Tuesday, 11 September 2007

Flying Cars (Again)

The BBC recently carried a story that caught my attention (see story). It was about Dr Paul Moller, a Californian inventor, who claims to have a prototype flying car that will enter production in 2010. This captured my attention because I am cursed, like most futurists, by the vision of the flying car. The flying car is often touted as an example of ‘bad’ futures gone wrong. A predicted future event that didn’t happen. It would be ironic if Dr Moller was right, in which case the predictions would simply seem ahead of their time.

There are, however, grounds to suspect that we might not see Flying Cars by 2010. A Google search quickly unearthed the case against Flying Cars. An article on the Downside Web Site (see article) calls into question the veracity of the Flying Car story. Even if the Downside story is right, and we do not see Flying Cars by 2010, it would be interesting to consider what might happen if it were to be true. It would be interesting to think about a truly disruptive technology in the field of transportation.

I had hoped that this opportunity had come my way. I recently attended a half day conference on the future of transportation in Suffolk (see meeting notes). I was keen to get to grips with concepts such as the impact of Peak Oil on commuting by car, the possible impacts of disruptive technologies, and how work patterns might be reorganised in an effort to reduce carbon footprints. In doing so, I had made a key mistake.

My fellows at the conference were not futurists. They were professionals in other areas of endeavour who have an interest in the future. The conference served to remind me of two factors. First, unless we encourage people to think differently, they will continue to think in straight lines. Many at the conference thought in terms of a linear link between the past, present, and future. In which case, the key to understanding the future is to understand the past and present. The possibility that the future might be different from the past was a concept that didn’t readily settle with most participants.

Second, whilst most of the conference goers were experts in their areas, very few had managed to join the connections between the various disciplines. One of the key attributes of many futurists is their ability to piece together a connection across disciplines. We look for weak signals in a variety of areas to provide evidence for, or against, a given hypothesis about the future. Sometimes, I forget that not everyone does this, which closes the circle nicely.

When my fellow futurists rail against the Flying Cars, perhaps we ought to have a bit more patience and forbearance with others. Not all have embarked upon the journey into the future, and, if they have, they might not have travelled as far as us. After all, the future is a frightening place where anything can happen.

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