Futurist Ryan Mathews on how to think about the future
Wed Mar 02 2022


Thinking about the future is best done backwards: start from a range of plausible outcomes that we know can occur based on history, and figure out how they could happen again.

About the Interview

In November 2021, PRISM’s Johan Gott and George Coe spoke with futurist and author Ryan Mathews to discuss how the world will change in the years to come and the best ways to think about how change occurs. We have done several scenario planning exercises together over the years so we knew that we wanted to have Ryan join the Future of the World series early on -- both to hear what the future might be like but also to discuss how to think about it. The conversation did not disappoint; we touched on a wide range of topics, including how people go wrong when they think about the future, why the pandemic should not have been a surprise, and how a self-described “public health dweeb” in California predicted our current income inequality crisis long before anyone else.


Key Takeaways

Thinking about the future is best done backwards: start from a range of plausible outcomes that we know can occur based on history, and figure out how it could happen again, rather than projecting forward based on the trends that are seen today.
This approach allows COVID-19, 9/11 and most other “wildcard” events to be foreseen. The main question then just becomes timing and what structures would have to exist in the world to make outcomes worse. In the case of COVID-19, the real wildcard was not the pandemic, but the lack of a shared reality that left society unable to make collective, common-sense public health decisions that would have lessened its impact, as was the case in many historical cases.
Other major “meta-trends” that could be disruptive today are technology – with biotechnology potentially having the most disruptive outcomes – and automation. This sits on top of growing age polarization, and a generational wealth distribution problem. Thinking about those underlying factors paints a bleak picture of the future.


The Interview

The interview below has been edited for style and clarity.

PRISM: Let’s just jump into it. There are quite a lot of people out there predicting the future. How do you think about your work when it comes to thinking about the future and planning out scenarios?

Ryan Mathews: Futuring is up there with the most abused ideas. When people think about the future, they tend to be intellectually lazy; they like to be comfortable. This means that when they think about what is possible in the future they often do so along lines that reinforce their own biases. When you take this approach, futuring becomes an exercise in projection rather than an exercise in real foresight. I think right approach is the reverse: You start with a point of view, and you reverse engineer back that to the present.

COVID-19 seems like an extreme example, but really it isn’t. In every scenario plan that I did over the 15 years before the current pandemic, there was a global pandemic “Wild Card” included. We have seen pandemics come and go time and time again. At the end of the day, we knew these things popped up in Africa and Asia fairly often, so what made us think we couldn’t have a disease vector in the US or Europe when everything is only 24 hours apart.

We have already had pandemics in the US. We had pandemics in the US before from the 1918 “Spanish Flu” to HIV/AIDS, right? So, it's not like it never happened before in the US.

That’s what I mean when I say that we need to think backwards: We must rethink how we think about things. Many things are plausible; we know that because they’ve already happened. Whatever has happened in the past can of course happen again.

When we think about a pandemic in this way, the odds of it happening are much greater than the odds of it not happening. It just ends up being a matter of time. That ends up being another way to think about wildcard scenarios. They tend to look like crazy ideas that will never happen, but that’s the wrong way to think about them. Wildcards do happen. Working backwards then becomes a useful approach because we start thinking about what has happened and could happen again. That approach lets you look at what could happen and look in the past to see if it’s happened before, maybe it just hasn’t been recognized. Ultimately, it becomes a way of using the past to rethink the present and future, rather than the other way around.

PRISM: That is a useful way of framing it. I think then a natural question becomes: So, what now? People may agree on the potential for a pandemic to occur, but they don’t really know what to do about it, right? How do you think about that?

