As I've mentioned a couple times, over the last couple years I've lost about fifty pounds, and am in the best physical condition of my entire life. For someone who grew up as a fat kid and fluctuated between being kind of overweight and really needing to take some serious weight off, and who had a stereotypical academic's contempt for all things seriously athletic, this is no small feat.
Of course, for me it was both a physical endeavor, and an extremely cerebral one: in order to get past the various things that had kept me from losing weight in the past, it was necessary for me to read a lot about nutrition and dieting, dive into the literature on obseity and satiety, and think about how what I'd learned from behavioral economics could be applied to weight loss.
At a certain point, I realized that the challenge of losing weight was a classic futures problem: complex, uncertain, requiring all kinds of near-term tradeoffs for long-term benefits, and hard to sustain. So could what I learned as a futurist help me lose weight? And could the experience of losing weight teach me anything about dealing with futures-related problems?
I think the answer to both is yes, and I've laid out my answers in an article that I just sent into one of those frighteningly efficient online editorial systems. We'll see if the piece is accepted– it may be too first person to qualify as serious research– but in the meantime I've put a copy of the draft online, and it's available as a PDF. The introduction is in the extended post.
Naturally, comments are welcome.
Introduction, Using Futures 2.0 to Manage Intractable Futures
Since its emergence several decades ago, the discipline of futures has concerned itself with describing the forces shaping the future, while also revealing the future's contingency and open-endedness. We futurists have devoted less energy to studying how futures are actually made: how people act on ideas about the future in the present—or just as interesting, why people or organizations fail to act on them. There are several reasons for this. Few of us have opportunities to follow our ideas into client organizations and see how they’re used. We want to avoid the appearance of advocating for particular futures, and thus compromising our objectivity. Finally, we have assumed that people are rational actors, who when presented with a variety of future choices can be counted on to make a self-interested decision. This is a default assumption among financial planners, policymakers, and others who advise on long-term strategic issues, and it reflects and complements the self-perception of our clients, who usually see themselves this way.
In this world-view, implementation isn’t unimportant; it’s just not very interesting. But research in behavioral economics and neuroeconomics has shown that clear-eyed, calculating rationality is in short supply outside economics textbooks and treatises on Realpolitik. What this literature teaches us is that there are deep, interesting reasons why people fail to act in their own long-term self-interest. For futurists, this work presents both a challenge and an opportunity. The challenge is to understand how a behavioral economics understanding of decision-making should inform futures research; this is the subject I took up in a previous article. The opportunity is to expand the domain of futures out of research and facilitation, and to help clients design tools that help them act in the present with the future in mind.
That opportunity is the subject of this article. It focuses on applying behavioral economics and tools to personal futures, a subject that has attracted several writers. In the futures community, Jessica Charlesworth has explored the future of self-knowledge and personal futures. Jarno Koponen has described the architecture of a "personal future simulation system." Verne Wheelwright has advocated applying scenario planning and other traditional forecasting techniques to individuals. There is also work on personal futures outside the futures world. Alexandra Carmichael, Kevin Kelly, and Gary Wolf and others have advocated self-monitoring as a tool for improving personal health. Disabilities advocates use a collaborative process of "personal futures planning" to "develop strategies for success for a person with disabilities… [and] take action to accomplish positive changes for the person."
For the sake of clarity, I will explore the opportunity through a case study involving a simple personal futures-oriented challenge. The case is an example of an intractable future: it is difficult but not impossible to realize, it requires persistent effort for an extended period, and it can be subverted by biases, instincts, and our willingness to let rationalization trump rationality. The case reveals how we can design tools to counter them, and what intellectual instruments we can use when doing so. This intractable future also has the virtue of being exceptionally easy to describe and familiar to many readers.
My case is weight loss. I have lost about 50 pounds (22.7 kilograms) over the last two years; taken up running, cycling and weightlifting; and today am in the best physical shape of my life. For a profession accustomed to thinking about big issues and megatrends like nanotechnology, global warming, and Peak Oil, losing weight may seem trivial and beneath its interest. But it shouldn't be, for two reasons. First, by any objective measure, in much of the developed world obesity is a substantial public health problem: it affects the lives of tens of millions of people, increases chronic diseases like hypertension and diabetes, and costs governments hundreds of billions of dollars. Second, despite the inevitable specificities of personal experience, weight loss illustrates at a human scale the kinds of complex, interconnected problems that characterize life in the 21st century, and for which we are poorly-adapted to deal.