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25th Anniversary series: Our Year

December 9, 2015

Over the last year since our 25th Anniversary on 30th November 2014 we have marked the year with a series of 52 blogs – one per week. During the first half, we covered the years from 1989 to 2014, describing either a foresight for that year or lessons learned from foresight for that year. We have published these blogs as a single volume which can be downloaded from our web site,   We held an interactive seminar to share “what works and what does not” with our friends.

During the second half we have commissioned blogs from our friends and SAMI people to cover a wide range of views for 2040 – 25 years into the future. These are available on the blog site, .

What have we learnt from these?

Perhaps the single most important message from the historical views was the need to be able to think the unthinkable – to at least do the “what if?” thinking about events. Perhaps the classic is 9/11. Before 9/11 there were multiple warnings from Arab countries to the US at Presidential level, NORAD exercises to simulate exactly the flying of a plane into the World Trade Centre, and on September 6, 2001, a freshman from a class of Pakistani immigrants at New Utrecht High School in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn was overheard by his English teacher to say that the two World Trade Center towers “won’t be standing there next week.”

US Dept of JusticeThe 9/11 Commission Report concluded that pre-attack warnings of varying detail of the planned attacks against the United States by al-Qaeda were ignored due to a lack of communication between various law enforcement and intelligence personnel. For the lack of interagency communication, the report cited bureaucratic inertia and laws passed in the 1970s to prevent abuses that caused scandals during that era. Formed from an independent bipartisan group of mostly former Senators, Representatives, and Governors, the commissioners explained, “We believe the 9/11 attacks revealed four kinds of failures: in imagination, policy, capabilities, and management” The failure of imagination is the failure which is of interest to futurists. Why did those professionally responsible for security lack this imagination?

One way of approaching this question uses Hedgehogs and Foxes to describe styles of thinking. Originally from Greek mythology, Isaiah Berlin introduced the analogy for discussing management styles in 1953:

“The Fox knows many things but the Hedgehog knows one big thing

As Berlin uses it, Hedgehogs relate everything to single concrete narrative, through which everything in life is reduced to a single set of certainties. Foxes, on the other hand, distrust grand designs and absolute truths, and instead pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory. They use a flexible array of insights that guide them as they experiment, play with ideas and experience, explore and, on occasion, pounce.

Recent psychological testing has shown that this is a valid and powerful way of classifying people. As psychologists have defined the type, Hedgehogs are people who are happiest operating within a closed problem domain, in which standard tools and focused effort allow them to compete with their peers. They are happy with the existing system or implementing a formula to change it.

Foxes are at their best exploring new terrain and re-thinking certainties. Their goals are largely self-actualisation and they are seldom concerned to rank themselves against their peers. Foxes are suspicious of commitment to any one way of seeing an issue; they prefer a loose insight that is calibrated from many perspectives. They are tolerant of dissonance within a model – for example, accepting that an enemy regime might have redeeming qualities – and are relatively ready to recalibrate their view when unexpected events cast doubt on what they had previously believed to be true.

Many people in the military and security services are likely to be Hedgehogs. Hedgehog thinking is both powerful and seductive because it seems so straightforward and so clear. It is hard to be a Fox, and Foxes are often not good at working within tight constraints. How could more Fox-like thinking have been used in the run up to 9/11? How could Fox-like thinkers communicate more effectively? Tetlock’s work – which we talk about more in the 2005 blog – has concluded that better forecasting is achieved with diverse teams – this should surely also be applied to risk scoping and analysis – this can be difficult to achieve organisationally, but perhaps 9/11 illustrates the reasons for trying to do it.

And so in looking at the future to 2040, we aim to provoke imagination. Some snippets:

  • Could there be 1000 countries by 2040? This question was first posed in 1995 by John Naisbitt in “Global Paradox”. He argued that in the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, 172 countries competed. More than 200 teams took part in 2012. As the world becomes more universal, it also becomes more tribal. As people yield economic sovereignty and become economically interdependent, holding on to what distinguishes you from others becomes very important.
  • “Consumer attitudes to the privacy of digital data more broadly may be changing… If this bet is correct, it has fascinating implications. For one, if consumers—not doctors—control data, the medical industry might have to turn its model upside down. Instead of being arranged according to how doctors are trained (making sharp distinctions between, say, surgeons and physicians), services may be shaped by the way consumers define their own health …”, Gillian Tett, author of “The Silo Effect”, in the Financial Times on 5 November 2015.
  • Gene splicing technology could create new vegetable proteins mimicing the look and feel (and taste) of animal proteins. As the ecological footprint of vegetable products is typically one tenth that of animal-based food, these innovations suggest sustainable future paths to feeding a global population exceeding 10 billion.
  • Machine learning will change most managerial and professional work beyond recognition over the next 25 years.  In 2040, a person without a reasonable level of understanding and appreciation of machine learning will be disadvantaged for almost every management or professional role, much as a deficiency in numeracy, literacy or computer skills proves disadvantageous today.

We plan to combine the blogs onto an ebook, but in the meantime the individual blog series can be found on .

As ever, we welcome your thoughts on both lessons learnt and provocations for 2040, and also take the opportunity of wishing all our friends best wishes for Christmas and the New Year of 2016.

Written by Gill Ringland, SAMI Fellow and CEO.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily of SAMI Consulting.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Bill Aiken permalink
    December 9, 2015 10:31 am

    An interesting and insightful article Gill. Thank you for this.

    I think my only point would be a looking backward/hindsight point. I think it is a stereotype to assume that “Many people in the military and security services are likely to be Hedgehogs”. Yes there is a tight command and control system in times of immediate conflict, but there is a very innovative, flexible and consensus-driven approach at other times (at least in the UK community). Indeed, surely the fact that NORAD had simulated this exact event shows it was not a failure of imagination?

    Anyway, not to take away from a greta set of articles over the past year. And here is looking forward to many more!

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