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Predicting the Future

I am often drawn into discussions about predicting the future. Without reservation I concur that much of the future is unpredictable. However, from a planner’s viewpoint, given the correct data, we can predict many things. Why do I say this? Let me relate a short story.

During a program I presented to a group of highly technical public employees, an engineer quite heatedly expressed his frustration with the program, stating that predicting the future was impossible and that they were wasting their time. I asked his permission to explore his view through a series of simple questions. Reluctantly, he agreed. I proceeded to ask him the following questions:

Question 1: In your community, if the population grows by 30 percent over the next decade, do you think water consumption will increase, decline or remain the same? He replied that water consumption would probably rise.

Question 2: If the population increases by 30 percent in that same time period, do you think that, without any new alternatives, traffic congestion in the city core will increase or decrease? He replied that it would most likely increase. By then, there was a faint change in his demeanor.

Question 3: With the increased traffic, would you say that street surfaces and reflective striping will deteriorate faster, slower or at about the same rate? By then he was squirming a bit but answered that roads and streets and various painted surfaces would probably deteriorate faster.

I looked at him and, with some drama said, “Well, you can predict the future!” Along with some laughter there was obviously renewed vigor among participants. Being a good sport, he joined in an active discussion about how knowledge and data can drive predictability in many areas of public management. Within a few minutes, the audience had grasped the basis of my belief about the value of predictability.

Practical Predictions

As populations grow, we can predict an increase in service demand – more licenses, building permits, immunizations, inspections, water use, solid waste and waste water generated, etc. We can also predict detrimental impact – if water supplies are contaminated (potential for cholera, typhoid), restaurants are not inspected (food poisoning via salmonella, e-coli) or immunization levels drop below 65 percent among children in the kindergarten – third grade age group (epidemics of preventable childhood disease, such as diphtheria, whooping cough, measles and mumps). Those in law enforcement can provide equations proven accurate over time that reflect the need for more patrol officers, more jail cells, correctional officers and even more judges if a city expands significantly. History provides sound health, epidemiological, engineering, public safety, administrative, and a variety of other data that, in the right combination, promotes predictability.

The point I am making is that it takes a change in perspective to become a strategic thinker and futurist. As public leaders and managers begin to blend their tendency to ‘operationalize’ every aspect of government with a process of strategic thought, they will gain an entirely new ability to predict, plan and budget for predictable and already known events. Those who argue that the future is unpredictable forget that forecasting occurs annually as budgets are being prepared. The level of predictive expertise and foresight in public agencies is enormous…it merely has to be tapped.

Learning to Lead as a Strategic Thinker

Strategic thought, when taken as a whole, is a combination of vision, reflection, analysis, honest appraisal, and a willingness to suggest bold action. It requires dedication to look over the horizon, consider the value or possible impact of major events or situations and facilitate collaborative approaches that improve process, product, or quality of life. Some encourage planning for its value as a means of celebrating accomplishments and contributions. Others advocate planning as a management tool that both calculates and ensures measured performance. And many practitioners would merely say strategic planning is the best means of integrating tangible current reality and projected future needs with the conceptual aspirations of a multidimensional community. Good planning deals with the finite while considering the enormously diverse expectations of a nation, state, county or city. To say the least, it is important; it is vital; and it is often difficult.

With over three decades working in and with federal, state and local government, John Luthy understands public agencies.  Known for his real world, straight talking style, he is a leading futurist specializing in city, county, state, and federal long-range thinking and planning. John is the author of Operations Planning: A Guide for Public Officials and Managers in Troubled Times, and The Strategic Planning Guide, both published by the International City/ County Management Association (ICMA). His new book, Planning the Future – A Guide to Strategic Thinking and Planning for Elected Officials, Public Administrators and Community Leaders, will be available in fall 2010. An innovative and dynamic presenter, John is frequently asked to speak and consult on how to prepare public organizations and communities for emerging challenges (public futures at http://www.futurescorp.com).

3 Responses

  1. Convincing an engineer that it is feasible to predict the future is easier than convincing a Tea Party member; they read the bible to know the future.
    However, predicting linearly is not always correct. In 1900 the prediction was that by 1950 NY City would be covered in 50′ of horse manure; didn’t happen.
    Prediction must incorporate new technology. Autos already existed in 1900. And also must incorporate social changes.
    In my book “The History of the 21st Century” http://bit.ly/9CFCgl I try to predict the future of the world during this century.

    • Hope you will get a copy of my new book, Planning the Future…I use engineers as an example of those who are actually very good a prediction!


      • Thanks for your reply.
        I will get a copy of your book, I hope the you get a copy of mine: The History of the 21st Century: the best that civilization has ever seen. In it I try to predict the future during the rest of this century; social and technological. By the way, I’m an engineer.


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