A central ingredient in predicting the future is chocolate éclairs.
Or so says Daniel Franklin, Executive and Diplomatic Editor of The Economist. Since 2003, the veteran global affairs journalist has helmed the business magazine’s popular, annual “The World in…” special issue, a go-to resource predicting and analyzing the political, economic and cultural forces that will shape the world in the year ahead.
With 2019 nigh on the horizon, Daniel shares some pro tips for prognosticating.
How to read the tea leaves, Economist-style
Starting “in a very English way” each May, Daniel and his team begin their forecasting expedition with an editorial tea where they brainstorm events and trends on the horizon, draw up a calendar for the year ahead and fill out the narrative with the expertise of editors and special correspondents in order to figure out what, exactly, might be coming down the pipeline. All while eating sweet, creamy pastry.
“It helps to have a structure,” says Daniel, and besides the baked goods, “there are basically three things in our toolkit at The Economist…”
- Start with lessons from the past
- Make educated guesses in the present
- Use science fiction to predict the future
A “rough and ready idea of where to start” your future-gazing, Daniel explains that the toolkit provides a perspective for seeing things that are happening now in relation to the past, a way to situate trends that are just beginning to come into view and, with the help of fiction, a way to imagine the full consequences, ethical dimensions and implications of innovations and events on society.
“[The toolkit] really is useful for looking forward at fundamental changes like the advent of AI or the disruption that is going to be caused by autonomous vehicles,” says Daniel.
In the case of driverless vehicles, for instance, taking the first tool and looking at previous instances in which one form of transport disrupted another (e.g., the combustion engine vs. horse-drawn carriages) can demonstrate how fast change can happen and what sort of transformations took place in job creation, infrastructure and rules of the road.
Looking at mobility experiments in the present day — from the organization of cities and transport systems to the conversations being had about driverless cars to the rise of ride sharing and electric vehicles — is step number two.
And finally, taking a futuristic view of how society with the help of sci-fi “is a useful way of imagining the full consequences of something that might happen and exploring ethical dimensions and implications for the organization of society and so on,” says Daniel.
A sci-fi aficionado’s recos
According to Daniel, Deputy Editor Tom Standage is the real sci-fi enthusiast at The Economist. His three favourites authors are:
- Alastair Reynolds, who takes a hard sci-fi view of a plausible future in which humanity has splintered into multiple transhuman species and brain-computer interfaces are widespread.
- Kim Stanley Robinson, an author of wide-ranging sci-fi with a strong vein of environmentalism and an eye on history.
- Ann Leckie, a modern champion of how sci-fi can explore gender and identity as well as space empires and AI slavery.
Predicting the future: it’s the human thing to do
If audience loyalty is any indication, the toolkit works. “The World in…” enjoys a healthy circulation of roughly one million printed copies a year, in addition to distribution by 35 foreign language partners.
Daniel believes forecasting makes for such a popular issue because, in a way, humans are always doing it.
“We all have to make predictions about our lives,” Daniel explains. And we’re constantly making decisions based on what we think is going to happen: where we put our money, what careers we get into and whether or not we think it’s safe to go places and do things. “They are all our own judgment on what is going to be happening in the world.”
He adds that, while readers are smart enough to take their forecasting with no guarantees, they “are still curious and will make opinions informed in part by what someone else has thought about it.”
Each year, Daniel also has the humbling job of going through the previous edition of “The World in…” and taking stock of what they got right and wrong.
“In 2018, on the whole, we didn’t do too badly,” he says, “but my own assessment is that we didn’t go far enough… Trump was even Trumpier than we thought.”
Here are some of Daniel’s forecasts for 2019:
Art & Design:
Daniel predicts the opening of The Shed in New York City next spring will be an important event for culture. “Big, adventurous, flexible spaces will be influential,” he says. “Another big theme across the art world [are initiatives] that are rooted in community.” Meanwhile, in Germany, The Humboldt Forum will open its doors in Berlin.
Marketing & Media:
“Almost every new ad dollar will go on digital, ‘influencer marketing’ will remain in vogue, and we also have some fun imagining a new rule (along the lines of the EU’s GDPR data regulation) stipulating that companies’ slogans have to be accurate.”
Science & Technology:
“We have a piece on changes in transport: ride sharing to electric vehicles to driverless vehicles and how they are all really in an upheaval for the automotive and transport industry.”
Leadership & Talent:
On leadership, “The World in 2019” has a piece on how companies will have to develop heightened political awareness. “CEOs will need to be as well-briefed on politics as a presidential candidate preparing for a live debate,” it concludes.
Society & Environment:
“2019 is the year when the process of America actually pulling out of the Paris (climate) Agreement happens,” says Daniel. “Meanwhile, I think concern about what people observe on the ground through natural disasters and the probably inadequate efforts to cope with the big picture on climate change will deepen.”
“The World in 2019” features Sapiens author Yuval Noah Harari, prominent female firsts like Christine Lagarde, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Stacey Cunningham, business magnate Pony Ma, Laurene Powell Jobs, Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn, Shopify founder Tobias Lütke and Angelina Jolie.
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