November 9, 2016


Fresh thinking on the future – and the past

Why would a physicist say that games are the most elevated form of investigation? When that physicist is Albert Einstein, who confided to colleagues that he might have been addicted to the game, then one would be wise to pay attention.

Chess exhibits traits that are unusual in a game; resource management, spatial and social relationships as well as anticipation of the opponent’s moves. By ‘investigating’ the game, players respond to strategies, learning and improving as they go.

And as delegates to the Danish Maritime Forum learned, there are more potential chess moves than there are atoms in the universe.

As outlined in the previous blog, the intention of the DMF is to draw together industry leaders and encourage them to think differently about the challenges facing the industry. After discussions that ranged from anthropology to automation it seemed logical for Jane McGonigal, Director of Game Research and Development at the Institute for the Future to suggest new ways of thinking about both past and the future.

In her work, McGonigal encourages the use of game play to find responses to scenarios and encourage creative thinking about not just the future but the past as well.

When visualised as a network of hubs and outliers, games display a type of collective intelligence that suggest they can be about more than just having fun. They might even be able to help predict future behaviour.

“The main problem with predicting the future is that it is practically impossible and also not that helpful because you are stuck with what is most likely future and you have to wait for it to happen,” she explains.

If the future you predict is not the one you want then the process is not very helpful – so instead she advocates a method of ‘making’ the future in which you can to some extent decide which one to create.

In a recent experiment called ‘World Without Oil’ the forum designed a collaborative simulation that first ran in 2007 and imagined plausible future scenarios in which the players would adapt to a world of ‘peak oil’, high prices and tight availability.

“The idea was to develop a sense of their responses that examined the future from angles not considered by experts. Very shortly after we first ran the game, prices rose globally and the response was that people began to adopting the strategies played out in the game because they had developed tools that allowed them to be more responsive and flexible.”

The lesson seems to be when developing strategy, don’t just think about a solution, but a series of ‘what-ifs’ – how you might respond by playing out ideas and getting a long view. But McGonigal was not finished there. It might be of limited use to try and predict the future but that does not mean it’s not possible to get better at thinking about it.

Thanks to the neuro science labs at nearby Stanford University, the Institute for the Future has been able map the brain and see it ‘warm up’ in different regions when subjects imagine events that have not yet happened.

“This could be called predicting the past and remembering the future. It is possible to generate a counter-factual memory by thinking about the past but instead of doing X you do Y and consider how the past would have been different if you’d done that.”

As a side note, this process has been found to be an effective treatment for depression because subjects feel more empowered if they believe their decisions have meaning. It can also provide a boost to creativity because the brain is ‘reaching’ for a reality that never happened.

In a similar way, a counter-factual future can be constructed using a combination of known actions, familiar people and visited places and imagining them together in a new way.

If by now you are wondering what this has to do with shipping, the answer is everything and nothing. The DMF is designed to be the ultimate thought leadership event and after McGonigal’s keynote they would spend the next few hours developing outcomes to shipping’s challenges.

Later in the day a show of hands would reveal that the majority have spent their lives in shipping. New approaches to problem solving are clearly called for.

Still, the cognitive leap is considerable – just what the industry needs in fact. “Even imagining a future that never happened it’s not that absurd that the brain has a memory and evidence of it,” she suggested.

And without considering the alternatives, we are inevitably condemned to our present interpretation of past and future. Another of Einstein’s bon mots is that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Even a dispassionate observer would contend that many in the shipping industry do that year after year.

Much harder is to have the empathy we need to understand the impact of our actions on others. It’s easy enough when looking at a picture of cute kids, more difficult when it’s a boat load of migrants.

Nonetheless, hard empathy is an intuitive, visceral reaction and is linked to taking future action and also encourages creativity.

“To create something new or make a change you have to be able to imagine how things could be different and that means in the past too,” she concluded. “By treating the future like a game space we can think about possible futures.”


Image credit – Danish Maritime Days/Ty Strange

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