Peter Bishop, Ph.D. is Professor Emeritus of Foresight at the University of Houston. Dr. Bishop retired in 2013, after directing a master’s degree program for over thirty-years.
He then established a nonprofit organization called “Teach the Future.” The “Teach the Future” purpose is to bring the same kind of futures thinking, not at the professional level, but at the literacy level, to high schools and college undergraduates.
This article is based upon an August 2020 discussion between Dr. Bishop and Kathryn Engelhardt-Cronk, CEO of MissionBox.
Good afternoon, Peter. This interview is for the MissionBox September edition, focusing on how a nonprofit or charity leader can learn to think like a futurist. Specifically, how can nonprofit leaders move themselves from a pandemic mindset of scarcity, confusion and fear and look ahead at opportunity and possibility?
I know you are the founder of “Teach the Future.” I’m hoping that you can help our nonprofit readers better understand how to begin to thrive in a disrupted world.
Thanks, Kathryn. This is a good topic for a nonprofit leader in these challenging times.
I can answer your question from two perspectives. One is my professional background and training in teaching on organizational change and on social change, in general. And then based upon my own experience with the nonprofit "Teach the Future" over the last five years.
In terms of thinking like a futurist, I'll start off with a question I received from one of our graduates, now a high school teacher. She recently sent me an email asking, “How does it feel to be living in one of the most often discussed disruptions in history?”
First of all, pandemic is always on the list of what we call wildcards or disruptions along with nuclear war, climate change, another Great Depression, etc. And now here we are. Except for futurists, few look further than acknowledging that “a pandemic will upset everything.” Some scientists, some futurists and public health experts did look more deeply into the possible impacts of a pandemic, but they didn’t get much press. The possibility of future major disruptions generally don't get noticed…until they occur.
The standard mental model about the future, which is basically about change, tends to rely on continuity. It relies on the notion that the structure of the world will remain largely the same and the future will be like the past. We note trends, certainly, but don’t anticipate major disruptions.
What is ironic is that we all study the past and most of what is of interest to us about the past is about disruptions. We don’t often focus on trends in history; we study wars, new technologies, world-changing inventions and catastrophes. And when we turn 180 degrees and to look at the future, where are the disruptions? They’re not in our thinking, not included in our future scenarios because we can only “scientifically” document trends—world population and growth, for instance.
Focusing on trends leads to what we call the “expected future,” which is only a possible future. But futurists aren’t satisfied with the expected future. You can start there if you acknowledge that the expected future is not guaranteed. You’re making assumptions that, in fact, the future will be like the past. How often has that turned out to be true? Lately, not very often.
So, as futurist thinkers, we seed the future with possible disruptions, and we explore them as hypothetical. What if this happens and what if that happens? That gives us a conditioning, a way of thinking about change that gets us ready for disruptions that we don’t know how to predict.
The analogy I use is astronauts preparing for the International Space Station. They don’t know exactly the emergencies or the anomalies that they will face. The people that run the Space Station are highly qualified. Their training directors are highly qualified. Nevertheless, they think up possible future disruptions, emergencies, unexpected scenarios because they do not know exactly what is going to happen, in future. This is the same for airline pilots. And, frankly, 98% of the things they train for don’t occur. But do they come back and say, “That was a waste of time…we should have never done that?” No. They now feel better prepared to deal with emergencies that they couldn’t predict. That is one of the goals of futurist thinking.
So, in other words, thinking and teaching about the future as a long extension of the present has some validity, but can’t be guaranteed. And the risk is you won’t be prepared, because in the middle of this pandemic or of any disruption, the time for teaching is over. Now we must act to minimize destruction and disaster.
Significant disruptions separate change into sections of time. This is a historical concept: they’re called eras. An era like the Great Depression, the Cold War or the Renaissance. It has a label, a certain feel, and indeed a certain way of being, a culture, a formula for success, etc. And there are always people who are making money or being successful in every era, even as many suffer from most significant disruptions. These successful, adaptive people are likely intrinsically better at both anticipating disaster and acting when they occur.
Getting ready for the next era is one of the things that futurists talk about. We envision the disruptive occurrence. Then what could come after that? What would it be like? How could we better prepare now? How can we best cope when it happens?
