In past episodes, I’ve discussed science fiction stories as tools to predict the future. H.G Wells wrote about atomic bombs and the fallout – thirty years before Nagasaki and Hiroshima. In 1968, John Brunner predicted the European Union, China’s rise to power, and Detroit’s economic downfall. You can probably take any existing technology and find a book or article that predicted something like it in the past. If you want to spark an idea, the most crucial part is understanding the timing.
An Unexpected Way to Predict the Future
Writers of fiction bring something to those whose jobs it is to predict the future. Writers bring the sensory talent. To be a great writer, you need to be aware of things others don’t see and pick up on different trends and moods. The ability for a writer to convey a picture of what could be generates that “what if” spark. Writers can create and invent emotions, worlds, structures, political parties, and., eliciting a response from the reader. It’s all about imagining what it will take to get from point A to point B.
This episode was inspired by an article written by Philip Oltermann discussing novels to predict crises such as genocides or civil wars. The project, called “Project Cassandra,” was run by Jurgen Wertheimer, a professor of comparative literature in Germany.
The overall goal was to figure out if you could predict the unpredictable. They discovered that authors in a given country were writing fiction tied to their country’s circumstances and forecasting what they believed would happen based on the patterns they saw. Some people refer to a crisis as a black swan, which is an event you can’t predict. On the contrary, the project showed that a few years before a crisis, local authors offered a sense of what was coming. These predictions weren’t based on extensive data collection but more focused on people’s feelings. Those running the project focused on the literary infrastructure, asking whether the – was the book was being censored or if it did elicit extraordinary reactions.
Predicting as an Innovator
I tend to use a similar process when it comes to predicting the future. On top of looking at reactions, I take interesting writings and search out the people involved in them. Firstly, I ask the writers what barriers are keeping their predictions from happening. I also check what the dependencies are, and most importantly, I ask what the intended and unintended consequences are. No matter what you are doing, it is vital to ponder these things.
The Cassandra Project was looking to predict crises five to seven years out. The early stages of this project were successful in predicting things one year out. The next stage was five to seven years out. The early successes came from giving off strong hints, but this is hard to make actionable. In the case of innovators, hints are interesting, but they have to be translated. This is a challenge for any innovation. Ultimately, Project Cassandra was killed in 2020 by the German government.
Do you think reading the writings of authors can be possible sources of predicting the future? Prediction is challenging and often viewed as the holy grail for innovators. The one guarantee is that you will never be 100% right. This shouldn’t cause you to make us give up, as a prediction can create that little spark that will lead you to the next big thing.
To know more about unexpected ways to predict the future, listen to this week's show: Unexpected Way to Predict the Future.