Misreading the Patterns

TOCSAcademically trained futurists, and particularly those who received their education in the US, are taught to keep theories of change and stability (TOCS) central in their futures research and foresight work. TOCS are theories about how and why things in life, such as economies or industries, change or why they tend to stay the same. Each of us uses variations of these every day, although they might be simple mental models or heuristics built from long experience (e.g. whenever there’s hysterical giggling coming from little kids in the next room, screaming, crying, and acrimony will shortly follow).

Now, in foresight work there is a need both to apply TOCS to anticipating change, but there is also a need to consider the chance that the model doesn’t apply to the situation we are examining. Most of these models are built on some sort of pattern; we have observed what looks like a strong cause-and-effect relationship in history and we assume (theorize) that the patterns it creates will repeat in the future. But we have to remain wary that perhaps the historical pattern is now broken, or that we were misreading history all along.

A possible example of this, which occurred to me this morning while reading a post about China as a “predator state,” relates to a widely-discussed TOCS in international relations, that of “power transition.” Basically, it states that history shows us that in international relations there can only ever be one dominant, hegemonic power, and that periodically a new power will begin to rise and trigger a conflict with the old dominant power. You can probably see the set up here, with the US as the “old” dominant power and China as the “rising” power.

The imagery that this particular theory generates is compelling either way you look at it: for the dominant power, the image of them being unseated by a new challenger inspires quite a lot of anxiety and defensiveness. For whomever is identified as the rising power, the image of them taking the throne and dominating the landscape is equally compelling. And these images of the future of course have a huge impact on perception and decision making.

But what if – and this is just early morning speculation – we’ve misread the pattern? What if scholars and historians have been fixated on wars and the notion that “there can be only one” dominant power? What if the important dynamic in history is simply that states grow and shrink in their power and cohesion? What if the important point is simply that as states (and humans) perceive themselves to be more powerful, they get more assertive and aggressive. Hence something like China becoming a “predator” state now as they grow. What if the “pattern” of the international system having a single dominant hegemon always cycling through the rise of new powers and wars was simply what happened those times in history and not what always has to happen?

I’m not in a position to truly answer those questions, but this type of questioning is an example of what good futures thinking assists individuals and groups in doing. Good futures thinking is critical thinking, and good critical thinking is about recognizing – and questioning – our own assumptions. We all use patterns in some way or another to help us navigate the day, make decisions, and plan for the future. If we can do that while being critical about the patterns we are relying on, then we set ourselves up for much more rigorous thinking about the future.

China’s Rise as a Predator State.”


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