back-to-futureToday is Back To The Future day, representing as it does the day Marty and the Doc punch into the Delorean the date to fly into 2015 in Back To The Future II.  It’s understandably prompted a lot of fun comparisons between the world predicted by the film makers and the world we actually live in today.

Whilst there are certainly some predictions that have turned out to be true, many have been a long way from the mark, with the most obvious example being the lack of hoverboards to carry us about.

The relative lack of success should come as no surprise, as science fiction movies are awash with failed predictions of the future.  The professional futurology industry is little better at getting things right.

The perils of predicting the future

A study, published earlier this year in the Journal of Economic Perspectives, highlights the difficulties, even for the most enlightened of experts to get things right.  The study identified three kinds of technological anxiety that was common throughout much of the last few centuries.

  1. that technology will substitute for labor, leading to large unemployment and inequality
  2. a concern about the moral implications of technological process on human welfare
  3. that technological advances are grounding to a halt, with the big developments largely behind us

Not only are many attempts to predict the future wrong, Frenchman Pierre Wack regarded them as thoroughly dangerous.  What’s more, he suggested that so called experts on such matters were at their most dangerous when they had recently achieved some prediction success, as a failure is almost inevitably just around the corner.

A better approach

So what kind of approach is more likely to yield success?  Wack himself suggests that visible signs as to what the future might hold are already out there, providing we know where to look.  He uses the example of the Ganges river to illustrate his point of view.

“From spring to mouth,” he said, “it is an extraordinary river, some fifteen hundred miles long. If you notice extraordinarily heavy monsoon rains at the upper part of the basin, you can anticipate with certainty that within two days something extraordinary is going to happen at Rishikesh, at the foothills of the Himalayas.”

Or, as William Gibson famously said, “the future already exists, it’s just unevenly distributed”.  This was emphasised in a recent report from the OECD that remarked on the uneven distribution of technology throughout the economy.

It’s almost inevitable therefore, that innovation is happening somewhere in the world, whether in a research lab, a seemingly irrelevant industry, or maybe in a far-flung country.  The key is firstly, being able to find those cool things, then to make sense of them, and this is a role that we here at NCUB take very seriously.

If you want a glimpse of what the future may hold, therefore, you could do worse than keep a beady eye on this blog at the great things currently emerging from our universities and businesses, although we can’t promise that a hoverboard will be coming your way any time soon.

At a later date, there would almost certainly be floods in Allahabad or Benares, and it’s quite possible that the residents of both towns will be caught completely unaware.