The Importance of Future Thinking
Exploring preferred and perilous pathways for the future of Midwest agriculture
We all make decisions based on our assumptions about the future. We do our laundry assuming we will want clean clothes next week. Retail businesses order products for sale based on how much they assume they will sell in the next month. We insure our cars based on how likely we think we are to get into an accident. Sure, we are probably right in thinking we will want clean clothes next week, but how certain do you need to be about the future to invest in developing a new commodity crop, or to commercialize a new bio-based household cleaning product, or to convert your farm to organic?
The importance of how we think about and plan for the future cannot be understated. The cost of following perilous pathways, or the opportunity cost of not investing in prosperous pathways is too great. Would it not be great if we could know with certainty what was going to happen next?
Future climate scenarios pinpoint the Upper Midwest as a globally crucial source of food, water, and energy by 2100. The region contains some of the planet’s best soils, and the Great Lakes represent 20% of the world’s fresh water. Midwest agriculture is in a dynamic phase. Demand for traditional agricultural commodities is increasing, and sustainably-sourced commodities and products are becoming an important market sector. A new, more broadly-based agricultural “bioeconomy” is emerging, which builds on the strengths of current agriculture by integrating new crops for a wide range of new bio-based products. More broadly still, water and water-related services are expected to become an increasingly important economic sector, in which agriculture can participate profitably. These new and growing opportunities are affected by a range of threats, including uncertain policy, markets, and climate.
We can explore the future by examining historic trends, creating projections, creating models, postulating on tectonic shifts in consumer demand, and of course by looking into a crystal ball. Even then, can we anticipate disruptive developments like the rapid adoption of cellphones and their pervasiveness in every aspect of our lives? Will we be able to accurately predict what the future pressures will be on the Midwest water supply?
We cannot know what will happen, not with certainty anyway. Crystal balls do not exist, and all the tools we have may not adequately capture the impact of disruptive developments, nor will they predict never-before-seen problems. What we can say with certainty is that there will be change, both positive and negative. This may seem to paint a gloomy picture about our ability to appropriately plan for the future.
While we may not be able to pinpoint exactly what is going to happen in the future, or even consider all the possibilities, it does not mean we ought not endeavor to do so. We can gather the collective intelligence of diverse perspectives to help each other better understand what some of the changes might be.
The University of Minnesota and Future iQ are exploring the future of Midwest agriculture with multi-sector participatory scenario-building activities. The project will build on previous studies on the future of Midwest agriculture, with a broad global and market-based view.
The process will include a Think Tank workshop, focus groups, interviews, rapid poling, stakeholder surveys, data visualization, and regional follow-on activities. By engaging many people, from multiple sectors, making decisions at different scales, diverse viewpoints will be brought forward and a broad range of possible futures will be examined. The goal is to identify plausible future pathways for Midwest agriculture and clarify pathways to preferred futures, while highlighting pathways to perilous futures.
Having examined the collective intelligence around the future of agriculture in the Midwest will allow for people and organizations to mitigate perilous futures and promulgate preferred futures. This state of informed preparedness is precisely why future thinking is important. Future thinking anticipates changes because it considers the complexity of the vast web of factors that can influence the outcome of a decision. And it reduces uncertainty.
How can we prepare to respond to a plausible future with agility? Will we even be able to rally a nimble response? When change happens, will we know exactly what to do?
As we perceive plausible futures, we minimize uncertainty by enabling ourselves to consider how we might prepare for best, worst, and mixed outcomes. By having anticipated these outcomes, we are far more certain about how to respond than if had we never explored the possibility before. This moment of decision-making is the beginning of strategic thinking, which leads to actions that help us navigate the unfamiliar terrain ahead.
Project outcomes include development of an innovation strategy that leverages growing market opportunities for food, agricultural products, and water, while managing key risks and sustainability challenges.
Future thinking may be informed by projections and other kinds of data analysis; however, the magic of future thinking is how it alters our perceptions of how certain decisions might play out. It prompts us out of our usual thought-box, even if we think we usually think out-of-the-box. When we get outside this box, we open ourselves to feelings of newness or change – it is part of our perception shift. We might experience discomfort because we are imagining something fearful, something we do not want to happen. We should face this fear with the collective intelligence of future thinking and use it to inform our decision-making in a very real way.