Predicting the future

Posted by on Dec 30, 2008 in Uncategorized | One Comment


pic c/o atomicarchive

This prompted by a couple of things in the last few days:

1. it's December 30th and the newspapers are full of "what's in store for 09?" pieces
2. in an office clearout, I found a copy of an old MRS paper I wrote on prediction, "Were you still up when Bob called it for Kerry?", which pissed off a number of folk including the aforementioned Mr. W  [Can't find a pdf but if someone out there has one, would be great to share]3. have started to think about this great show with Piers and co in a month's time

Of course, as far the newspapers go, this is a bit of seasonal fun, but it just seems to me we need to recognise that our ideas about prediction are all back-to-front and upside down

First, as Alex and Duncan Watts (and others have shown) many cultural items (ideas, practices and technologies) spread through random copying. This makes popularity volatile and impossible to predict (a richer-get-richer pattern, typical of what we call "directed" copying is easier to predict). Let's just be clear about what kind of thing we're trying to predict: many things are just going to be guesswork and as a result, whatever we say, we're likely to be wrong.

Second,  we really shouldn't be listening to our own experiences as indicators of what's happening…they're a very poor guide Daria puts it like this:

[We] presum[e] that we know the social reality because we live in it,
and on the basis of our experience we take for granted certain social relations and social behavior.

Third, there's the issue of what Alex calls ''physics" vs real world prediction: we try to be really precise when we really don't need to be so. My main point in that old MRS paper was that marketing spends a lot of effort on a kind of prediction armsrace in order to generate a small increase in predictive quality; far better to spend our time and energy on helping the users of our predictions make better use of the information and insight we do have than sharpening our predictive tools further

Fourth, whether your trying to work out the likely success of your new product or campaign, or whether you're trying to guess the likely popularity of Brown, Obama or Merkel in December 2009, the point is that the future is not just the future of the thing your interested in, but in all of the other things out there; not just your campaign but every other one. Are you going to pretest these, Mr Millward Brown?

And finally, I'm not sure that knowing how things will turn out will really help you: the point is to act and to put more of your business' (or organisations') energies and resources into getting stuff done that delights folk and really makes a contribution to their shared lives with each other. Much of the value is created not in the factory but in the interaction with customers and collaborators out there. Too much time in the prediction booth gives you less scope for this.

What is useful is to watch for signals of the future: to see what folk are doing, finding interesting and beginning to adopt. To consider alternatives and get yourself in a position ready where you can act…[Neuroscientist David Ingvar suggested 20 years ago that our minds naturally develop this kind of 'Memory of the Future'. Scenario planning is often rooted in this kind of thinking]. Or, more specifically, to open your eyes to a broader range of possible options than that which might be visible to the current business…and to get you experimenting...

Maybe we ought to just show a little more humility about this whole prediction thing

Maybe we just need to be a little more honest about the limits of our abilities

The great physicist, Niels Bohr had it about right, I reckon:

Prediction is really hard; particularly about the future

1 Comment

  1. Holycow
    January 2, 2009

    Mark I have a copy – will ping it over next week.
    Happy New Year