RM: That’s definitely the case. People don’t know how to deal with that kind of information, because there are a lot of variables at play. The pandemic could start today, tomorrow, or 20 years from now, and then it could be severe or it might not be. At the end of the day, even if we had made our best guesses two years ago, do you think we might have landed in the right spot? Probably not. In my mind, the hard thing to guess was not the pandemic. That was not the real wild card. The real wild card was how we reacted to the pandemic; it was the dissolution of any sense of collective action around public health and the complete breakdown in people doing what was good for the common good. That's the part that was harder to anticipate based on the past. When we had polio, everyone recognized that it was a threat and that it was out of control. People got sick, they were crippled, and they died. It was terrible. But, then, science advanced, a vaccine was created, and we got several polio vaccines. Once we had those, people went out and got vaccinated because everyone agreed, “Polio is bad and we should do something about it.” Because of this thinking we effectively wiped it out. As a society we took a simple, direct approach – “We have the solution, let’s use it.” Everybody got a vaccine; nobody really questioned it. Ultimately, we did it with polio, then with measles, with mumps, with chickenpox, and so on.

So, if you extrapolate from the past, the thing that was actually hard to imagine was that we could find ourselves in a pandemic, that we would have a very easy way out, and that, still, people would look at the solution and say, “No.”That's the real wildcard: the breakdown of the commonly accepted vision of public health. Pandemics come and go, but the breakdown in collective action to secure public health, that’s the wildcard. Pandemics are a given.


PRISM: So how do we handle that? How could we have made this conclusion before, say two years ago?

RM: So two years ago, instead of asking about the chance that a pandemic would happen, the real question should have been “What's going on in the world?” and how does that actually impact the outcome of a pandemic – that is, how we respond to it. At that time, we might have looked at the politics of the time and realized people were increasingly believing things that aren’t objectively, factually true. Then we could have taken that idea and said: “These are the other areas where these untruths could matter” and then from there have asked “What are the consequences of that? What else happens when a nation-state has almost even portions of the population that cannot agree on the basic facts of reality?” That’s what broke down and got us here. It was not public health. It was the idea that facts reflect, or don’t reflect, reality. A lot of us looked at this and thought: “How can people believe these unfounded statements? We could see this happening in front of us, but what we missed was the next level of analysis. That’s the part where we should have asked ourselves: Where does this go next? and What happens when “facts” lose their traditional position in argument?

What we could have taken away from answering those questions would have been critically important. We would have said, “Well, when no one has to agree about anything, the notion of the public having a shared common reality goes away.” If we had thought about this the right way, we could have looked at the idea of a pandemic happening in the future and said: “We're going to be in trouble. Half of the people very well might deny that a pandemic exists even when people are dying from it.” So, at the end of the day, it is not about prediction, it's about understanding where things are now, where they were before, and what that means for the future.

PRISM: That echoes quite a lot with your quite famous 9/11 prediction… 

RM: Yeah, I remember presenting to the Pentagon before 9/11 and saying, “Osama bin Laden will attack the World Trade Center building and try to knock it down.” Why did we think that? Because, he had already attacked it. There’s something important in that: It had some symbolic value to him. Of all the things he could have attacked the first time, he chose that one. So, there was something about his relationship to that building – something symbolic. He had an functionally infinite amount of money, or at least as much money as he needed, he hadn't been apprehended, and he had gotten away with it the first time. So, he had a sense of impunity and his target was still there. Now, if I'm a crazy person, and I hate a building for whatever reason, and I have deep pockets, and I've gotten away with it once, it is statistically unavoidable that unless someone stops me I will go back to that same place and try to finish what I started.

Did we anticipate how he would do it? No. Did we anticipate how effective it would be? No. But when you really think about it, it doesn’t take a feat of super intelligence to think that he would try and do it again. Then, you might say: “Well, he only did other things once,” and that’s true: they attacked a US destroyer once and they attacked a US embassy once. But a different way to think about those examples is that they were all symbols of the US that he kept attacking. Had he not been so focused on the World Trade Center, he probably would have continued to bomb bases, embassies, and whatever else, right? That all comes down to the idea of attacking America – or at least the idea of it – over and over again. People are predictable – even crazy people. But the government was not coming from a sense of looking at the past and informing what could happen in the future. That’s what I mean when I say we are thinking about it backwards.

All of this is to say that I think we don't think about the future in the right way. We don’t look at the large meta waves and ask what the potential consequences of those waves are.


PRISM: Technology trends are one of the key drivers of the future today. It’s very interesting to think about technology in that way. It’s not really talked about with COVID-19, but technology was what really saved us during the pandemic, no?

