November 11, 2019
The name ‘Max Elder’ was practically a buzzword at SPC Advance this past October. Maybe it was his personable and engaging presentation style, or that participants left his session with unfamiliar glee at being given the permission to consider the future with childish abandon. Either way, Elder, a Research Director at the Food Futures Lab in Palo Alto, California, brought an enthusiastic and fresh perspective to his masterclass, “How To Think Like A Food Futurist?”.
His session began with a change of plans. Morphing from a formal stand-up style presentation into a conversational, round-room discussion, Elder called on participants to describe how they plan for The Future in their career roles (apparently thinking about the future is rather ubiquitous amongst SPC attendees). He went on to describe the concept of foresight as “The process of turning facts about the present into clear and actionable views of the future”¹ and introduced ways to conceptualize possible futures using a visual aid called the ‘Cone of Possibility’.
In this graphic, time is represented as it usually is, with the past on the left and the future on the right. The vertex of the cone symbolizes current circumstances (the present), and the base of the cone represents an array of possible futures associated with a point in time. The light-blue center circle represents a future scenario in which no alternative decisions have been made and thus, the status quo goes unchallenged. The red, outer edges of the cone represents ‘impossible’ futures. The idea here is that if we can imagine a range of future outcomes as well as the choices that precipitated them, we have the ingredients needed to visualize and navigate our possible futures.
While Elder believes the most transformative change happens when we consider futures just outside the boundaries of ‘possible’, he also acknowledged just how difficult thinking about the future can be. Attributing much of this universal struggle to cognitive biases that give us a tendency to:
- “project our current feelings, preferences, and attitudes into the future as though our future tastes will match our current ones.”¹ — Projection Bias
- “search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s preexisting beliefs or hypotheses.”¹ — Confirmation Bias
- “attribute greater accuracy to the opinion of an authority figure (unrelated to its content) and be more influenced by that opinion.”¹ — Authority Bias
- “use our experiences from the past to imagine possible futures”¹ — Past Experience Bias
- “believe that we are less likely to experience a negative event.”¹— Optimism Bias
- “confuse accuracy with precision”¹ — Precision Bias
- imagine new technology futures before we can imagine new social futures.¹ — Techno-Centric Bias
Compounding the already complex business of biases is an issue of self. Apparently, a part of our brain called the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC) powers on when we think about ourselves. However, when we imagine other people, or even our future selves, it powers down. This means as we consider the future, we conceive ourselves to be a stranger and someone we have little in common with.
To combat this bizarre and frankly unsettling reality, Elder recommended that we take the following steps to ensure we can think systematically, creatively, and strategically about the future and our role in it. In order to do so he advised we:
1. “think about the future in first person”¹ In doing so we can ensure that the future feels relevant to us, and our MPFC remains powered on.
2. “Scan and analyze [the present for weak] signals of change” ¹. A signal can be a new localized innovation, event or change in sentiment that has the potential to spread nationally or globally.
3. “Combine signals to reveal unexpected possibilities.”¹ Cue our formal invitation to imagine fantastical futures. This step is explained best by Professor Jim Dator, who asserts that “Any useful statement about the future should at first seem ridiculous.”
4. “Draw out consequences of change”¹ to observe how decisions might impact future outcomes.
5. “Tell the future as a story that seems accessible and compelling.”¹ As an example, the Food Futures Lab creates written narratives and visual ‘artifacts’ for possible futures, as shown below. They believe that by using familiar objects and relatable, everyday experiences in their portraits of the future, decision-making in the present becomes more intuitive.
All in all, Max Elder’s SPC Advance Session spun fact and fantasy together to create an entertaining and persuasive case for ‘thinking like a futurist’. Most importantly though, attendees left his session with the tools to challenge the status quo and drive sustainable action.
Want access to more awesome content like this? Join us in-person at SPC Impact in Austin, Texas! For more information about the Food Futures Lab and our sources, please refer to the links below.
1 Masterclass: How to Think Like a Food Futurist – Presentation Slides. SPC Advance 2019 Downloads.
2 Futures Cone. The Futures Cone, use and history. The Voroscope.
3 C loser Than We Think!. Arthur Radebaugh.
4 New Metrics at the Butcher. Food Futures Lab.