So, can you predict any part of the future with any certainty?
It is a topic we delved into as part of our virtual debate series, The Distance Resistance, designed to get us through lockdown with discussion and inspiration. Our latest session covered the world of forecasting, which gave us the opportunity to talk with those who have long been the guardians of near time forecasting. Ben Page, CEO of Ipsos-MORI told the audience that despite decades of polling, when it came to predicting how the public would vote in an election, “we are no better at forecasting election outcomes than we ever were”. The critical success factors continue to be the collection of likely preferences, as close to the election date as possible. Any further out than a week and the chances of people changing their minds are too high.
In a volatile business climate, we can assume that the same applies to commercial forecasting. One week’s toilet paper shortage is the next week’s bread flour demand. Similarly, one week’s need for comfort and reassurance in the media we consume is just as speedily replaced with a need for inspiration and something, anything new. Marketing leaders are rapidly rewriting their usual playbook to suit the operational context, but also the emotional one. How will people feel about advertising? What will they want to hear in six weeks? With market research constrained by the shutdown, and no precedent for Times Like These, we are forced to rely on intuition and cross our fingers.
The fallacy of forecasting via big data
No wonder Big Data looks tempting as a source of future gazing. Are the answers to how we will be living the next few months hidden in our online signalling? Harry Davies, Google’s Head of Measurement and Analytics brings sober news from the frontline of Artificial Intelligence, he explains: “Whilst the availability of maths at scale has allowed us greater ability to recognise near time patterns such as credit card fraud, the forecasting of more complex eventualities such as a future Baby Boom, for example, are fraught with risk.”
He describes the constraints facing analysts: “The cost of good data remains high, the challenge of analysing all the potential drivers of human behaviour is considerable and after all, most information available has been edited and generated by humans, with all their biases and flaws affecting how reliably they understand their own action.”
Dr Margaret Hefferman, acclaimed writer, broadcaster and author of the recent book Uncharted: How to Navigate the Future does not bring any solace for furloughed futurists either. She describes the word “Futureproofing” as a misnomer, condemns the practice of “learning from History” as a fallacy and claims that 80% of forecasts are propaganda, the description of a desired future rather than a probable one.
In the current terrifying context, hearing that we are all reliant on a series of partial and ill-informed guesses is sobering, but Hefferman brings hope, too. She believes that following the example of artists would give us a proven strategy for imagining possible futures: “The most accurate predictions of the future are offered by those who get amongst the real world and observe it”.