The statistician expert in induction of the future from the past, will scoff at my naive, innumerate device, a five-year old’s forecasting examples; he is keen not to interfere with the data, he knows so much better that the world is given and we are mere spectators of the great laws at work. Such persons do not understand what it means to give shape.
However, as a common sense resident of our social world, with or without mathematics, when you look and the scenery and it feels familiar, the same story is often repeated. Or, when looking at the context and the event, the action in progress, they have an air of something you saw before, a family ressemblance, it is reasonable to guess that maybe, the future will follow in the same riverbed. Man-made shapes, like roads and buildings are a form of memory. I go as far as to believe that shapes announce and carry into the future.
I also have a bias for tweaking things to the better, shaping instead of waiting to see (while I practice also that waiting has great power). I formed a belief that what happens to me may depend on me. I believe this to be true for other people too; quite a few human things and events occur because we imagine, believe, plan, build and do them. Some become self-fulfilling prophecies, others we simply follow because the road ahead invites us. The 20th century saying that the best way to predict the future is to create it, lays often in our hands to prove true. My challenge is, accordingly, to give bold form to plausible trends - when they are beneficial - in a way that leads to understanding and choice of action. Certainly, you will keep alert to improve the guess as it hits the road. I also like to give easily intelligible form to the bad scenarios I foresee to help other people less imaginative.
When change looms and concerted action needs direction, I found often useful to use the power to make things simple and to hint the future in a simple image; this gives an intuitive fulcrum in the middle of disorder, confidence and focus to many in high moments, and even hints some good design or an itinerary to get out of the woods; but beware, you must avoid believing or preaching such metaphors while you use them, better keep your eyes open and warn others; unexpected change happens. The value of "shaping" is that you start somewhere instead of remaining in the middle of nowhere, you seek order in chaos; subsequently, you must work towards reality, moment after moment, the Bayesian way if I may say so*...
The precision and indeed the fit of such shapes of the future is doubtful, let me insist; while you guess, keep ready for continuous correction. This ceaseless reality check and correction is another story - of good judgement - one well known; the role of the shapes presented to a public is for here and now, to structure our view, to travel forwards in time, to give meaning and to organize action for a while; simple tool helping important ends. It may also happen - as I experienced - that you are able to create from nothing such a "shape-scenario" as a self-fulfilling prophesy and turn it true; if people are convinced by your projection, they may make it true.
As I am a visual person, I often use visual shapes of the kind I describe here. There are, no doubt, many other shapes I do not represent. Auditive people will observe configurations essential in sounds and music, with the same guiding value; some individuals recognise shapes in the feel of their own movement, be it an activity, or dance or in touching things. I met people who think amazingly, who understand and solve problems with their hands and acts, by handling and doing; they too seem to represent what will happen and then make it happen. And of course, the masters of words find forms in the constructions of language spinning logic, grammar and meaning, turns of mind and paradigms, to deduce from the past or invent what will be in the future. I am certain that the mathematicians, those mysterious wizards who believe to know how the universe (or at least our mind) must be, see wonderfully useful shapes which we could apply if they deigned to explain us. These are some shapes I know that I do not know but there are certainly other forms, which I ignore that I do not know, beyond my horizon.
Here are a few examples I know from endlessly many; if you use the principle with intuition, boldness but also with common sense moderation you will no doubt build your own useful collection:
Something that went on and on, right ahead may keep following a straight line. Or suddenly stop, if there is some foreseeable or unforeseeable reason for it; that is a future which has a shape of a line. Dare to draw consequences, do not be lazy or too weak to do it and also to consider what could alter the line if that is needed.
"What was before will be again, and what is was before…there is nothing new under the sun." Ecclesiastes 1:9-11.
Even the straight line of no surprise is supported by some effort to keep course. But when some important change is in view you can bet that it will not be followed by a straight line as usual; after any notable event there will be a dip and later - with some effort - hopefully a rise justifying the pain taken; accordingly you are well advised to provide reserves ans help available for that gap and during it instead of just complaining hardship...
With this image you can explain things normal when change comes and thus avoid panic. Do you see the usefulness of foreseeing a future which has the shape of a dip-curve?
If instead of mere effort to maintain the status-quo, there is some hidden pressure building up beneath the line of business as usual, or if – which is similar – the line is just too silent, with no blips and no feedback, you have good reason to be prudent of some outburst.
This may be a future heading for an explosion or fall. Be forewarned. it is prudent, when silence is too constant, to invent some little events to vent steam and allow early diagnostic.
This is a declining future in form of a slope. You draw it in front of a large audience and it says the whole story of the future in one second. Some will hate to see it.
If you summon this image bring some solution too.
One of my favourite shapes to consider is symmetry; it helps a lot to know that where there is a wing there is a second one, where there is a right hand there is a left hand too;
you reckon the whole from seeing a part; you see the ears and you know there will be a whole donkey under them.
When people only see the part and symmetry is present, use it to hint the whole. It adds beauty too.
The bell-shaped curve of the unexceptional distribution is how things are in numbers and how normal things happen in crowds – we are born, we grow, we peak, we age down and die, and so do careers, projects, institutions, nations and probably our species; observe that I look at this line as a journey rather than as a distribution. Elementary and well studied.
Few people rise mentally above the segment where they are now – which looks like a straight line. When needed, only when needed, show such bigger picture, dust to dust. The challenge is to find other curves available and shift to them.
Exponential growth: something is beyond expectations or out of control like human population growth, big success, hubris, viruses, a Ponzi scheme or nuclear chain reaction.
Most of the time you wish this to happen uncontrolled to evil enemies: to grow until they burst, as we all know, don’t we, that when you want to diminish something you must first grow it.
Anyway this is not the good place to build your house or to keep your goods.
The S-shaped curve, the curse of success, shows pointedly what lies ahead when you seem to be about to conquer the world; “carpe diem!” it says: enjoy the now but prepare something else.
Prepare now for the time when growth will be exhausted and the niche filled to the brim.
Prepare to cash-in, retire or invent transition now, to ride another S-curve, to find the next world to conquer.
Other things, some of which we use to perceive only within limited segments of them, belong, as we all know in theory, to wider shapes of cycles;
Some are circles, "revolutions" proper, which means going all the way to come back where all things started; or they are seasons;
Showing this shape is useful when it is time to draw the conclusion that the same will come to pass again and again; a good image inviting to do better next time or to step out of form if needed.
Some apparent cycles are in fact spirals, opening into endlessness circling forever higher or lower; there is much learning possible from the previous levels;
To me, this reminds History always higher, “progress” and still, always similar.
There are environments where you observe the tendency to scatter, for better or for worse;
It is useful to imagine a viral tendency of populations, to spread until they conquer the whole space available... or they cool down in dispersed energy:
Disorder is the best place to hide and the richest place to seek or start new things.
Formlessness is a form, the mother of all forms. Read the Tao-te-Ching. we may need to add representations of emptiness, void and non-being to this list of shapes within which future takes place.
In my mind, one of the mightiest moving shapes helping to understand, live and plan the future is the Taoist metaphor of water, stagnant and flowing; water will get through all the forms, evaporate, rain, freeze, soak or stagnate, will take any form of the recipients it encounters and wait... but every time there is a chance, it will flow downwards, where it belongs; beautiful strategy for the resilient ones through unfavourable times.
I see this both as a trend and a subtle, powerful strategy in times of change.
“In the world there is nothing more submissive and weak than water.
Yet for attacking that which is hard and strong nothing can surpass it.”**
* Sharon Bertsch Mcgraine, "The Theory that Would not Die", Yale UP., New Haven.., 2011
** Tao Te Ching, 78