Clem Sunter

Growing foxes on the shoulders of giants

2017-12-06 11:12

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In a presentation I gave last week in Johannesburg, I talked a bit about the programme called 'Growing Foxes' which Chantell Ilbury and I are running at a private school for girls in London.

The purpose is to teach them how to think creatively about the future and thereby make better decisions about their lives. We are providing the course material and the principal is giving the lessons. The girls are all in their final academic year.

After my presentation, a young woman came up to me and asked how all this came about. My response was based on the quote of the famous mathematician Isaac Newton: "If I have seen further, it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants." In our case, we are standing on the shoulders of five giants in constructing the programme.

Pierre Wack

Pierre is the greatest scenario planner the world has ever produced. He was head of the function at Royal Dutch Shell during the 1970s and became a consultant to my company, Anglo American, in the 1980s. As my mentor, he taught me that the inherent uncertainty surrounding the future means that it is extremely dangerous to base your strategy on a single projection or forecast of it. It is too unpredictable.

Rather you should entertain different scenarios of the ways the future can unfold and then consider your best options to tackle the challenges offered. In order for the scenarios to be plausible and relevant, you first have to consider the forces driving the present into the future around you and rate them according to their own degree of predictability. He called those events and trends with a fair degree of certainty in their outcome 'predetermined elements' and those with a variety of outcomes 'key variables'.

Isaiah Berlin

He was a prominent philosopher at Oxford University when I studied philosophy there in the 1960s. He became famous because of a book he wrote called The Hedgehog and the Fox, which was based on a quotation by the Greek poet Archilocus nearly 2 700 years ago: "The fox knows many little things; the hedgehog one big thing." Nobody knows why he chose those two animals, but you can conveniently define human beings either way.

Naturally, scenario planners fall into the category of foxes as they are constantly weighing up a multiplicity of possible futures without attributing too much likelihood to any one of them. They adjust their preference for which scenario will play out based on their experience of actual events. In contrast, a hedgehog bets confidently on a single future which is consistent with his one big idea and sticks to it through thick and thin.

Recently, America's top futurist, Philip Tetlock, provided scientific evidence on the superiority of foxes in gazing into a crystal ball. His study of 28 000 forecasts made by numerous experts demonstrated that in both short and long term forecasting foxes are more successful than hedgehogs in getting it right. They beat hedgehogs, not only in terms of the accuracy of their predictions, but also in the probability they assign to those predictions at any point in time.  

Charles Darwin

This great 19th century naturalist is chiefly remembered for his phrase: "Survival of the Fittest." It is often misinterpreted to mean survival of the strongest. Darwin is actually referring to those species which fit in most with the changing requirements of nature by spontaneously adapting to it.

Hence, two characteristics are important to survive and thrive in a competitive environment dominated by the market equivalent of natural selection: adaptability which foxes possess because of the flexible way they look at the future; and agility which puts them in the forefront of innovation to stay ahead of the game. In other words, you have to connect all the dots from thinking about the future to making it happen for you. Foxes do that faster than others.

Karl Popper

This 20th century Austrian-British philosopher divided everyday phenomena in the world into two types: 'clocks' which could be analysed into their moving parts and were therefore relatively predictable; and 'clouds' which have a randomness about them that makes any prediction of their future shape almost impossible.

In keeping with Popper's classification but making it useful for scenario planning, we talk of 'clockwork flags' which are the predetermined elements with fairly predictable consequences and 'cloudy flags' which are the key variables with all kinds of imaginary threads flowing out of them.

Before painting different scenarios about what can happen in your world, we insist that you consider both types of flags as a guide to how you select the scenarios and assign a probability to them. To be a foxy futurist, you need to be grounded in the present and aware of the flags to watch (and the flags you missed in the past).

David Hume

This 18th century Scottish philosopher made one statement that is of critical importance when looking at the future: "Reason is the slave of passion." Emotion plays such a huge role in our lives that we tend to put too much faith in narratives that fit in with our desires. We overlook scenarios that are in conflict with them. Emotional intelligence is all about taking off our emotional blinkers and considering all possibilities in an objective and balanced manner. Only then will we achieve an accurate assessment of how the environment may change around us.

These five intellectual giants gave us the foundation on which our programme to develop 21st century foxes is built. London is challenging at the moment because nobody knows the true consequences of Brexit. Particularly as a young person still at school, you need a solid framework to debate the scenarios with your family and friends. Hopefully, we are providing that.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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