Altering the Expected Trajectory of History

While running a client workshop this past Friday introducing a combination of futures methods and strategic thinking approaches, one of the participants came forward to chat during one of the exercises and ended up asking if I had been following the events in Paris (which I hadn’t, having my head in my presentation and workshop prep).  Coincidentally, one of the concepts we were working with in the workshop was “images of the future” which is a core element in academically grounded futures research.  In the workshop we had been talking about how trends and emerging issues drive not just material change but also provoke in people different images of the futures and thus different reactions to the idea of change.

Reflecting a little on the attacks in Paris, it struck me that amidst all of the “what does this mean for Europe” discussions generated by media and on social media, there is a very real question as to whether or not this most recent event is part of a collection of trends and events that could represent an altered historical trajectory.  Specifically, might we be living through one of those historic periods in which the most expected future – typically glimpsed through the most dominant image of the future – is being displaced?

When it comes to discussions about the future of the global political order or the future security environment one of the most dominant images of the future is conveyed in the “transition” narrative of a rising China slowly but surely muscling a declining US out of the top “power” spot in global affairs.  With all of the stories of China’s leadership meeting with the likes of corporate and philanthropic actors like Gates and Zuckerberg and with all of the political power plays through the Asian Infrastructure Development Bank and the TPP, it is difficult to avoid the barrage of imagery and narrative inherent in the China rising/US falling image of the future.

While the Paris events would seem to have little to do with this dominant image of the future, we have in the recent past experienced events that have significantly altered the expected trajectory of world history (9/11 and the financial crisis are the first two that jump to mind).  The establishment of ISIS as an actor on a regional and increasingly global stage, the unending Syrian story and the massive diaspora across Europe, the ongoing terror attacks in Europe, Russia’s evolving activities and objectives under Putin, and the continuing ratcheting up of tensions in Asia present us with just some of the most newsworthy tensions and conflict events evolving today.  With all of this occurring now, is it possible that this complex system of systems will not change in the ways most people have been expecting for the past decade, namely that the most important dynamics of change to define the world (and regional) orders will not be a classic power transition theory that sits at the heart of the dominant image of the future?  And if not, then what alternative images of the future should we be considering?  Which of the many dynamics today might provide insight into how the world will change over the next decade or two?


What Paris’s night of horror means for Europe.The Economist.

Paris Attacks Suggest Shift by ISIS.” Wall Street Journal.

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