FSG Blog
June 6, 2024

What Won’t Change in Our Uncertain Future?

Joe DuFresne

Are there elements of our uncertain future that we should consider enduring?

When FSG scenario planning consultants go through the exercise of building future scenario worlds, we work hard to make sure that we consider how everything could change, even things that are held dear. How often has the claim “that will never change” been proven wrong?  Challenging conventional assumptions about the future and checking blind spots are a couple of the primary benefits of alternative futures scenario planning, because we would often otherwise simply project today’s reality out with, at most, a few minor alterations.  

But of course some things do stay the same or at least change slowly enough that we can consider them enduring over a 20 to 30 year planning horizon.  Knowing what those things are can be as valuable in building future scenarios as identifying what could change. If nothing else, these anchors of stability provide scenario workshop participants something to recognize and identify with in an otherwise foreign world in which they are asked to immerse themselves. They help focus strategic discussions on truly knotty and uncertain forces for change.  These enduring characteristics also provide a line of continuity between the present and the future which can assist with building strategic plans – i.e., something to hold onto and plan around amidst an otherwise ambiguous and complex future.

The Not Uncertain Future of Human Nature

For example, one thing that doesn’t change is human nature.  Surely the human species has changed over time but on an evolutionary timescale.  In 30 years we can count on humans still seeking happiness and entertainment, falling in love, pursuing a vocation and way of life.  Our bodies will still need maintenance, sustenance, and repair.  In the future we can expect to find charity and greed, ambition and laziness, those who seek to resolve conflict and those who create it, peaceful and violent intent.  There is both comfort and disappointment that human nature does not change, but we can build that into our visions of the future.

Culture and belief systems are examples of characteristics that do change and are always changing, but do so very slowly, often over generations.  Removing “pop culture” from the definition of culture, the former now changing as fast as a new cat video can surface on social media, culture and traditions are cultivated through families and communities. They are embedded in the nurture-side of our personality development and therefore take time to grow.  As a result, they also take tremendous energy and/or time to change.  In the context of the future, we can consider these characteristics as slow vectors.  Like the tide we cannot see their change, but we know that given enough time the water will be up to our shorts.

When casting the net to capture plausible futures it is important to let go of conditions of the present that we believe will never change, or that we hope won’t.  Still, as important as the differences between now and then may be, there are characteristics of our world that will be the same in 20 years, or will have changed very little.

 What might those be?

Readers are invited to share their thoughts in the comments section below. 

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18 thoughts on “What Won’t Change in Our Uncertain Future?”

  1. The Law. Not the laws passed by Congress and state legislatures and made up out of whole cloth by the Supreme Court, but rather contract law and specifically financial contract law. Most particularly financial contract law as practiced in Manhattan.

    It has been said that if one could revive Sir Thomas More and drop him into the City of London today, he would have a thriving practice in a matter of weeks. The same could be said for Hamilton or Burr in NYC. This Anglo-American decedent of the Common Law that William the Conqueror found waiting for him in 1066, has been slow to change. Yes, these legal contracts are constantly evolving and changing in response to the constantly changing nature of the economy and the financial markets but the legal framework in which these changes take place is virtually timeless and unlikely to change in a mere twenty years.

    The legal breadth and stability of this contracting process is un-matched elsewhere and is one of the vital legs of the three-legged stool that makes the US dollar the global currency just as the British Pound — for identical reasons — had been before it. The other two legs are, of course US military power and the fact that the US government always pays its debt. The Pound Stirling lost its global sheen when Britania ceased to rule the waves, but London has continued to be a dominant financial market due to its unchanging legal foundation. Some American politicians seem determined to do considerable damage to these other two legs, but breaking them entirely over the next two decades is unlikely, so maybe dollar dominance may also be around in 20 years.

    • I’m left feeling mildly reassured by Robert Avila’s blog comment. When it comes to the dollar’s dominance, however, how much also depends on an independent Federal Reserve?

      • The Federal Reserve and its sometime independence has has a some what less than stellar history. It is mainly a policy arm and as such capable of both good and bad policy affecting inflation and unemployment. The dollar has remained dominant through out the economic ups and downs and all of the Fed’s good and bad policies. Were the Treasury to determine Fed policy as it did in effect in the 1940’s, or the President as Nixon did when he closed the Gold window, or as Congress is always trying to do when they attempt to intimidate the Fed Chairman with stupid questions, the impact would be on the economy not on the dollar as global reserve currency.

        On the other hand, should Congress not raise the debt ceiling and prevent the Treasury from making payments on the national debt that could seriously damage the dollar. But there really is no obvious understudy standing in the wings ready to step in to play the role.