RM: Technology is a great example, so let’s take a hard look at technology. What does technology do? It enables things, it accelerates or decelerates whatever else is happening. If I'm in fintech and there's some technological breakthrough that allows me to move money faster, that's great, but at the end of the day it just gets applied onto an existing structure. The technology comes from the fintech world, but it’s not creating a new world, it’s just better enabling the existing one.

I've said forever, to the point that people don't like hearing me say it anymore, about digital technologies and their power to change the world. Technologies enable strategy, but they aren’t strategies. What I'd worry about is biotechnologies. Digital technologies will evolve, they will get developed, and if they work people will use them. We can address the issues they cause, but with biotechnologies we have more dangers. There are larger implications. If we make the wrong move, we can wipe out the world.


PRISM: There is such a large sense of trying to understand these things in the right way, so what are the big trends that are happening? It sounds like you're sort of discounting technology as one of those factors that’s driving other things. Maybe biotech stands on its own as a major risk stemming from that? The fragmentation of facts and society seems to be another. What are the other big ones?

RM: Wealth distribution is another big one . I have a friend at USC, David Hayes-Bautista who was the first one to write about the relatoinship between ethnic demographics and the breakdown in the traditional intergenerational transfer of wealth. His argument, as a guy focused on public health and specifically mortality and morbidity, was based around the question: What happens when people live longer? He started looking at organizations that deal with the aging population: hospitals, care homes, and that kind of thing. They face an immense amount of drain as the population ages because people use more resources when they’re 90 than when they’re 20. At 20, you're going to the hospital if you break a leg or something. At 90, you’re at a doctor all the time and there are constant issues. It ends up not just being more frequent contact, but the depth and complexity of contact deepens too.

Then he looked at the fact that, historically, in the US and in many places of the world, the old norm was that you were born, you grew up, your parents died relatively early, and whatever they had accumulated became your starter kit in a sense. Effectively, mom and dad die, then you sell their house, take that money, buy your house, and then you’re in a decent position by your 40s or so. That’s how it used to work for many people. When Social Security came online in the US in the 30s, the average life expectancy of a male was 66. So, that meant that many people had a big liquidity event – their parents’ deaths and the liquidation of even moderate estates: maybe a house and a couple hundred or thousand bucks. That was what fueled the foundation of upper-middle class life. So, David started looking at what happens when mom and dad don’t die as early and what happens when they can't take care of themselves? The big question ends up being: Who pays for all of that? It’s not going to be the government. It's going to be the kids. Now you have parents using up all their limited estate, and they’re going to start draining yours because at the end of the day you as their kid aren’t going to throw mom and dad out into the cold. You will either take them in or put them into a car facility that you're paying for because their money's gone within the first few years. David looked at that and said, that’s a huge disruption in intergenerational transfer of wealth. So, the next question is: What does that mean? What happens when that model breaks?

David started looking at this in the early 70s as a grad student, and the more research he does, the more complicated it becomes and the more obvious it becomes to him that there's going to be a breakdown and that wealth is going to accumulate in one group: older Americans. They’re not going to give it away. So, he begins predicting that aging creates an increase in polarization of incomes. He was doing this research a long time ago and thinking, “We have a problem, Houston. We're starting to barbell society where people move to extremes,” and no one was listening to him. When I met him, I was floored by this guy and his research and asked: “Who pays attention to you?” He said “Nobody, because I'm a public health dweeb in California.” But lo and behold, he was pretty much on the money.

PRISM: Isn't the story here declining productivity gains in the economy?

RM: Again, you have to ask yourself a meta question, which in this case is: What do you get when you have a nation state where the primary occupation is blue collar, industrial production? From that you start to understand that you have this jump in expectations, where people whose fathers wore blue collars get to wear white collars after WWII thanks to the G.I. Bill. Then their kids were expected to have even whiter collars, which is the stairsteps of Greatest Generation, to Baby Boomer, to Gen X. The expectation level goes up and, over time, people forget the value and realities of work. They develop a sense of social entitlement. Your grandfather or great-grandfather, whoever lived through the Great Depression, had no sense of social entitlement. They knew everything could go away. There were no unions protecting them. But now people don’t recognize how bad it could be, so there is a different mindset because the expectations of a safety net are there.


