How people imagine the future has a big impact on how they shape their present and live their lives. That applies to individual lifestyles as well as to the whole of society, and can affect scientific, technical, social and psychological developments. It is also essential for a company, to think about the future – and not only in terms of its own goals and ambitions, but also in terms of how people that come into contact with the company imagine their own future. What are their hopes, which desires or fears can and should a company react to, thus playing an active part in shaping the future?
Following the tracks of the future
When analyzing descriptions of the future, one encounters the same patterns again and again. There is an optimistic attitude to progress, which is regarded as a permanent development for the better. On the other hand, there is a pessimistic attitude that associates the future with a decline and glorifies the past. And then there are people for whom the differences between various epochs are only marginal, who believe that the past, present and future are fundamentally similar.
Although one can differentiate types of visions of the future, they are seldom found in their pure form. It is more the case that people shift from one vision to another depending on the situation and topic under examination.
The past is important for a better understanding of the future: How did people imagine the future in different periods of history and in different cultures? How much influence on shaping the future did people believe they had? Which consequences did the respective future fantasies have on further developments, especially in the field of science and technology?
The following collection of visions of the future shows the various ideas and emotions people projected onto the time beyond their own present. They make it clear how often certain ideas were repeated and when they (sooner or later) became reality, that is, the extent to which the future could really be foretold. So a look back at the past helps to sharpen one’s view of the future and to make it calculable.
Ancient times and the medieval period: symbols and myths
Modern Era and Enlightenment: new departures
Modern and avant-garde:
new horizons and crossing boundaries
“What might the world look like in 100 years?” asked a group of artists around Jean-Marc Côté. This gave rise to a series of postcard pictures that were first exhibited at the World Exposition in Paris. The pictures are fully in the spirit of scientific and technical progress. The focus is on possible industrial developments and on how machines might replace manual labor in the future. These visions of the future are quite positive. The future promises improved quality of life, as technology will reduce hard labor in people’s everyday lives.
While the dystopian novels about the future by Aldous Huxley and George Orwell express a grim anxiety concerning technology, the pulp magazines that appeared a little earlier painted a colorful and exciting picture of the future. The term “science fiction” was first used in Amazing Stories in 1926, and quickly became a boom genre. Common topics were outer space, aliens, super heroes and wars. The authors almost completely neglected social, psychological and political topics.
Credit: Photo: George Morgan; Frank R. Paul Estate
Work data: Amazing Stories, September 1928, Experimenter Publishing Company Inc. (Publisher); artist: Frank R. Paul.
The present: new uncertainty
The history of pictures of the future reveals a lot about the mentality of the culture in which the respective pictures were created. At the same time, those pictures illustrate the emergence of a system of values that still influences us today. Equal rights, self determination, the strive for sustainability: These values first had to be dreamt of and projected into a vision of the future before they gained acceptance in the present.
Predicting the future and making it controllable has been a recognizable pattern throughout history, and nothing has changed in that respect today. The difference compared with the past is that today, digitization allows us a completely different approach. The availability of data and algorithms that can link that data in an intelligent manner awakens new hopes of making future events calculable. At the same time, rapid technological developments are leaving many people with unanswered questions. Skepticism of coming developments is reflected in contemporary images of the future. They are more reserved than in the modern era.
Development and progress, or any change of the status quo, require a society that looks to the future openly and positively. That is why companies that anticipate great changes in the near future should seek to create understanding and trust. Dialog and transparency are the key to openness and the will to change. The future is not something that one waits for passively, but something whose shape is influenced by decisions in the present.