The future is uncertain, mostly because it hasn’t happened yet

Most policies and strategies are based implicitly on the principles that:

  • we understand what is going on now and the relevant factors which allow us to explain why it is so
  • we understand the way the new policy strategy, or other intervention will interact with those factors, and therefore understand consequences of its implementation.

Put that way, the approach is self-evidently a  little odd.  Sociology, unlike physics, permits of description but rarely, if ever, of prediction.  That is not, as is often supposed, because it is a woollier subject, but because it is intrinsically a more difficult one.  But that doesn’t stop policies and strategies from being developed, applied – and not having the expected effects.

John Kay applies a similar thought to the development of energy policy in his weekly FT column:

We should eschew forecasts, acknowledge unresolvable uncertainty and plan accordingly. The right energy policy is one of diversification – developing as many uncorrelated options as possible.

Uncertainty in energy policy is arguably greater and over much longer periods than the relatively trivial questions around government service delivery.  But the basic principle is just as relevant.  In designing our future, is there a way of developing uncorrelated options – essentially allowing us to back several horses at once?  Doing so is not cost free:  if we want several lottery tickets, we will have to pay for them, even if the price (and sometimes the currency) is not at all clear.  So the further challenge is in assessing the optimal number of tickets to buy:  too few and we may not adequatly diversify our risk; too many and our change capacity will be spread too thinly.