Today’s clairvoyants face more skepticism, yet the job remains a mainstream activity – for corporations perhaps even more than individuals.
“Hold to the now, the here, through which all future plunges to the past” is the contrary advice James Joyce counsels in Ulysses. But that’s not enough for the modern company board. They need to know what happens next.
Some predictions are easy: the sunrise, old age, the need to pay taxes. Others, less so: the warming of the oceans, the rising of the Chinese middle class. Yet another group, still more uncertain, belongs to the futurists.
The agricultural revolution yielded to the rise of the industrial revolution, which gave way to the rise of the bureaucrats and the birth of the modern city; these now in turn are giving way to the data scientists. Bill Gates advised us not to be rude to nerds, because we will end up working for one; he was and remains prescient.
The companies that survive are those that not only predict the future with accuracy, but also have the courage and resources to back their predictions. Richard Branson and the hyperloop or Elon Musk on electric cars are well-known examples. Every entrepreneur and workaday CEO now needs perspective on what their market and customer base will look like in a few years’ time. For the airline industry, my own heartland, CEOs must take a view about what the next aircraft will be, and whether “small and frequent” beats “big and occasional.” For the food industry, what is the future for sugar? Salt? Lettuce? To what question did vaping turn out to be the answer?
The past is a well from which we draw future strength. The present, always with us, is not enough. The future can no longer be the preserve of boffins, academics or research departments. To be sure of survival, accurate prediction and the courage to implement are now necessary items in the toolkit of any modern board.
A wrong bet can lead to a setback. No bet at all can lead to extinction.
Rob Webb QC is a Brunswick Senior Adviser based in London