MANY IN THE social sciences have given up on trying to imagine the future. Between the options of conceiving of it in present day terms, plus the hyperbolic fantasy of much science fiction, perhaps their surrender is understandable. Yet it is important that we find a way to envision the world as it will be decades from now, because choices made today can narrow or broaden constraints on our decision making in the future. One example of this I recently encountered concerned a city planner who was tasked with developing a transport infrastructure plan for part of a major Australian city out to 2040. When I asked her how driverless electric vehicles (EVs) were factoring into her planning, it became clear that they were not even under discussion in her planning group. Yet driverless EVs already exist and will likely be a big part of our future transport long before 2040. I had seen this kind of thing before – when I began talking to electricity utility managers in the 1990s about solar photovoltaic (PV) systems. None of them could conceive of solar having an impact in the short or medium term on their business. Perhaps disruptive technologies like solar PV and driverless EVs are so disruptive simply because, from a planners’ perspective, they seem to be hiding in plain view.
If planners are to do a better job, the people they report to must learn to kickstart their ingenuity, and the planners themselves need to integrate a wider skills base in their decision-making process. In this essay I have outlined a sensible way of imagining the future, in regard to climate change and the various technologies developed to avoid it, which I think provides some useful parameters for future-gazing. But first I want to talk about the most important limit of all – the limits of our imagination.
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