Innovation in a Fragile Future – Past Future: A Look Back
Thirty years ago, the future was still regarded as foreseeable and certain. This, at any rate, is what we must conclude if we reread The Limits to Growth, the study that the Club of Rome commissioned in 1972. It was completed after just fifteen months of research work, sold more than 30 million copies worldwide, and was translated into more than thirty languages. What interests us here is not so much the reason for its unparalleled, strong resonance but the question of how this past future looks from today’s standpoint.
In the world model produced by Forrester, the Meadows, and their associates, the future was still considered highly foreseeable. Paradoxically, it was this belief in foreseeability, sup-ported by the use of the first computer model created for this purpose, that secured a strong public effect for The Limits to Growth. The results of the study were accompanied by the galvanizing call to change human political and economic behavior in a way that would prevent the prognosticated collapse of the environmental system. By substituting probabilities calculated by the computer model for uncertainties, guarantees for the future were constructed to avert the development of crises. The gloomy predictions were accompanied by recommendations showing a way out of the crisis. The—unfavorable—expecta-tions were more or less precisely formulated. The argument was that they resulted from prior experiences—namely, the irresponsible exploitation of nature, something that everyone could understand and that was evidenced by many local and global examples. The conclusion was that only a radical turning away from prior behavior could effect a turnaround.
Comparing this look back at a past future and the currently dominant image of the future leads to the astonishing realization of how much our conception has changed within a single generation. Today, speech about the future is in the subjunctive mode. The term future rightly ought to be used in the plural, even if our language resists. Uncertainty and contingencies, possible alternatives, wishes, and probabilities permeate the image and express themselves in many ways. The fear of the one great catastrophe—the environmental catastrophe—has been displaced by risks of various kinds and dimensions. Small and large risks affect private and public life. Scientific instruments, especially the simulation models, have developed further, and with them so have the extent and degree of differentiation of their statements. Their contents have become more provisional and fluctuate more intensely. They have become tools for thinking through the future in the sense of “what would be if”; they no longer claim to contain definitive statements.
Other quantitative and qualitative tools have developed for systematically dealing with the future. Their basic assumptions are more thoroughly thought through and are considered in the final conclusions. The spectrum ranges from back-casting to future-scanning, from retrospective historiography to the broadest possible spectrum of methods for creating “visions” and practicing foresight. Today, in dealing with the future, creativity is especially necessary. Flexibility, another characteristic of today’s style of life, is transposed to life planning as well as to the instruments of planning. Ever since the victory of the market economy, the neoliberal credo, and the final collapse of communism, we have witnessed the global rise of belief in a mechanism that promises that it carries within itself a degree of adaptability and flexibility toward unexpected changes in the situation that is sufficient to deal with the unforeseeability of the future—the belief in the market.
On the level of research, one characteristic of many systems has come to command the respect it deserves—their complexity. In retrospect, the model developed at MIT by Forrester, the Meadows, and their coworkers for the Club of Rome appears utterly naïve. Understanding of the phenomenon of complexity has grown apace with increasing knowledge, greater computer capacity, and the routine manner in which simulation models are put to versatile use in the science system. Finally, the behavior of many living systems that are subject to the laws of evolution is incalculable. In their evolutionary blind-ness, they are inherently stochastic, and with their behavior subject to selection, they are extremely nonlinear. They also resemble nonthermodynamic systems whose qualities are almost totally determined by statistical averages over a great number of almost identical states. The most interesting characteristics of evolutionary systems result, rather, from the dynamic magnification of extremely rare occurrences—for example, that for the first time one bacterium develops resistance to an antibiotic. These are not even singularities in the conventional mathematical sense for they cannot be reproduced in the language of functional analysis. If we assume that human societies, too, display at least partially evolutionarily determined behavior, then it is clear how much complex systems differ from the mechanistic assumptions that still inheres in the model developed at MIT. From an evolutionary standpoint, our historically shaped thinking about the future moves in a border region between stability and flexibility, self-organization and the chaotic edge.
But in the face of this complexity, which was only barely perceived three decades ago, how is planning possible at all? Opinion still differs on this question. For the postwar generation that experienced the “golden three decades” up into the 1970s as the blossoming of modernity and that strove to do everything possible to catch up with the United States in terms of societal modernity, much seemed amenable to plan and feasible that today, considering the loss of the state’s central control capacity, would seem doomed to failure. In a time when “gover-nance” has replaced “governing,” which is now rejected as too statist, we look back with astonishment at the political measures and means of control that were developed at the beginning of the 1970s. But what seems so alien on renewed reading of the Club of Rome study is not just the technocratic aspect that was clearly present in the first models but the belief in its political practicality and realizability, which was presented with conviction. It is the lack of another perspective—the lack of a view from below, from and of the local levels, the lack of the inclusion (now at least rhetorically taken for granted) of “imagined lay persons” as consumers, voters, and users—that seems like a gap today. One asks in astonishment how it is possible to speak of the future without listening to the people it will affect.