  2. I wholeheartedly agree with you, Joe, that human nature will not change. We find familiar fears, familiar passions, the familiar foolish hopes in documents from three thousand years ago.

    This is not a sentimental observation. It has consequences in the world.

    I notice in the way we talk about our politics, our organizations or our personal relationships that our reflex is to begin with a discussion of their context and proceed straight to “and therefore”. Karl Marx would approve.

    But we are not so simple. We insist that we can create our context. We see problems and dream up ways through them or, failing that, around them. We name our aspirations and start making plans. We are often stubborn, always unpredictable.

    Of all the certainties about human nature our unpredictability is the most acute. Our long-term planning should build in that expectation.

    Humans will continue refusing to be creatures of circumstance. We are too bloody minded.

  3. Greetings from Copenhagen, Denmark:

    How curious to read this most recent FSG post on the 80th Anniversary of D-Day while the Starliner capsule just linked up with the International Space Station. I’m watching the live feed as the hatches have opened and the crews meet to the ringing of a very old form mariner bell.

    To the point of an unchanging human nature, I think of the legacy of Lonergan’s epistemology. He saw enduring cognitional operations of the human mind, invariant across language, culture, and history. Authenticity becomes a potential outcome of these: attention, intelligence, reasonableness, and responsibility in judgments for action. And, as he has written, objectivity then becomes the fruit of authentic subjectivity.

    The crew onboarding video is about to begin….

    Onward and upward,

  4. Human nature may not change in 20 years, but the nature of the relevant actors might change in 20 years should AI — whoes nature is decidedly non-human — continue to advance at its current pace.
    And that could make all the difference.

  5. Indeed, great questions. If insight-based critical realism has a certain validity, then we’ve got a criteria baseline for AI intelligence assessments. Probably a very useful tool going forward, considerably more useful than the Turing test. And some Lonergan-related application work has been done along these lines:

    Sato, T. 2023. Technological Frame and Best Praxis in the Age of Artificial Intelligence. Chapter 4 in D.Tsang, H. Kazeroony (Eds.). Management Education and Automaton. Routledge.

  6. Will humans in 2050 still desire to physically (as opposed to virtually) travel for leisure, learning and adventure? That is, can supercharged virtual reality replace the real thing? Or be “good enough.” The answer to this has implications for many organizations FSG has supported over the years — NASA, the Coast Guard, Panama Canal, airlines, ports, and more.

    • That’s a good question, Pete. I would think that being able to experience something almost indistinguishable from the real thing would have a large market, in all the cases you mention. I believe that they still won’t be able to completely replace the real thing, however. No level of VR can simulate the psychological impact of actually being in a lethally dangerous scenario (e.g., combat), or at least I hope not! Also, there’s what I think is still an innate human attraction to authenticity. Look at the price difference between a lab-grown diamond vs mined. Personally, it’d be amazing to see, hear, and feel exactly the experience of standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon, but I couldn’t say I’ve been there. No T-shirt for that.

  7. In your first “For example” paragraph, there seems to be an implied balance between the elements of humanity, “…charity and greed, ambition and laziness, those who seek to resolve conflict and those who create it, peaceful and violent intent.” I fear that these are changing, and the balance is tilting in the wrong direction. I don’t mean to suggest that the elements themselves are changing (after all, greed is greed) but the numbers of people holding greed as a value is outnumbering the number who hold charity.

  8. Two thoughts from The Other Down Under, from a jet-lagged guy who just got home from 24 hours of travel:

    1. Someone I know who is a superb computer whiz told me the other day when I asked him about AI that he was somewhat haunted by what Elon Musk said in 2019 about it (even though neither of us has much time for the guy since he has gone a bit goofy after being “Twitter-poisoned,” as Jaron Lanier calls it): “It seemed to me some time ago that you could sort of think of humanity as a biological boot loader for digital super intelligence.” In other words, once we have fulfilled our role of birthing this phenomenon, we can be dispensed with, and talking about “human nature” as a relevant concept to the future of the world could be, as they say, “rendered quaint.” That is, human nature may not change, but it may not be dictating anything much, and the nature of the digital super-intelligence that succeeds it may be quite alien and unpredictable. My sense is it all sounds kind of alarmist and goofy, but some really smart people seem to be taking it seriously, so… anyway, it’s one scenario to consider.

