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Surefire Predictions and Why Doomsayers are Wrong

Harvard Business Review

If you want certainty, here it is: my surefire predictions about the future. The next two Popes won't be a woman. At least three more corporate executives will be fired for shady financial dealings. Despite best efforts, the proposed American Airlines-US Airways merger will hit points of turbulence.

Everything else is up in the air.

Forecasting is a dicey business in times of rapid change, especially when the predictions involve scary scenarios of gloom and doom. For example, take these recent dire predictions: Machines will steal all the jobs. Youth violence will grow. Aging populations will drain national resources. Democracy will disappear as power shifts to developing countries with authoritarian regimes where no one cares about voice and participation.

Predictions like these assume a straight line from some problematic perturbations to disastrous conclusions — without any human intervention. They assume that everything we invent to solve one problem creates other, more serious problems (like those job-stealing computers), taking the law of unintended consequences to an extreme. They assume that people are helpless victims of powerful forces beyond their control. They assume that there are no counter-trends or embryonic developments.

Why give the gloom-mongers that much attention? Why not make an opposite set of assumptions, that our most human characteristics — imagination, creativity — will appear in new guises to save ourselves, our jobs, and even democracy?

Consider these plausible scenarios based on small but already-visible phenomena that might become big future trends:

1. New enterprises, often led by rising generations, will fill gaps and plant seeds of hope. Teenagers will start social ventures to address nearly every concern — e.g., to raise awareness of carbon footprints, to get laws passed about emissions, to raise money to find a cure for cancer. Even pre-teens will participate, like the 9-year-old who started Katy's Krops to grow vegetables to feed the homeless. In itself, that's a sign that cities will become greener, as social entrepreneurs, supported by mayors, promote urban agriculture. Young scientists will invent energy-saving or health-promoting products, incubate new ventures while still in college, and sell them to markets eager for ways to control energy or health care costs. Innovative forms of financing, such as Kickstarter, will continue to grow, also invented by social entrepreneurs.

2. Visual and performing arts will be resurgent, especially on the local level, and they will compete effectively with broadcast media and digital media. The arts are at the center of the next wave of revitalization in cities such as Miami, where big new performing arts facilities and museums accompany a lively new set of artists' studios in a formerly bleak warehouse district. Designers will become even more valued members of product development and planning teams in every field. Connections will be forged between between tech start-ups and the arts, marrying two formerly isolated communities around apps, for example. The inherent exclusivity and uniqueness of live events will grow in importance as content can be accessed virtually — and virtual reach will increase demand for attendance at live events. Live performances will fuel economic booms; performers will make more money from merchandise sales at events than from albums, as Jazz Roots founder (and my friend) Larry Rosen observed. Machines like Roomba, the robot vacuum cleaner, will do the dirty work while people do the emotional work, with the expressiveness of the arts.

3. New alliances will be struck across the generations, and society will benefit. Aging baby boomers will balance golf with giving back, and they will want to join the rising generation in creating social ventures. For the young, these change-the-world efforts will ensure a better future and maybe enhance resumes; for those in their post-career days, social ventures are the focus of their next life stage and the legacy they want to create. Already the idea of encore careers is taking hold. At Harvard, the Advanced Leadership Initiative that I chair helps accomplished leaders transition from their income-earning years to their next years of service; among the many benefits are the partnerships they form with students. An aging population means that more experienced leaders live longer. That is an asset and societal resource. And when effectively put to work, these leaders are healthier; they can improve health care rather than drain resources.

To be sure, there are problems and always will be — another surefire prediction. But as long as people populate the earth, we can solve them. Maybe we should sprinkle a few more of those seeds that built Katie's Krops and top it off with a jazz concert. Rather than being victims of uncontrollable forces, we can use our imaginations and creativity to create the future.

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