New World Same Humans #21

The Four Futures framework can help you plan for what's next. It might even change your life.

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I didn’t start New World Same Humans to get into the business of self-help.

But this community is about supercharging you. So this week I’m sharing a tool I recently came across that can do just that.

It’s a framework that allows you to think in a structured way about where you’re at now, and the possible futures that lie ahead.

We all know this is a time for change and renewal. I hope this week’s instalment will fuel your thinking.

The Four Futures framework

The pandemic has trapped us in a Time Distortion Field. Past and future feel somehow unreal, impossibly out of reach. Here in the UK we’ve been in lockdown for 12 weeks. I can’t tell anymore whether it feels like 100 years or a couple of days.

There has been plenty of analysis. But it still seems to me that collectively we haven’t yet grasped the scale of what’s happening. We just can’t yet. New data from UK’s Office for National Statistics, for example, shows that the British economy shrank by 20.4% in April. That’s the largest contraction on record, and three times greater than the decline during the financial crisis of 2008/9. The Bank of England says the UK is heading for its deepest recession in 300 years.

How do we make sense of all this? Let alone chart a course – collectively or individually – for the coming years? It all feels too dizzying.

This week I want to share with you a framework for thinking about the future. I hope it can help bring clarity to your thinking on where you’re at – as an organisation, business, or individual – and where you should head next.

This framework is by Professor James Dator, one of the fathers of futures studies in the US. It’s widely considered his most important contribution to the field. Dator first developed this framework in the 1970s, and it has formed the basis of much of his life’s work since then.

Dator’s framework is founded in two deep truths about our relationship to the future.

First, we can never know for sure what lies ahead. That means we should think in terms of various possible futures, and not run the fool’s errand of trying to make predictions with high degrees of certainty. Second, humans make sense of the future in the same way we make sense of the past: by telling ourselves stories about it. So it pays to examine those stories. If we can understand more about them, we can better orient ourselves in the present and plan for what’s next.

That’s the real, and transformative, power of thinking in a structured way about possible futures, says Dator. It helps you to see your current situation with fresh eyes. Right now, that feels more needed than ever.

The Four Futures framework says that all the stories we tell about the future fall ultimately into one of four distinct categories:

  • Growth. The systems and ways of being we live inside continue to develop along their current trajectory.

  • Collapse. Our current trajectory comes to a sudden halt. Our systems and ways of being fall apart.

  • Discipline. New forms of restraint and control are imposed on the present order to prevent collapse.

  • Transformation. Entirely new systems and ways of being are found; we transcend the present order.

Every future scenario we create, says Dator, in the end tells one of these four fundamentally different stories. What’s more, when the future we’re talking about arrives, this framework will form the basis of how we understand it. We’ll model what’s happened as either Growth, Collapse, Discipline or Transformation.

Once you become aware of Dator’s Four Futures, you start seeing them everywhere.

At a macro-level, the four categories shape the way we talk about the possible futures that lie ahead of us as a species. Growth, in this frame of reference, is typically taken to mean continued economic growth, widening prosperity, ongoing technological advance. The most commonplace Collapse scenario spoken about today is environmental catastrophe that upends civilisation as we know it. Discipline is the future most people mean when they say, ‘we must take action on climate change’: we reduce our dependence on carbon, fly less, eat less meat, and so on. And Transformation is the post-capitalist utopia that some say is possible, but no one can fully articulate right now.

Sure enough, the Four Futures have also shaped the way we’ve talked about the pandemic. We’ve asked whether this crisis is simply a pause before the resumption of business as usual (Growth). Or whether it’s the moment we finally realise we need to change our ways (Discipline). If we can’t learn now, many have argued, we’re on the path to ruin (Collapse). But maybe if we seize this moment, it can be the start of something truly amazing (Transformation).

It turns out that these four models are deeply embedded in the ways we think about the course of human affairs.

Your Four Futures

In this moment, when so much feels uncertain, the Four Futures framework is a powerful tool to reignite your thinking on where you’re at now and what is next.

Remember, this isn’t about trying to predict the future. Rather, it’s a framework to allow you to build useful models of the various paths ahead. Those models will allow you greater clarity when it comes to your present, and the forces of change currently acting on you. And that means you’ll be better placed to think constructively about what you want and how to get it. Which, in the end, is the point of planning ahead.

This framework can form the basis of post-pandemic planning for your team or business. Assemble your people, fire up Zoom, and go!

But I’d also really encourage you to use it to think about your future as an individual, too. If anything good can come out of this crisis, then for many of us it’s the chance to pause and reflect. Where am I heading? What do I really want?

Here’s a quick guide for using the Four Futures as a tool for your own planning. I’ve written the below with an individual in mind, but you can easily adapt it to apply to your team or business. For each category, the aim is to map out a realistic scenario and the most viable or likely journey towards that scenario.

  • Growth. The trajectory you’re on right now continues upwards. This scenario is about climbing the ladder that’s currently ahead of you. What are the key landmarks along that journey? You get that promotion or new qualification? If you’ve recently been let go, you’re rehired in a great position in the same field? Move to a nicer apartment? Build your startup? What do you need to do to make that happen? Map it the most realistic sounding Growth scenario you can.

