Are Forecasts (like Alice in Wonderland) just one’s beliefs?

Often just a bit of dreaming, but research shows that there are indeed experts in fore-casting. Maybe our judgements are clouded by what we happen to believe will influence those futures about which we are mere spectators.

It is of course the time for forecasts. The New York Times keeps us amused with some nice simple trends for 2014, such as that Kellogg’s will unveil a new breakfast cereal called Cholester-Os, ‘a tasty blend of sugar, oats and Lipitor, providing 90% of the new recommended daily dose of Statins.’ And that ‘a new book “Killing Conversation” becomes the first title delivered by Amazon’s fleet of drones. The recipient is unharmed, but three Pakistani civilians at a wedding are injured in the delivery.’ The Economist’s ‘World in 2014’ reports, deadpan, that in January the UN starts an international year of crystallography, of family farming and of small-island developing states.

The Economist goes on to forecast a year of political shocks  (national polls will be held in countries with about 40% of the world’s population, and governments are unpopular) and economic shifts (America, Japan and even Europe will all be growing, but emerging markets will look less dynamic; and American business will have some-thing of its old swagger.) The Economist also comments on its previous successes and failures in forecasting in its publication ‘The World in 2013’, as it does on a heavy-weight tournament for forecasters – which reveals support for the idea that there is indeed a small number of ‘super forecasters’. Not only are they identifiable, but they also improve with time; and when they were randomly assigned to ‘elite’ teams, they substantially outperformed the ‘wisdom-of-overall-crowd’, as they did competitor institutions and two prediction markets.

Nesta’s recent work  (‘A modest defence of Futurology’) revives the old truism that it depends on who is doing the asking (and so who they ask). If it is those in power, in the UK they will be asking about Salmond, Farage, energy, health and wealth (and bankers). If it is experts, it may be about the future of the Eight Great Technologies – and more besides. If it is the authors of Doctor Who and their ilk, it will be about the possibilities of IT (uses and even abuses) and of space and time travel. And, more simply, if it is you and I, it will be about how we react to the problems we are foreseeing – a valuable source of Behavioural Economic theory. Nesta’s 14 Predictions for 2014 (http://www.nesta.org.uk/news/14-predictions-2014) are drawn from Nesta’s wide expertise. Some are significant trends, some great prospects, some simply great wishes, and some radical tipping points – a mind-popping read (though difficult to navigate).

With similar short-term spectacles, all the pundits foresee economic growth for the UK (but few if any investment advisers are worth following). We can be sure that the Press will become ever more strident in their use of outrage – hype, imagination and innuendo – in their attempts to keep our attention and retain their flagging sales. It is extremely unlikely that our politicians will do anything that might shake our votes, like attempting to tackle long-term issues (new airport, new rail lines, new sources of energy), or the creaking tensions in representative democracy – especially the lack of experience and expertise in our representatives – what AA Gill described as ‘the great wish fulfilment of egalitarian socialism that wilfully believes [that] ten idiots will add up to one wise man by some democratic magic’; or the widening gap between the rich and the poor. (Greed, hypocracy and sharp practice seem more widespread, or am I just swallowing what the Press is telling me!) And we can be sure that mobile technology will continue to become more ubiquitous, though there are increasing doubts about the future of social media; reflection and conversation are forecast to be in for a revival (says The Economist) – and it is distant contacts that are surprisingly useful suggests Tim Harford, the Undercover Economist; people close to you tell you what you already know. (FT Dec 21/22).

However, as one Army Officer recently suggested, ‘if you plan too much, you get confused. It is better not to plan, that way you surprise yourself, but more importantly, you surprise the enemy!’ There are also two things about the head-long rush to innovate that worry me: being invited to possess ‘unmissable’ things that may have slight value but no great benefit (eg a new model of golf club or an app for finding coffee shops in Soho); and web material that seems so often to be ‘in beta’ ie doesn’t work properly yet, and may in any case very soon be out of date. (Stick to that bottle of aged whisky!) So why, you might well ask, do I write so much about processes of intensive development such as Accelerators? Answer: because I believe that they have a big future!

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