PRISM: Yes, it's similar to China in many ways, right? Many in China recognize that things can go away all at once. Not so much those in the youngest generation, but the older generations remember this.

RM: And you have it in Germany, too. It’s a dying generation, but those people understand how bad things can get. Let’s talk about an average millennial. They look at things and think, I just got hired, but how come I'm not CEO already. There’s no sense of building up to a position, there’s no sense of work being a privilege, instead it is an entitlement for them. Now everyone is thinking: I don't have to earn it; I expect a $150,000 signing bonus and that I'll be making six figures for a year or two, but I’ll get to seven soon, right? I expect I'll have a house in the Hamptons because I'm breathing and that's my birthright. People that were born in the 20s, 30s, and 40s in the US, Europe and Asia didn’t have that same perception.


PRISM: Interesting, but what's the right historical example for the implications that come from where we are at now? It seems like a sort of decadence, almost like the Greeks, but like what do we learn from that?

RM: I am not sure that there’s a clear historical example. We always want to look back for models and cycles, but I am not sure that there is always a model that fits this. You could look to Rome, but I think your average Roman worked a lot. I mean, when we talk about all those things about Rome, we are really talking about the elites in the society and really have very little sense of how the rest lived.


PRISM: The interesting thing is that there seems to be a divergence in ideas because on one hand you have this sense of entitlement, but on the other, you increasingly must look after your parents. People have said for thousands of years that the generation after them are lazy and right and have a sense of entitlement.

RM: I think, going back to your point about what this creates, the interesting thing is that we have a high degree of age polarization and that’s complicating things. I already see a lot of resentment in Gen Z about what their parents’ generation did to things like the climate and the national debt. I think that is interesting.


PRISM: Going back to the idea of trends, I wanted to think about a lot of this stuff that we have talked about and ask what makes the difference between a trend and a cycle, with the latter kind of being something that reverts to the mean. It feels like a lot of this stuff can’t go on forever. If we look at the labor and entitlement ideas that we just talked about, that can’t go on forever. At some level, workers might get some bargaining power for a while, but that can’t just keep increasing forever. You can’t just extrapolate the trend we are seeing now and think out way into the future. At some point, things will shift back, no?

RM: I’m not the biggest fan of “trend analystics.” I don’t believe history is quite as linear as we like to pretend, even if we can force it into patterns in hindsight. But what we are doing is recontextualizing past evernts. In a worlds characterized by massive disruption, that’s not a particularly useful way to determine what is going ot happen. I guess my point and to get back to your initial question is that if you start using analytics and see that people are more urban, want to be more authentic, et cetera, you come to much more robust conclusions and levels of thinking because you start to see that the mass of people moving toward the two poles, that's a lot of people, right? It’s hundreds of millions of people and that cannot go on forever. So you end up with a scenario where you have some joining of forces – whether it's a union, a political party, or a movement – and revolt to take the fruits of everybody else's labor by force because they feel disenfranchised and excluded. So this really cannot go on forever.

It's the China problem: How do I keep the people contained? That's been a problem since they built the Great Wall. There’s a real use there where they have to ask: “I have too many people. How do I manage them and keep them relatively calm so they don't revolt?”


PRISM: Right. So, if this can’t go on forever but can go on for a long time, that doesn’t tell us very much. Do you know what I mean? If it tells us something about next year that’s interesting but thinking about five years from now can be a lot less interesting.

RM: That's what I mean, it ultimately, depends on how long you think a society can survive like that. Like how long do you think American society can survive with people thinking it's okay to violently overrun government buildings and physically threaten members of Congress or hang the vice president? The answer might be longer than we think it is, right? But it’s not 100 years.

