Robert Louis Stevenson once wrote, “Everybody, soon or late, sits down to a banquet of consequences.” A few months ago, I had a burst of interest in unintended consequences: where the idea comes from, why it’s popular now, and what its popularity means for the way we think about the future.

Following Stevenson, I’ve taken a first crack at preparing a dish that answers these questions. It’s an essay that will be published (in a streamlined, edited, and doubtless much improved version) in a new Malaysian futures magazine. In the meantime, I’m making a PDF available. Here’s the introduction:

How much of the future can we understand, and how responsible are we for anticipating the potential consequences of our actions? Futurists have traditionally answered these questions by debating the value of different kinds of futures methods and tools to strategic planning, policymaking, and other forward-looking activities. But popular expectations and the attitudes of our clients are just as important in shaping our work and the opportunities our work has to affect the world. Futures is defined, evaluated and used within a framework of understanding and expectations that we negotiate with our clients. This framework, in turn, is influenced by an environment of cultural and social norms that define how we think about the future; what we believe can and cannot be said about the future; what kinds of future events people are able to anticipate; and how accountable leaders should be for anticipating disasters and creating good futures. If something in this environment changes, it is worth assessing how it affects our work.

In a previous essay, I discussed how futurists could use recent insights from behavioral economics, neuroeconomics, and tools from social media to develop new ways of researching and communicating our work. Here, I want to map recent changes in our larger environment. To do this, I will look at an important “keyword” of the future: the concept of unintended consequences.

Unintended consequences seem to plague our best efforts to plan these days. Financial writer Shishir Nigam declared in mid-2010 that “one of the biggest themes in this current investment environment and in the next few years will be the dominance of unintended consequences – an environment where the unintended consequences of actions will speak much louder than the intended actions themselves.” The concept of unintended consequences has been around for a long time, but still Nigam’s claim that we live in an era of unintended consequences is striking. The term seems to have made its first appearance in English in the 1820s, but over the last twenty years its popularity has exploded:

Use of the term “unintended consequences” in English-language newspapers and magazines, 1990-2010 (source: Lexis-Nexis).

Well, it goes on from there, but I won’t spoil the ending.