The Present is Urgent, the Future is Important
“The problem is that we have to deal with issues are coming up now,” said a colleague at a government agency when we were on the phone last week. We were talking about the sticky challenge of being unable to address the future because present issues are so urgent.
This problem is often discussed when the topic of foresight comes up. No one can do any “foresight” because they are so busy with the present. Everyone also recognizes the paradox. If someone in the past had thought hard about preparing for the future (which is now the present), perhaps today’s burning problems could have been avoided, or at least mitigated.
There is a way, however, to address both the urgent present and the future. What my colleague was really talking about wasn’t two periods of time–now and the future–but the single issue of change over time.
It is an illusion that there is a clear distinction between now and the future. As we are all learning from the crucible of climate change, sustaining that illusion can be dangerous. It lulls us into thinking we can wait to address the future. Rather, to have the future we want, we must start working on it right now.
But the urgency of the current moment so often gets in the way. So we address issues sequentially. Now we deal with now; later we will deal with later.
The Long View Contains both the Urgent and the Important
The problem with this is that putting band-aids on a serious challenge now can make the ultimate effect worse. A second problem is that we lose an important opportunity to get ahead of the curve. But ignoring the meaningfully urgent is also not a good fix.
Here is a proposal for a different way to address the kinds of urgent problems that are not going to go away. The kind that are the tip of the iceberg of changes to come.
Analyze the present in the context of the future. Draw back. Take the long view. Address current issues against the wider backdrop of change over time. Look at your urgent problem as happening in the middle of a long trajectory of changes that began in the past and will continue into the future.
From here, you gain an important opportunity to develop solutions for the short and long term that mutually reinforce each other in positive ways.
Here is an example. My colleague told me that demographic shifts are causing a shortage of their most specialized employees.
This is how they are planning to deal with the problem:
- Short term: Do more with less
- Medium term: Automate some tasks to relieve pressure on employment needs
- Long term: reconfigure the expected career path of a specialized professional.
At present, these look like three different strategies. The starting point for addressing the long term future lies in the future. It would be more effective to think and plan today.
But of course, there are the burning issues today to deal with. Taking the long view begins to offer insights and options for the present as well as the future.
Questions that were unthinkable in the short term lens emerge, and to do the double work of addressing today and tomorrow’s issue:
- How can the existing workforce become a test bed for innovating new career paths now? This engages the workforce today in identifying a satisfying career path later.
- Would an incremental approach to automation be useful, and why not begin now?
- What insights arise when the agency approaches the present as a time of transition to the future? (Instead of a problem to overcome, so that they can address the future can be addressed.)
Foresight is, at root, about change: understanding, managing and even using change to one’s own advantage. As futurists are fond of pointing out, no one can claim to predict the future, since it hasn’t happened yet.
Understanding Change is the Key to the Future
By the same token, foresight as a practice offers ways to look deeply and thoughtfully at the past and present to understand how the environment is changing. Understanding change and acting on it is the real key to in the future.
There is never a moment when the world is at rest and not changing. And, as we also know, the rate of change is accelerating or, at least, many perceive that change is accelerating. So to wait for a moment when your organization has ‘caught up’ and can now sit down and think about the future could turn out to be an expensive bit of nostalgia–that moment never existed and will never arrive again. We would go so far as to say that thinking of the future as “in the future” is a luxury that few organizations can afford today.