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By J. Daniel Beckham

The study of weather patterns with a computer gave rise to chaos theory, which suggests the world is not a random walk. Chaos theory spilled out of the physical sciences into the social sciences, including economics. One of its lessons is that small things can have big future impacts often impossible to fully appreciate until they've been played out. In chaos theory, the big impact of little things is called "sensitivity to initial conditions." A tiny shift in an initial condition can create huge swings far removed in time and space. The flapping of a butterfly's wings that eventually sets off a massive storm in another hemisphere is an oft-cited example of this effect. In an article in Forbes ASAP, former Intel executive William Davidow wrote about the big effect of small things:

"To appreciate the impact of sensitivity to initial conditions, consider the stirrup. A simple appendage attached to a saddle, the stirrup changed the world. Until the invention of the stirrup, riders on horseback found the experience very unstable. And this was particularly true in battle. The stirrup appeared in Europe around the eighth century when it was adopted by Charles Martel, leader of the Germanic Franks. It provided the lateral support and leverage necessary to allow a mounted warrior to capture the power of the horse as he brought his sword to bear against a foe. But the stirrup had consequences far beyond that. Since mounted troops now had an advantage in battle, leaders had to have horses. A lot more horses. Horses needed fodder. Fodder required land and farmers. To get land, Martel appropriated it from the church and gave it as estates to his mounted warriors who became lords. The lords owed loyalty to Martel and failure to provide it meant loss of their estates. They got the farm labor they needed by using the peasant population. The peasant owed labor to the lord. The result was the feudal system. And all of this from a stirrup."  

It would be impossible to try to anticipate the emergence of the infinite number of small things that might have big impacts. Things are just too complex and tightly woven. After all, it is the large, transforming consequences you need to be ready to ride. It's the avalanche that's dangerous, not the single snowflake that may ultimately set it off.

One of the reasons we frequently miss the avalanche is because it's easy to get lost in the detail of the present. I remember visiting the Badlands in South Dakota. Standing in that eerie moonscape, all I saw was randomness. There were no clues as to what had made the place. Water seemed too inadequate an explanation. But later that afternoon, flying home, I could see very plainly from 30,000 feet the ancient vestiges of flowing water that once carved the Badlands.

From 300 miles up, other flows have been recorded by astronauts and satellites. It is not readily apparent, for example, from the maps of earthbound cartographers, that there is a swatch of desert that extends from northwest Africa nearly all the way to Beijing.

Nor can you see on a map the grids that have formed in the Amazon along Brazilian Road 364 as ranchers, farmers, loggers, and settlers have poured into the region. From 1970 to 1995, the population in this area grew from 110,000 to 1.4 million. You can see it from the air.

What may appear chaotic close up, at a distance often reveals discernible patterns and yields its underlying truths. That's the kind of perspective that's most valuable when an organization goes future scanning. The important search is for powerful and pervasive currents. If not the currents themselves, then their manifestations.

Physician, Hans Selge, put it this way in his advice to young people at the beginning of their careers: "Try to look for the mere outlines of big things with your fresh, untrained, and unprejudiced mind." That's also good advice for organizations planning their careers in the future.

The past can teach us a lot about the outlines of big things. Yet the past is poison to many futurists. They warn sternly of the dangers of being trapped by the past. But any honest student of history, biology, physics, or systems thinking will quickly recognize the connections that link the future, the present, and the past. They are not different things. They are all the same thing. They are the same pool. Touch one and you touch all three.

The present is in flux and the future is shrouded in fog, but the past has had time to settle out. Learning from what has come before is one of the best ways to understand the present and anticipate the shape of the future.

Copyright © The Beckham Company             Future Scanning – Mar. 1997 (Prediction)


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