In 100 years, this sort of thing is probably long forgotten. I mean, 100 years ago, the Democratic Party had what were effectively Nazis as members. And they were being nominated in the conventions. That’s completely irrelevant today. We can maybe think about 50 years. Can you have an active armed resistance in a country for 50 years? I think that’s too long. So now, what's the real window? Maybe 25 years because these people have guns and they’ve separated themselves far enough from reality and everything reinforces that alternative reality? Do you think American society can stay the way it is where there is a growing, active, armed organized resistance for 15 years? That window gets compressed as you really think about it. You can't have a militia movement in a country that is armed like our movement is, right? At some point, something will happen, and they will get eradicated and stamped out or – hopefully not – they will win.

PRISM: That’s an interesting way to think about it. From there, I guess an interesting question is then: What does it take to change the status quo?

RM: The other thing that's happened or is happening in our world is a big shift in what it means to be productive. So, you might have learned how to code in college, right? Kids are now learning how to code in kindergarten. That mastery of digital technology is increasingly relevant. You probably remember when you got your first computer. Most kids today will not know when they got their first computer because they have just always had one. They don’t know a world without them. In the old world, you could be productive with physical labor. You could have an IQ of 12, but if you could shovel coal you could still make a living right? As automation comes in and credential inflation worsens, there is going to be an erosion of the base of people that can do those jobs. 

The world has changed a lot in the last 50-60 years. You no longer need this mass physical – and increasingly professional – labor pool. In an interesting way, we are all actively contributing to building this world that many of us are excluded from. Then a lot of this becomes a distribution problem, right? There becomes this world where everything is done by a handful of people and machines. In the ideal version of this world, no one has to work because you can distribute all the benefits. That’s the 1940s SciFi idea: everybody sits around while the machines run the universe. The issue for us is then that we don't distribute things equally, which ultimately ruins this vision and only those with the skills and the knowledge benefit.

What does that tell us about the future? I think it leads to increasingly bleak scenarios where revolt violence becomes more common as people reject the realities that emerge because divisions become insurmountable, and a new sense of public value starts to emerge.

The same thing happens when we moved from agrarian to industrial societies. There was a whole rethinking about common values and other ideas. We started to think differently about governance, wealth distribution, income models, and all these other ideas. These changes continue as you move from that world to a world that is digital first. The same thing happened at the start of the twentieth century. Workers weren’t left behind, but they were brought into this mysterious new world, like Upton Sinclair called it The Jungle. Were those workers left behind? Not really. Sure, they had a job, but was it as good a job as it had been? Also, not really. If you look at that case, that didn’t go on forever either.

That was the start of a socialist revolution. The only thing that probably stopped it was World War II. That was immensely transformative and changed so many parts of societies at the time.


PRISM: It feels like one natural point of discussion then becomes what happens with the potential for a dramatic redistribution of wealth or some kind of policy shift in that direction. At least in the US, it kind of feels like that’s what politics is all about at the moment. There is a progressive wing of the Democratic Party that is into redistribution but is way too small of a minority. Then there are moderates, who are thinking “there are issues here, but we don’t have time to deal with that now”, and there are the Republicans who don’t like these ideas of redistribution, but seem to have substituted the ideas around these challenges with the “culture war”.

RM: I think the culture war is more an effect of what is going on right now, not a cause of the politics. When we consider your point, the question becomes: Could we come to some kind of social accommodation or mitigation without a crisis? Historically, the answer is no. We take that idea and from there we say: “From the way things are going, things are going to get to a really dark place before we get to a better place.” If we were smart, we would say “Let's act proactively, address these issues, and figure out ways to stop us from getting to the crisis point, but historically this does not happen.

I think that we need someone who is like a John Maynard Keynes but for our society. Someone who thinks just like he did but recognizes that society goes in cycles too and there are ways that you can go about dealing with it. Like in a sense, an active management of society. That is something that we don’t do. We regulate things but we don’t engineer things to be better. At the end of the day, a lot of what we are facing are not really economic problems, they are societal problems. They have to deal with the fundamental notions of the ways that we live together in our changing world. That's the issue. It isn't economics. Economics becomes how we pay for the ideas that we have, but the real issue is how do we define how we are going to live together going forward. Coming up with that model is how we get there.