    2. I heard an excellent presentation Wednesday at Penn State’s Institute for the Study of Business Markets by Dr. Fariborz Ghadar, a co-author of several books with our old pal Erik Peterson of CSIS “Seven Revolutions” fame, on large-scale trends and issues for the future. For decades (since Robert Avila wrote a blog piece for this very website) I have tried to imagine a scenario in which the supremacy of the dollar as a reserve currency is undermined in anything less than decades, barring a world war of a type that bounced the British pound from the top spot. Dr. Ghadar pointed out that China and other countries are making bilateral currency swap deals to bypass the SWIFT international banking regulations that used to make sanctions so much more effective, and U.S. control of world currency markets so tight. This may be the first sort of thing that I think holds some serious potential to bounce the dollar and the United States from the top spot, reserve-currency-wise. In addition, China has developed an alternative to the World Bank with its Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which has 109 member countries (including New Zealand, Australia, South Korea, half of NATO, much of the Middle East, Africa and Latin America, and basically every major player except Japan and the U.S.). I’d be interested to hear what Robert and the rest of you think of these developments.

    • My take. No doubt, there are a lot of trends and issues challenging the dollar’s traditional dominance. The US-China divide is exacerbating the splintering of global trade and investment flows. Alternative (digital) payment systems are forming outside of the dollar space. Central bankers are worried about US inflation, Fed independence, and the threat of a federal debt default. And yet. There does not appear to be a serious challenger on at least the 10 year horizon. The yuan’s rise over the last couple of decades has been at the expense of the euro, not the dollar, according to top currency trackers. The greenback remains well ensconced as the chief source of global liquidity and trade lubrication. Which is not to say that the dollar’s demise should not be explored in one or more plausible scenarios. But it would appear to take a series of major global crises resulting in a critically weakened US government and economy to cause the dollar’s fall, certainly if you’re just looking out a decade or so.

    • Keynes is reported to have said after Bretton Woods: The Bank’s a fund and the Fund’s a bank! Having one’s own version of the World Bank only means that you can fund (useless???) investments in developing countries that will soak up some of the (massive???) excess capacity that exists in one’s domestic infrastructure industries. The International Monetary Fund is the global bank that matters in international trade and despite its efforts to create its own currency, SDRs (Special Drawing Rights), the IMF conducts its business in US Dollars.
      Bilateral currency swaps are indeed what one does when one wishes to bypass the banking system, think brief cases full of hundred dollar bills swapped for suitcases full of rubbles, pesos, BitCoins(?), etc. What matters in banking at any level of the banking business(local, national, international) is not the few big transactions that generate headlines, but rather the constant flow of small everyday transactions that businesses and consumers make to keep themselves in operation. Daily transactions on SWIFT are around $7 trillion.
      Now it is true that the dollar only accounts for about, maybe, 60% of international trade, but I believe that Intra EU trade is still classified as international trade and that trade would, of course, be in Euros. Also, the Pound Sterling still plays, I believe, a role in what’s left of Commonwealth trade. All of which suggests that the US dollar role in inter currency block trade is probably higher than that overall 60%.
      Now, if the US military were to retreat from the world stage, and if the US were to stop paying its debt, and if the US courts and judicial system were to become politically corrupt institutions then the dollar would probably loose ground in international trade. But obviously no sane political party would ever allow any of these things to happen.

      • Thanks for all this. Our approach, of course, is to imagine a set of conditions some time in the future, and to write a plausible story to get to those conditions. I think the US military retreating from the world stage is far more plausible today than it was 10 years ago. Conversely, I can easily imagine (in general terms) new forms of warfare that neutralize or even render negative the current forms of US military might. The carrier battle group appears to me to be a profoundly vulnerable form of power projection, far more appropriate to the age of Halsey and MacArthur than to today (or 2040). Aside from weaponry, the Internet increasingly seems able to sell any story to anyone. AI will make that worse.

        Then there is the kulturkampf going on that is paralyzing our government for short-term profit. The odds of default on the national debt are far greater than they ever were. And while cryptocurrency has been the fiasco a lot of us thought it would be, there may be something in the digital currency realm that might be a crowbar to help remove the dollar from its current dominance. Or maybe take away its governance from an unreliable US government?

        I sense that a set of scenarios about the future of the dollar as the dominant world currency might be of interest to many.

        • As long as you have steped thru my ironic trap door we might as well add the consequences of turning the US Judicial system into a tool of political retribution can quickly evolve into a system that goes after economic players for political ends. It is true wealthy individuals and corporations may expect the government to act on their behalf but economic players have conflicting interests. Once the rule of law is politicized everyone must become a political player in worst Hobbesian way. This does not make for an attractive business environment or the US dollar an attractive currency, just as the use of sanctions against Russia has already reduced the attractiveness of the dollar.


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