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Hawai’i’s Shared Futures By Vision Foresight Strategy

Our Long History as Context

I am by training and profession a ‘futurist.’ I’ll admit that it’s a fairly odd and ungainly title, but it’s really all that professionals in the field of futures studies (at least in the US) have come up with. What is futures studies? Not an unusual question. Definitions can be hard to come by, but the common one, that it studies the ‘future’ is wrong. The future doesn’t actually exist, so there’s nothing to study in that way.

People often call futurists to come tell them what the future will be like, what trends to watch out for, or what fad they should build their next product line around. But the fact is that neither futurists nor any other profession knows how to “know” what will happen before it actually happens.

But real futurists do deal a lot with change, with trying to understand change and trying to help others understand how and why things change. And one of the ways we come to this is by starting with context. If you want to gain a different perspective on something like, say, most of the modern social issues that we face, start by taking the futurist’s view and place these issues in the context of our long history on this planet.

It’s important to remember that so much of human behavior, cognition, and need is shaped by our long biological history on this planet, stretching back millions of years. Some 99% of our long history shaped us for hunter-gatherer living in small family groups of like 25 – 125 people. We’re talking before agriculture, before the lo‘i, before the cultivated fields of corn, before the local village. We’re talking about living in small, intimate related groups, not quite settled in one place, and without predictable meals.

By contrast, only like 1% of our history on this planet dealt with living in situations any of us, whether we would call ourselves ‘traditionalists’ or ‘modernists’, would find even remotely familiar. Tribes, harvest season, kingdoms, cities, traffic, and information overload… all of these are actually very recent things. The cultural history that most of us are familiar with, the last couple thousand years that most people bother to trace, deals with our attempts to reconcile our biological history with the unusual social, economic, and political forms we’ve created recently.

And so?

So, the cultural histories that we remember and tend to see as so sacred and eternal (and this includes the American set of cultural outlooks and practices), are in fact much, much shorter than our long biological history. We have a very long, shared biological history, and very, very short and divergent cultural histories.

So, when we’re are looking at and thinking about the modern issues that we face, from the stress of traffic jams, performance in modern schools, and unhappy or unhealthy lifestyles, it can be incredibly important to place these issues in the context of our Long History, beginning to ask how humans, because of that history, have been shaped to experience and respond to these modern and very unusual situations.

Sound a little too academic for you? Then the next time you’re suffering through the late afternoon in your cute little cubicle, which you inhabit for most of your waking hours, remember that no one was expected to sit through two hour-long PowerPoint presentations in a stuffy room for those several hundred thousand years on the savanna…

When professional futurists work with others to design future organizations, cities, or even economies, this is one of the ways they start the conversation: by putting it in context.

See, History is important for the future; just not the recent histories our high school teachers told us to memorize.

If you thought this was cool, check out some titles like Human Natures, On Human Nature, and Guns, Germs, and Steel.

And if you’d really like to learn more, we’ll cover this and much more provocative stuff at our Hawai‘i Futures Summit this October 3 and 4.

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Filed under: Biology, Change, Culture, Forecasting, Hawai'i

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