PRISM: That idea of managing society like economic cycles is interesting. I don’t really think we have the tools to make that happen, at least not in the same ways that we have created tools to manage fiscal and monetary policy, and I wonder how we would measure such things?

RM: I don't know, but it is an interesting question, isn't it? It’s a US problem now, but in the future it could be an Indian problem, or it could be a Peruvian problem. As more and more nation states modernize and really jump into the information age, more countries will experience these problems. Having a way of dealing with these issues has sreal value.

One other thing that has changed is the ability of countries to address global issues. Everything now requires so much coordination, especially the really existential threats to the world, like climate change. It doesn’t really help India to have the US say, “Shut down your coal plants.” And China and the US could lead on climate, but if everyone else is not doing what needs to be done, then what they’re doing isn’t really going to work that well. This is a lot different than how it used to be. It used to be the case that individual actors could address global challenges. I mean, the US basically ended the threat of fascism after WWII. One could also argue that the US ended the idea of global wars with the dropping of the atomic bomb. The bomb was dropped and people said “We don’t want that to happen again.”

The US can’t do that with the environment or with technology. We just demonstrated that we can’t do it with global healthcare. Addressing the pandemic was a fairly simple example at the global level, and we failed there.

PRISM: I think that is right. But one thing that I would flag or at least have questions about is our ability to address challenges that we face. From what you’ve said it seems like you’re fairly pessimistic about our ability to get anything done in the future. But from how I look at it, a lot of facing challenges is about incremental changes that once added up help us avert disasters. It seemed pretty far-fetched twenty years ago that we might be able to produce energy with renewables, but now we have had this nearly exponential growth in how efficient solar energy production has become. The same thing is true with the COVID-19 vaccine. That was built on 20 years of SARS research. When we went to make a vaccine, we didn’t start from ground zero. So, in my mind we can avert disaster without the type of WWII scenario in the middle that you mentioned, no?

RM: Yes, but our problem is that we don't have creative ways of looking at things. This requires looking at things from different angles of expertise that may not be the obvious ones. And that gets hard when you don’t have all the pieces. Pattern recognition gets hard the fewer pieces you have. You can't look at one piece and see a pattern. Sometimes, that’s the approach that we take. We take one piece of the jigsaw puzzle, set it down and “That's the whole puzzle. Right?” Too often we have economists who just look at the economy, right? Technologists who just look at the technology, information people who just look at data usage and analytics, right? That's the problem with not seeing the whole world. And this seems to be happening more and more. The smartest people are getting more and more specialized. There used to be people who were educated under the liberal arts model where they got a little knowledge about everything. John Henry Cardinal Newman used to say an educated man will not embarrass himself at a cocktail party, no matter what is being discussed. But that's the liberal arts model. And I think that way of thinking is important for understanding problems.


PRISM: That’s great. I think we have covered a lot here. Thank you for taking the time to speak with us. Are there any last comments that you want to add?

RM: I think there's another insight about the future. I’ve always said that futuring is not about knowing what is going to happen; it’s about being prepared mentally for whatever does happen. There’s a big difference. The goal of futuring shoulf be to figure out what could lie ahead so that you can prepare for how to think about it.

If I am a corporation that, say, sells cotton cloth, I can't know what's going to happen to my business because it hasn't happened yet. Thinking linearly and projecting out starts to fail. What I really need to do is to know what could happen. Then I can prepare for it. With that approach, I’ve thought about all the plausible possibilities, I haven’t prejudged them, so I’m not putting my eggs in just one basket. I am not trying to guess what the supermarkets in China will look like in 2060, because, who knows? But if I think about it and say, it’s not so important to know what they look like but instead to be prepared for whatever they look like, that sets me up for a lot more scenarios that I can plan for and adapt to in the future. Whatever then does happen, ultimately, is not going to be a big shock to me.

This is kind of what's wrong with scenario planning. You create four scenarios. You take the one that nobody can disagree with, and you say that’s the future. It never is right. You can’t get this stuff done and done right with a one and done experiment.