Generally, futurists understand that the time period you define as a past era each lasts some 40 or 50 years. Then there is a period of transition, like the one we have been in for the past 4 or so years.
There’s a great book written by a scholar who’s otherwise known as the most important oil forecaster of the world, Daniel Yergin. He wrote a book called “The Commanding Heights.” It begins in the 1890s, and it portrays a time very much like our own: oligarchs, huge inequality, not much government help to speak of, the coming out of the Civil War and the advent of vast industrialization.
Then comes the Progressive Era (1890-1920), the Great Depression and then the New Deal (1933-1939), followed by World War II.
The postwar era, from the mid-1940s is personified by The New World Order, The World Bank and Bretton Woods, NATO, etc.
The era of the Great Society, a domestic program initiated in 1964-65 that instituted federally sponsored social welfare programs, also supported capitalism. This era included the turmoil of the Vietnam War and the simultaneous counter-cultural movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s, when a distrust of government gained prevalence,
The next political era, we futurists believe, was in the late 1970s and the early 1980s, when economic Conservatives Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan basically flipped the script in terms of the role of government in society.
Going forward to as late as 2008, Reaganomics,the trickle-down theory and the promotion of unrestricted free-market activity led to the notion that capitalism and the market were the solution to many of society's problems. In other words: government is not the solution to our problems in society; the market is the solution. What we tend to do in capitalism, however, is to say, “If a little bit of this is good, then more is better. And if more is better, most is best.” And we have slowly moved to this extreme, placing most of the world’s resources in just a few hands.
As a society, we tend to go to extremes. And we probably have gone to extremes. Which could be the end of that form of government era.
In the last decade, we have heard many citizens saying, “We want to destroy the government.” Well, look around. This is how it appears when you destroy the government. You don’t have any leadership who is charged with taking care of the whole. Everybody is in it for themselves and the suffering for many is acute.
So, what does all this mean for any nonprofit organization during this great disruption, the pandemic?
During a time of transition, the ability to create change is increased exponentially because the obstacles to the change—the traditions, the thinking “we can’t do it this way, we’ve never done it this way, we’re afraid to do it this way”—most of those excuses are over because the old order literally is dissolving; it’s melting away.
Now is the time to move ahead and make your mark. This is the time when you will not be restrained by people saying, “you can’t do this.” What do you mean we can’t do this? A pandemic just blew up the whole world. We must do something new.
So, the building of the new era is what we are going to be about. That will be the enterprise for the next four, five years. Those people who act now will be the builders of that new era. Those people who act now will have a role and a seat at the table, saying, “This is the way we want things to be; this is the way things should be.”
Therefore, this is a time, more than any other time, to act.
And we’ve all heard the saying “fail fast, fail forward.” Of course, that can be true. I’m not going to say that everybody who is bold will be successful. But you have a much higher chance of creating permanent and lasting good today—given the pandemic disruption that has occurred, than in the last 30 or 40 years.
Would you mind being more specific in your guidance about what that being bold might comprise?
Well, I don't mean talking in absolutes, as in “no” and “never” or “always throw out everything, all of it.” I don’t believe that we should leave our traditions behind. That’s a bedrock that will stay the same. And that bedrock tends to be mission, values, cultures, traditions.
Economics are changing. Politics are changing. Our social values can remain the same.
Going back to that bedrock: What are the most important things that we should be pushing? And using those standards as the foremost reason that we should be investing in our nonprofit mission; we should be moving in that direction.
Obviously, this is not done individually; it’s by collaborating with other people. And, in a chaotic situation the person who raises their hand first is automatically the leader. “You have a good idea; okay, let’s do that.” You raise your hand during a period of relative calm and equilibrium, and everybody goes, “Yes, that’s a really nice idea, but I can’t leave my accustomed territory to walk into the unknown with you.”
Now, there is no familiar territory. Everybody is searching for the solution. Everybody is searching for the formula. Not that there is one absolute magic answer. There are likely many good ideas, which together will move us into the new era.
My advice is to assert one’s vision, bold and ambitious though that may be, gather people around that vision and try to create a movement. We are trying to do that at "Teach the Future." As one of our consultants said, “Create a meme where teaching the future is obvious and routine as is learning about the past.
We invite you to read Part II of Peter Bishop's interview : For Nonprofit Leaders: How To Plan Like a Futurist