Analysis: the speed of change the world is experiencing means that predicting and proofing ourselves from any future is a flawed concept

Glasgow has the ignominious title of being the wettest city in Scotland. With 170 days of rain per year, it sits saturated atop the sodden Scottish precipitation charts by a significant margin, some 32 days ahead of its closest rival, the veritable sun-kissed Costa de Aberdeen.

It is perhaps no surprise then that it was a Glaswegian by the name of Charles MacIntosh who invented the first waterproof fabric in 1823 by cementing two pieces of cloth together using rubber dissolved in coal-tar naphtha. Indeed, it is after Charles himself that the 'Mac' raincoat is named. This innovation in clothing created new possibilities for humans to endure inclement weather and was quickly adopted by the military and later by broader society.

For most of us, this idea of ‘proofing’ speaks to protecting, safeguarding and insulating someone or something from an external condition or agent, be it water, bullets, heat, UV rays, or something else. So, what meaning should we ascribe to the increasingly popular concept of future-proofing?

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From Now You Know About, the story of Charles Mackintosh

At first, the term sounds enticing, seductive even. It has the promise of a quasi-magical cloak akin to King Arthur's prized ‘invisibility mantle’ from ancient folklore. However, on reflection we might ask whether the term is actually an appropriate one to employ, particularly when educating younger generations.

In the first instance, MacIntosh himself was able to manufacture his fabric based upon his knowledge of the properties of water. These are observable, measureable and predictable, which greatly facilitated his endeavours to proof against it. However, the properties of the future are, for better or worse, unknown, or rather are unknowable with any significant degree of certainty.

Of course, increasingly complex modelling based upon big data – the new 'black gold' – and powerful algorithms applied to a wide range of areas will attempt to reduce the level of imperfection with which we can discuss and forecast the future. But any attempt to claim ‘proof’ from it is inherently flawed and arguably a fool’s errand.

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From Radio 1's Morning Ireland, Will Goodbody talks about Moore's Law, which has predicted the development of computer technology

Indeed, the speed of change the world is experiencing means that predicting and then proofing ourselves from any future constitutes a pursuit of Brobdingnagian proportions. This is driven largely by exponential technological growth known as Moore's law, coupled with the increasingly complex and interconnected nature of challenges we face nationally and globally, and the growing number of stakeholders involved in these challenges.

After all, proofing is only possible with perfect information about the phenomenon we wish to proof against. In the same way as MacIntosh’s waterproof jackets afforded wearers protection against some external condition over which the wearer had no control, the notion of ‘future-proofing’ suggests that the future itself is a similarly external and singular force over which humans have no control. It presents the future is an independent agent which acts upon each of us, rather than we ourselves being active agents in the imagining, construction and creation of our own futures.

This message, which ironically harks back to pre-enlightenment thinking, negates our sense of personal agency and, equally concerning, relinquishes us from the individual and collective responsibility to take ownership of our decisions and their ramifications. Given the clear impact that human decisions and actions have had on the planet since the first industrial revolution, little over 250 years ago - just 0.00000006% of the earth’s lifetime - this sense of responsibility is surely one which we ought to highlight and embrace rather than abdicate.

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From Radio 1's Today with Sean O'Rourke, Brian O'Connell on how to future proof your home

Finally, as mentioned above, the idea of ‘proofing’ suggests that we ought to protect, insulate and safeguard ourselves from the uncertainty of a future shaped by ‘VUCA’ - volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity - rather than see it as an opportunity to realise our personal potential.

To address our collective challenges, harness environmental affordances, and ensure that, when our time here has ended, we have contributed to making our community, society, environment and world, a better place for having been here.

Despite its initial allure, future-proofing is perhaps not a concept we should so eagerly embrace without first considering the implications and values upon which it is based. As educators, parents, guardians and role models, we should instead endeavour to ensure that younger generations have the capability to actively, consciously and responsibly create their own future. We can do this by cultivating in them the capability, through informed foresight and resulting insights, to enable them to embrace the unscripted nature of our rapidly changing world.

Future-proofing is perhaps not a concept we should so eagerly embrace without first considering the implications and values upon which it is based

We can foster a diverse set of transversal competencies such as creativity, critical thinking, systems thinking, ethics, personal agility and anti-fragility. We can add data literacy, future-led design, sustainability, interpersonal and intercultural skills, and a growth mind-set which recognises the value of developing high levels of social capital.

We can empower younger, or rather all generations to responsibly architect and co-create a collective, multifaceted future which each of us have reason to value, rather than feel the need to be protected and proofed from one over which we have no agency.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