Perhaps we really have lost our future—in that we have lost the feeling of being able to control it. The sociologist Anthony Giddens says that it is this loss of control that turns the future into a problematical category. Suffused with think-ing in concepts like competition, risk, security, and globalization, planning becomes more, not less, indeterminate. The future has ceased to be a space that can be conquered and colonized, as the Enlightenment still thought possible. The future has become a solid component of a modernity that cannot stop being modern.
Thus, people have once again lost their illusions and have suffered one more blow to their narcissism. Even the futurologist, the professional agents of this colonization, have realized that the conventional approach to planning the future no longer functions. If in our perception the future has become less foreseeable, then this is partly because of the expansion of scientific-technological knowledge, which is accompanied by new uncertainties because it expands the number of possibilities and demands new decisions. The greater heterogeneity of knowledge and the expansion of the group of stakeholders (the various social groups whose opinion, behavior, interests, and values must be taken into account) are increasing the degree of complexity. This makes possible a reflective turnaround in our thinking about the future. The point is no longer to “predict” the future, if such a claim could ever have been taken seriously. Nor is the point primarily to show the trends and possibilities of developments. This remains an attractive business and one that remains fascinating if carried out with intelligence. It stimulates the imagination and allows us to entertain alternative standpoints. But the questions have fundamentally shifted.
What has become more important today are the questions about how the various actors imagine the future, how they approach it, and what time frames they construct for their various purposes and interests. The approach to a large number of subjective viewpoints is part of a broader picture that conveys complexity and calls to increase awareness of other actors’ view-points and options for action to take them into account in one’s own deliberations. The way to even an only approximately objective picture leads through a multiplicity of subjective view-points and sites. It has also become clear that every publicly conducted discourse on the future takes on important social functions that cannot be determined in advance. Discourses on the future therefore often try to organize a kind of competition over the future. The rhetoric that the various agendas for innovation and for the future make use of and the target groups that are to be addressed aim to empower the latter and overshadow all statements about what “the future will bring.” Future-oriented political programs serve the attempt to occupy certain areas of politics, and various predictive toolkits (as they are used, for example, in foresight programs) stand for the effort to use political instruments to create a shared future.
But what is the situation with today’s crises? Has humanity lost its consciousness of crises? Has this consciousness given way to an unsurveyable realm of uncertainty and subjectively experienced insecurity? The appearance of global terrorism has made these questions intensely urgent, but they are not really new. Many of the problems addressed in The Limits to Growth remain unsolved to this day. With other problems, the emphasis has changed, and new problems have arisen. In regard to the environment, attention no longer focuses on the exhaustion of natural resources or primarily on the problem of pollution. The topic dominating all others is rather climate change, which stands for the unforeseeable per se—for extreme fluctuations in weather and climate, for extremely varied effects with a local and regional scope. It stands for a feeling of self-induced, anthropogenic helplessness whose only prognosis is to expect the unexpected.
In the age of globalization, global consciousness has also increased. The world is increasingly perceived as a whole while indifference toward local phenomena has grown. In a certain sense, inequality blinds people to the suffering and unsatisfied desires of others, especially when the population of the world continues to grow, though at a slower pace. Humankind’s crisis situation that the Club of Rome warned about—prophetically, ideologically, and, as critics have noted, without considering the economic laws of the market—has eased, but the crisislike manifestations and effects have spread over the entire globe, and new ones have been added. They have grown locally more visible and globally more invisible. The one crisis overshadowing all the others (which, revealingly, was not even mentioned in The Limits to Growth) was the real danger that an annihilating nuclear strike between the two superpowers would extinguish the human species. Today, this threat appears in the decentralized form of uncontrolled nuclear proliferation. It no longer stands under the sign of the conflict between the superpowers but under that of the so far hardly inhibited spread of a globally active terrorism.
Today the one great catastrophe has been replaced by manifold risks whose causes, appearances, and effects constantly change, and a past, imagined future has turned into an actually uncertain present. The past future appeared catastrophic, but it was perceived as certain. One could believe in it—or not. One could act to prevent the supposed catastrophe. But today, the uncertain future calls for strategies of action that cannot be nar-rowed down. The future we now face relies on innovation under conditions of uncertainty. This cannot be equated with lack of knowledge—quite the contrary. Uncertainty arises from the surfeit of knowledge, leading to too many alternatives, too many possible ramifications and consequences, to be easily judged.
And yet not everything in this complex process is opaque and unforeseeable. Here, too, human action requires normative conventions and rules, a common foundation of rights and obligations that gives meaning to practices and that can demand mutual accountability. Innovation, as the collective wager on an uncertain future, thus includes the possibility of a misstep or failure. Things can tip over at any time, and every vision of the future can turn into its dystopian opposite. With this possibility of failure and of tipping over, which must be seen and consciously accepted, modernity returns to its original premises.