Why Didn't More Futurists Predict the Pandemic?

The arrival of COVID-19 has shone a light on professional futurists.

Posted May 06, 2020

Those who predict the future for a living have more of an impact on our lives than we may think.  They’re often quoted in the media, for one, shaping public opinion and perhaps even occasionally making what they predict a self-fulfilling prophecy.

But it is futurists’ (and to some degree, trendspotters’) relationship with Corporate America where they have the most impact. Many companies pay big bucks to people who have some credibility in forecasting what will happen next and when. (Full disclosure: As a co-founder of Iconoculture, I used to be such a person.)

The problem is that when they are hired by managers, futurists and trendspotters tend to underplay negative scenarios and overplay positive ones. This is partly because of human nature; most of us like to tell happy stories and hear happy news. But it also makes good business sense; consultants know that managers prefer to hear that, as my favorite ride at Disney World sings, “There’s a great big beautiful tomorrow.” There is a fear that should the consultant bear bad news, the client will kill the messenger.

Regrettably, then, dystopian and apocalyptic scenarios, such as the one we’re currently experiencing, are typically assigned as extremely remote possibilities or completely left off the table. Had more futurists presented scenarios in which a virus sweeps across the globe, killing hundreds of thousands and perhaps millions of people, and wrecking the economy in the process, we may not be in the mess we are in today. Perhaps we would have better prepared for such a scenario if we were informed by more experts that it could really happen.

The arrival of COVID-19 has thus shone a very deserved light on professional futurists and why most of them did not see or at least report the pandemic or anything like it coming. The failure in predicting the pandemic and less than sanguine scenarios, in general, has much to do with the changes in the field that took place over the past century or so.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, futurism was largely the domain of writers of science fiction, an occupation in which there was no client to please. Dystopian events were very much a part of the wild and fantastic tales that were told by H.G. Wells and others of his ilk. That began to change between the world wars, however, when economists, sociologists, and political scientists entered the burgeoning field, turning the art into more of a science.

After World War II, a new breed of futurists arrived on the scene, all of them committed to the seemingly noble cause of “planning.” Demographers, academics, and other assorted experts and pundits from foundations, government agencies, and think-tanks (the Rand Corporation, especially) trafficked in futures in order to shape public policy, provide advice to industry, and serve on advisory boards.

It was during the 1980s, however, when futurism became truly professionalized and corporatized.  Spurred by a reinvigorated economic climate, the business of forecasting and prediction picked up steam in the early eighties, moving the idea of the future further from the margins into the mainstream.

With his 1982 book Megatrends, John Naisbitt hit it big time with his brand of prophecy based on content analysis of hundreds of newspapers—an intelligence-gathering technique first used during World War II and at the time still employed by the CIA. “An information society is oriented to the future, which is why we’re so interested in it,” he explained his success, adding that “we’re drowning in data, yet thirsty for intelligence and knowledge.” 

By the following year, Megatrends had sold more than half a million copies in its 19 printings, making Naisbitt more popular and, at $10,000 per appearance, more pricy than Henry Kissinger as a speaker. The book could be found on the desks or bedside tables of many Fortune 500 executives in the early eighties, considered almost mandatory reading alongside two other mega-business books: Tom Peter’s In Search of Excellence and Kenneth Blanchard’s The One-Minute Manager.

Part of the appeal of Megatrends to corporate types was its upbeat tone reminiscent of an over-caffeinated motivational speaker. “It is a great and yeasty time filled with opportunity,” Naisbitt wrote in his very last line. “What a fantastic time to be alive!” 

Other futurists emerged as direct beneficiaries of tomorrow-mania within Corporate America.  Despite or perhaps because of his willingness to take a flyer on the future, Marvin Cetron, head of Arlington, Virginia-based Forecasting international, slipstreamed in Naisbitt’s wake through the eighties, making an impressive 112 speeches in 1984 alone to organizations hungry for his read on tomorrow. Versus Naisbitt’s low-tech content analysis of newspaper articles, Cetron used mainframe computers to predict the probability of an event taking place in 5, 10, or 20 years and then assessed its potential impact by using “sixty-four indicators for stability factors.”

Beginning to steal some of Naisbitt’s, Cetron’s, and other independent futurists’ thunder, however, was the New York-based social research firm, Yankelovich Skelly & White. In 1968, Florence Skelly had begun conducting extensive interviews with hundreds of Americans, identifying 35 social trends in the process.

By 1985, Skelly’s company was tracking 52 trends by surveying 2,500 people a year, selling the information to 140 companies at $20,000 a pop. Such opinion-based, quantitative research, because it was grounded in what real people felt about real issues, was rapidly becoming the darling of marketers looking to justify decision-making with hard data.

Largely because of Yankelovich and its chief rival, Roper, futurism was becoming by the end of the decade a distinctly corporatized and conservative enterprise, recast as one of many decision-making tools used as much to minimize risk as maximize opportunity. Faith Popcorn would soon bring some much-need art back into the futuristic equation, but it was clear that the Wild West days of the field were long over.