Can History Point to Possible Futures?


A view into history helps us better understand the future. A recent Article describes this phenomenon in detail, exploring how to apply historical reasoning to the future. I have invested considerable time in understanding the Cycles of History and how they help us better understand the future. As Future Thinking becomes an increasingly bigger part of a leaders agenda, a historical perspective provides valuable input. As described in the article, the goal is to reason well, using an understanding of history to think more clearly about a range of possible futures and how probable a given outcome might be.

We find ourselves at a point in time where similar Historical Patterns are emerging. Whether it is immigration and tariff similarity to the 1920s, or another Engel’s Pause as described by the book Technology Trap, there are signs that point to possible futures. It is important to realize that History never truly repeats itself, as contexts and the people involved are always changing. However, this look at history is very instructive. Is history just a series of cycles as described in the Fourth Turning? If it is, than the compelling historical data provided by the book indicates that the 2020s represents a period of significant crisis.

It was Winston Churchill that said: The further backward you look, the further forward you can see. This Looking Back to see Ahead approach should be added to the foresight frameworks used to chart our course forward. I have spent as much time looking backward as I have forward. My Book Library is filled with books that provide a valuable historical resource. Books like The Rise and Fall of American Growth or Capitalism Alone provide a great journey to the past that informs our view of the future. On the darker side, Destined for War chronicles the rise and fall of super powers throughout history – and the wars that resulted when an emerging power challenged the reigning power. Draw conclusions of possible futures when we look at the current world where the U.S. is the reigning super power, with China as the emerging power.

Lesson number one: we should all be increasingly focused on a future that is arriving faster than we think. Lesson number two: history provides us a view into possible futures. This visual paints a picture of the recent past – one that had repeating cycles of transformation, upheaval, backlash, and resolution. The reference to replacing versus augmenting speaks to periods where technology either replaced or augmented labor. Where are we in this cycle today?

Looking Backward to see Ahead

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