut then.” A witty response and emblematic of how humans function: we favor immediate rewards over future benefits. In other words, in the case of the doughnut, “might as well indulge now given that death will come,” rather than planning for a healthy old age.
While we are never faced with a decision where we have to weigh up the consequences on the coming days versus billions of years, we conduct lives with decisions that reverberate for centuries and even millennia. We may not recognize this immediately, and even if we do, it’s a responsibility we have been ignoring for too long.
But I’m not here to apportion blame, because we are a species that uses, develops and inherits technologies. Who would have guessed in 1750, when the first Industrial Revolution started and was followed by mass industrialization, that the fuel for these processes – the hydrocarbons that have propelled economic growth – would one day come back to haunt us.
It is really challenging to understand the long-term impacts, knock-on effects and unintended consequences of our technologies and decisions. Take investments, for example: often, returns are sought over the very short term – ranging from milliseconds when algorithms are in charge of buying and selling, to a few months when company performance is assessed and share price impacted – while externalities are, well, externalized. Rarely are investments made for the long term, with clear benefits for the long haul.
As early as 1856, Eunice Foote, an American amateur scientist, already speculated about the effects of increased CO2 concentrations in our atmosphere. But her work was ignored.
Fast forward to 2023, and many still ignore climate science or attempt to explain it away. So, the immediate benefit of burning fossil fuels continues to outweigh any delayed cost, whether that cost is environmental, social or economic. Our species appears to live, repeatedly, through such cycles: the global financial crisis, conflict, individual and population-wide ill-health and more. And as individuals we’re often not much better than we are as a herd.
So, while short-termism and immediate gratification may be our natural instincts, and such hardwiring may have served us well when we roamed the savannahs in search of food while escaping predators, our lives are now more consequential for the planet we share with other species. A change in perspective is therefore necessary – even urgent.
Three ways to think longer-term
That’s why foresight principles come in handy: at the Dubai Future Forum we have convened hundreds of futurists and have articulated guidelines – principles – that help in this process. There are eight principles in all, but three are really important if we want to shift quickly and inclusively toward a longer-term mode of thinking and acting.
First is Reflexivity: Use foresight as a mirror to understand and address impacts in the short- and long-term. This is the most important first step because a balance needs to be achieved between our ambitions and the needs of today and the future. It’s like using a telescope and a magnifying glass at the same time. A sort of compromise must be worked out internally and with those people and communities our decisions will impact. We’re in this together – and by “we” I also mean future generations.
This leads to the second principle: Plurality. The future needs everyone, and therefore thinking about the future and shaping it needs everyone, too. This has to be meaningful contribution and participation – tokenism will only come to bite us in the future. After all we are responsible for the future we create.
The third principle to highlight here is Ancestry. Try to be a good ancestor, because future generations depend on it and we are the custodians of their opportunities. This is the precise inverse of how most museums work, which are custodians of past civilizations’ artifacts; our own legacy and our future past will affect and shape someone’s future.
We need to be more thoughtful and put our decisions into a future perspective. Once we understand that what is decided today will become the reality for people tomorrow, we may forgo some of the immediate benefits which could be detrimental for the future.
So, Reflexivity, Plurality and Ancestry are among the most important superhero attributes we can employ to ensure a better future for all. And if it takes less than 100 quintillion years to make these attributes a good habit of everyday decision-making, let’s treat ourselves with a doughnut.