During many discussions with industry partners of my university (Delft University of Technology) about the future of electric transportation in the Netherlands, we are frequently asked whether we know what the future will look like. Experts and professors at the university are seen as futurists that know what is going te happen. Unfortunately we do not and if you ask many different experts, they will all come up with different future scenarios. Moreover, if we give predictions about what is likely to happen, people will respond and react to these predictions, and almost immediately change the potential course of action. We live in a ‘risk society‘ as argued by the sociologist Ulrich Beck, where scientist contradict eachother and consensus about the future is hard te realize. So it is better to develop the capabilities to deal with these risks, than to put all our effort in making the one best prediction.
But then, what is science able to provide us to get grips on our future? Science is able to make clear what the limits are of our current knowledge or which things are still highly uncertain, and based on these uncertainties we can develop different future scenario’s that make us more aware of the different options and critical factors that influence the direction of our future. So we do not provide crisp-and-clear predictions, but plausible scenario’s that depend on critical uncertain factors. But still, we do not know what we do not know – factors that we are unaware of, we cannot take into account.
I do not remember anymore who said the following, but I think it summarizes the way we should treat ‘the future’ in a good way: ‘the future is here, but not widely distributed’. This means that we can find the future in still small and hard to recognize places, technology options and developments. All these different ‘seeds of change’ can turn out to be the next big thing that will play an important role in our future. Scientist can act as a radar function to identify these seeds of change, identify related uncertainties and develop plausible scenarios. It remains hard to predict which seeds will flourish in the end, but it is based on the best ‘guestimate’ we have.