  • Collapse. Obviously, this is the scenario you want to avoid. But what does sudden collapse in your current trajectory look like? What are the forces – both inside you and in the world around you – that could cause that collapse? Does this economic crisis put your job at risk? Are new technologies putting your entire industry at risk? Are you working in a way that is unsustainable longterm? Are you carrying destructive emotions that will eventually catch up with you? No one wants to spend time thinking about personal failure. But map a realistic Collapse scenario, safe in the knowledge that this exercise is helping make it doesn’t happen.

  • Discipline. So you’ve identified the inner and outer forces most likely to cause Collapse. What would it look like if you acted to moderate or contain those forces? This is the Discipline scenario. It’s about changing ways of being and working, or seeking out new forms of support, to make your current trajectory sustainable for the longterm. How can you do that? What needs to be moderated or restrained? What new habits, ways of being, ways of working, or relationships could help in this?

  • Transformation. What would it look like if you transcended your current trajectory, and shifted towards something altogether new and transformatively better? This is the hardest scenario to map out, because by definition you can’t currently know everything about this new reality. But the seeds of it are inside you. Most likely, this scenario is about the passion project or creative career you (secretly?) dream about. Or the radical lifestyle shift – ‘let’s move to New Zealand and go off-grid!’ – that you sometimes consider or discuss with a partner. Map out the most viable journey possible towards that goal, and the most realistic picture possible of how it works when you get there.

Mapping out these four scenarios can be an enlightening exercise. Just thinking about your future in this structured way will offer you new insights into your current circumstances and the forces of change currently acting on your life. Most of all, the Four Futures provides a structured way of thinking about which future you want.

There’s a natural tendency when undertaking planning of this kind to think that it should be the precursor to some Big Change. To think, in other words, that Transformation is the ‘best’ outcome to aim for.

That’s not the case. If this exercise leads you to the realisation that the trajectory you’re on right now is the best for you, and that all you want to do is get back on that trajectory at full speed, then great! Mapping out your Growth scenario will help you see what’s needed to make that happen. And mapping out Collapse will help you check whether you need to take significant action to keep your current trajectory sustainable for the medium and longterm.

But some of you will already know that you do want transformative change in your life. Or the Four Futures exercise might turn a glimmer of a feeling along those lines into a firm conviction. If so, then know this: for many of us there will never be a better moment for personal transformation than this one. A crisis such as this creates a space of possibility. Some of the bonds that kept you tied to a certain path loosen, or evaporate altogether. That reality might arrive in a form that’s difficult: job loss, for example. But even that means a chance to step back from your life for a moment and ask: am I heading in the direction I want?

Mapping out the Transformation scenario will help you zero in on what Totally Different and Vastly Better looks like for you – if you didn’t have a clear picture already. And also, crucially, on whether there is a viable path towards that future. If it seems there is not, don’t stop there. Instead, ask: what do I need to modify about this scenario to make it viable? If there is no viable path whatsoever under any reasonable circumstances to the Transformation scenario you’ve always nurtured in the back of your mind, then it was only ever a comfort blanket, or a fun fantasy. Nothing wrong with that; we all have those. But there are Transformation scenarios out there that are viable for you. What are they?

As for Collapse: heed the destructive forces that brought about your ruin in this scenario. You’ve identified them so you can make sure they never get the better of you.

Ain’t that the truth

Life is uncertainty. We can never escape that truth. In the end, then, thinking well about the future means managing that uncertainty.

I hope this exercise makes for an additional tool you can use to do that. If you want to learn more about the Four Futures framework, start with this essay by James Dator.

And if you undertake the exercise, I’d love to know the outcome. Hit me back via email, and I’ll reply!

Space Force is go

Some quick snippets for this week’s awkward Zoom silences:

🏙️ Back in NWSH #12 I asked if the pandemic might overthrow our current Great Age of the City. In a new poll by UK research firm Ipsos MORI, 44% of Britons said they expect cities to become less attractive places to live in the coming years. Only 19% said their draw will increase.

👩‍💻 What personality attributes lead to career success? This new paper in the Harvard Business Review suggests unfriendly but conscientious extroverts have the edge.

💸 People are making real money by starting businesses inside the video game New Horizons: Animal Crossing. For £40 an hour one business will help you with in-game interior design. NWSH is obsessed with the emergence of video games as domains of meaningful experience.

🚀 Netflix has outmanoeuvred the US government to secure trademark rights to the name ‘Space Force’, so it can satirise Trump’s plan to create a new branch of the US armed forces.

Let’s build this thing!

I started this newsletter back in January, and sent the first instalment to a list of around 100 friends and colleagues. Now, over 8,000 curious people receive New World Same Humans in their inbox every Sunday 🙏

So far, it’s been a one-to-many situation. But that is all about to change. More than anything, NWSH should be a community that supercharges you via new ideas, tools, and personal connections. To that end, we’re about to open a Slack group where we can all talk, share and connect. Watch out for an invite in your inbox soon.

The bigger and more active that community becomes, the better for all of us.

So here’s how you can help. If you found the Four Futures exercise useful, forward this email to one another person – a family member, friend or colleague – who’d also enjoy it. Or share NWSH across a social network, with a comment on why it’s valuable to you:

Share New World Same Humans

This community belongs to all of us. Let’s make it count!

Thanks for reading, and see you next week,


David Mattin sits on the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Consumption.