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Who's in the Video

Peter Schwartz

Peter Schwartz is an internationally renowned futurist and business strategist, specializing in scenario planning and working with corporations, governments, and institutions to create alternative perspectives of the future and develop[…]

It’s very easy to imagine how things might go wrong, but it’s much harder to imagine how things might go right.

“Futurists” are those who study the future so that the people alive today can make better decisions for tomorrow.

It is impossible to get all of the predictions right. The point of futurism, however, is to envision multiple scenarios in which we can test our decisions so that we are ready for whatever actually occurs.


This video is part of The Progress Issue, a Big Think and Freethink special collaboration.

In this inaugural special issue we set out to explore progress — how it happens, how we nurture it and how we stifle it, and what changes are required in how we approach our most serious problems to ensure greater and more equitable progress for all. 

It’s time for a return to optimism. Enjoy the full issue now.

Read more of our stories from The Progress Issue:

PETER SCHWARTZ: - It's very easy to imagine how things go wrong. It's much harder to imagine how things go right than to say, oh, you could have a pandemic or a war or a terrorist act. That's easy to come up with. It's a big act of imagination, constructing a believable scenario of how all these forces come together to create a better future. When I meet someone new and they ask, what does a futurist do? I basically say, I help study the future so people today can make better decisions. I'm an explorer of the future trying to imagine the possibilities that lay ahead. In fact, Steven Spielberg asked me, to bring together a team to create all the details of the future that you saw in the film "Minority Report." Advertisements that knew who you were, doors that recognized you, hydrogen-powered vehicles, electric cars. It is not the goal to get everything right. It's almost impossible but you test your decisions against multiple scenarios, so you make sure you don't get it wrong in the scenarios that actually occur. 

I'm Peter Schwartz, the Chief Future Officer of Salesforce, and Head of Strategic Planning. I've written a book called the "Art of the Longview" and I've been studying the future for the last 50 years. 

I was born in a refugee camp in 1946, came to the United States as an immigrant in 1951, but fell in love immediately with science, my father was an engineer, and with technology. What I knew was that I wanted a better world. I'd studied politics and everything like that and I still didn't understand what a better future was. The way in which my career evolved was I ended up at a place called Stanford Research Institute. It was the early days that became Silicon Valley. It's where technology was accelerating. I was one of the first thousand people online. It was the era when LSD was still being used as an exploratory tool. 

So everything around me was the future being born. And we were part of a group that was studying where all this technology might go, and what the consequences would be for the world. So at the end of 1981 I left SRI and joined Royal Dutch Shell in London. And there, I had the opportunity to apply these tools to real business decisions, helping one of the biggest companies in the world navigate uncertainty. And shortly thereafter, I launched a company with a group of friends called Global Business Network. And it was basically to create a membership organization of companies and remarkable thinkers to think together about the possible scenarios for the future. What I realized was that the right question was not what did I think about the future, but what did everybody else think about the future? And that's when I was involved in helping to create something that is known as 'Scenario planning.' And so my question shifted to what are the tools that people need to think more intelligently and thoughtfully about the future? To do scenario planning you have to have a number of skills. First of all, when I hire, I'm looking for something I call 'Ruthless curiosity.' 

One of the interesting stories that has always fascinated me, that kind of set the stage for how I think about the future and the challenge of making decisions, was the map of California. If you look at maps of California beginning around the year 1605, and going for almost a century and a half, you'll find that it shows California as an island. What actually happened was that when the Spanish were exploring the western side of North America, they sailed up into the Gulf of Baja, and then later all the way up the coast to the Puget sound and they thought these must be connected. Now the truth is this would only be a historical curiosity were it not for the problem of the missionaries. Because the missionaries actually use these maps and they would arrive at Monterey Bay. They had to cross California, and take their boats over the Sierra Nevada mountains and down to the beach on the other side. And that beach unfortunately went on and on and on, until they realized they were in the middle of the deserts of Nevada, and there was no sea of California. And the weird thing is they actually wrote back to the map makers in Spain and said, "Hey, listen your bloody map is wrong." And the mapmakers wrote back and said, "No, no, no you are in the wrong place. "The map is right." Now, many people who work in large organizations understand that logic very well. 

If you get your facts wrong, you get your map wrong. If you get your map wrong, you do the wrong thing. Good scenario planners are desperate for data and information. They read widely, they read about science. They read about economics. They read about politics. They read about the environment. So they're data junkies, but you also need to bring a lot of imagination, be able to break the boundaries of those trends, because trends change direction. One of the early examples of, how shall I say, bad decision making that shows why you need good scenario planning was a crucial decision that IBM made in 1981 about whether to go in the business of making a new product, the personal computer. And they said, "Well, look, we need to forecast demand. "Is there a really big demand for this product? "Is this going to be important?" And the forecast showed that it would peak at about 200,000 units and then decline pretty close to zero within a couple of years. So this was not a very viable product. 

So we'll buy the chips from Intel, we'll get the operating system from Bill Gates, and we'll put it in a box and we'll call it an IBM PC. That was their idea. And they thought, this will last two or three years and it'll kill off Apple. Unfortunately, they were a little wrong. It wasn't 240,000 units, it was 25,000,000. It was that failure of imagination that pointed to the need for scenarios. They needed to imagine what people could actually do when they had a bit of computing power in their hands. So you have to have the trends, but then you also have to see the imagination about how it can change direction. And part of the way you do that an important ingredient is the ability to collaborate and learn from others. 'Cause you almost always do this with other people and work together. And I'll give you a concrete example. One of the earliest projects that Global Business Network did was for AT&T, on the future of the information industry. And we brought in a number of interesting, outside people. 

One of those was Peter Gabriel, the British rockstar. He brilliantly used technology to make his music. And one of the AT&T executives said, "Peter, look they're just starting to do digital CDs, "which means you can get perfect copies of your music. "And now we're gonna have lots of piracy around the world." And he said, "Look, I can't stop it. "I know they're gonna do that. "So what I'm gonna do is treat that pirate CD "as free advertising. "And I'm gonna follow it with a concert. "I'll make my money on the concerts, not the CDs." And that became the model in the music industry within about five years. Peter saw that before everybody else 'cause he understood the implications of the technology and how to compete with this rather dramatic change. And so can you have a thoughtful dialogue and learn and adapt your thinking from other people? 

So are you curious and gather lots of information? Are you imaginative? And are you collaborative? If you have those three skills then you're gonna be a pretty good scenario planner. I think fear of the future is one of the worst problems that we have today. We live so much better today than any time in human history. Yes, there are ups and downs. There'll be setbacks, there'll be wars and panics, and pandemics and so on. That will happen. But the great arc of human progress and the gain of prosperity and a better life for all, that will continue. I like to think about the next 50 years, 100 years, even a thousand years or more. What happens in the development of human evolution, of human societies? Will we be able, for example, to build star drives that allow us to explore the stars as in "Star Trek." 

Could we reinvent physics so that we can go faster than the speed of light? So for me, the interesting questions are based on an understanding of history on the one hand, and on the possibilities created by science. And these two combine together to give me a kind of long arc of human history, from the last few hundred years to the next few hundred years. I think the really big thing is gonna be genetic engineering. And what we're gonna start doing is getting rid of genetic diseases, for example, sickle cell anemia, diabetes, all these things that have genetic roots, new forms of cancer treatment. But beyond that, which I'm excited about, is improving people, smarter, stronger, longer lives. I believe people being born today will have the option of living many centuries, and that will obviously change life rather fundamentally. So if you have a young child today, make sure you tell them to choose their spouse wisely because a couple hundred years with the same person, I love my wife, but I'm not sure about centuries.