James Dator is dubbed as one of the inventors of futures studies, but what he has tried to do for the past 40 years is to persuade people that the future cannot be predicted.
Instead he found that all images of the future can be clustered into four categories, which he calls continued growth, collapse, disciplined society, and transformation.
In an interview with The Korea Herald, the futurologist warned against the dangers of sticking to the dominant image of continued growth, a view based on the idea that “whatever exists now will change but the same fundamental processes will still be operating in the ways they do today.”
He called on Korea to broaden its perspective and prepare for alternative futures ― the collapse scenario in which society as it stands at present disintegrates; a disciplined society in which a country is able to prevent a collapse but not achieve growth; and a transformation, in which a society takes on an entirely new form.
Dator said the aim of his model was not to predict the future but to analyze the factors to assess each scenario.
He said the most important thing in looking at the future was to have “a solid theory of social change and continuity; deep understanding of the distant and recent past and present; and honest adherence to the alternative futures perspective.”
While Korea has come a long way in the field of futures studies, its policies are still focused too much on continued growth despite the equal likelihood of all four possibilities, he said. Following are excerpts from the interview.
Korea Herald: Which of the four possible future scenarios do you think is most likely for South Korea?
James Dator: A fundamental point of the alternative futures perspective is to make it absolutely clear that no one can “predict” what “the most likely future” is any more. We have to grow up and discard that old childish idea. We need to prepare equally for all four futures. And Korea is not doing that. It is still trying to keep the old continued growth future alive, and that is very, very dangerous, given the plausibility of the other three futures.
KH: Is one scenario necessarily better or worse than another? Or does each possibility represent different opportunities?
JD: Whether a future is experienced as better or worse largely depends on how it occurred and whether people were prepared for it or not. While many people in Eastern Europe wanted the end of communism, they were not prepared for its sudden, peaceful collapse, and so were totally unprepared to create a better future when they had the opportunity. Other, outside corporate forces came in and replaced communism, leaving many of the people in Eastern Europe worse off now than they were before.
So South Korea needs to be prepared for all futures, and make the best of them because of their preparation.
KH: How would you rate South Korea’s preparations for the future? Is the country doing enough, and do you think Korea is operating with the future sufficiently in mind?
JD: South Korea is to be admired and congratulated for paying as much attention to the future as it does. It is a world leader in futures studies now. But, as I say, it is still far, far too attached to just the one future of continued growth.
KH: What do you forecast for North Korea, and how should South Korea and its allies and neighbors prepare for that outcome?
JD: I believe a long range future for the peninsula can be slow, peaceful integration. To achieve that, South Korea needs to continue to show patience and maturity, and not do anything rash even though North Korea continues to act irrationally and immaturely. Time is on the side of peaceful integration, I believe.
Of course, both North and South are highly vulnerable now, and either or both might collapse, so South Koreans may need to learn from North Koreans how to live with far less energy, food, and material goods than they have now.
KH: If a country is to avoid a certain scenario, what kind of timeframe is required to make the necessary changes? And once an outcome is established, can it be undone?
JD: Sometimes change is very slow and gradual. Other times it is sudden and unexpected. The collapse of communism in Europe in 1989 was sudden, unexpected, and complete. So may be the ultra-nationalism of Russia recently. As was the Great Recession that began in 2008 and still continues in reality if not in economic theory. The world “before” and “after” these sudden events was quite different.
That is another reason why taking an alternative futures perspective is so important ― none of these events was surprising to anyone who used an alternative futures perspective to prepare for the future!
But nothing is forever. Everything is continually in flux, so the effect of Putin’s recent policies will not bring back old communism, but it might bring back a new kind of cold war, at least in the minds of many American policymakers.
By Choi He-suk (firstname.lastname@example.org
James Dator graduated from Stetson University with a degree in Ancient and Medieval History and Philosophy, and went onto earn his master’s degree in political science from the University of Pennsylvania, and a doctorate in political science from the American University.
He currently serves as a professor and director of the Hawaii Research Center for Futures Studies of the University of Hawaii at Manoa. He also teaches as KAIST’s Graduate School of Future Strategy.
Dator’s major areas of specialization include political futures studies, especially the fore