It’s a funny old world.

On Monday this week, I had to travel to meet a client – I know, life is full of surprises. I’d spent the previous evening trying to decide whether to use the car or the train. The travel distance was just over 100 miles. In theory, the train should take 3 hours door to door and the car should take 2 1/4 hours door to door. The train route is notorious for delays and cancellations (it’s got Birmingham in the way) and the car route is also notorious for long delays (it’s got everyone avoiding Birmingham on it). In the end, the car won. Sure enough, no sooner had I set out than along comes a traffic alert on the radio – a car fire on the M1 (that’d be my road) was causing major tailbacks.

Hmpffing and sighing away as I beavered along towards the beloved M1, I flicked on Radio 4 to check if there was anything worth listening too…. and there was! And now we’ll get to the point of this blog post 🙂

Dr James Martin was a guest on the show. I’ve been a big fan since I heard him present at Microsoft a few years ago. One of the topics of discussion was the debate about climate change, in particular carbon emissions. The focus fell on the challenges presented by growing nations with their growing demand for cars, in particular China.

The natural conclusion to draw is that China experiencing exponential demand for cars would be an exceptionally bad thing for the climate, with visions of exhaust fumes enveloping the planet. And then Dr Martin dropped in an alternative viewpoint:

“…suppose that the president of China said that everybody should be able to have the good things in life, just like America, and everybody who wants a car should have one, but it cannot be a petroleum car. Now that would have an enormous effect on the world.”

Wow! Just imagine it. If China banned all petroleum cars whilst still encouraging car ownership, how long would it take car manufacturers in the world to start massive investment in research and development to design cars that do not emit carbon? Like it or not, the potential to make money, and lots of it, has a habit of incentivising commercial organisations to act far quicker than when forced by government policy and regulation to do something (unless that something has a whiff of 5+ years in prison about it – anybody need more sox?). Imagine what this outcome would do for China politically? To take the lead in managing to grow economically whilst sustaining the environment…

I don’t doubt that I’m over simplifying the situation and people will point out all sorts of problems and reasons why it could never happen. But alternatve view points can provide a new perspective and highlight that nobody knows for certain how the future will play out. (Cue tie-in for what this post has in common with information systems, in particular business intelligence and why using foresight to make decisions is so hard no matter how compelling the evidence.)

Historically, we have been notoriously bad at predicting our demise (fortunately!) I still remember reports issued during my school years. First it was that we would starve due to population growth outstripping food supplies. Then we would freeze to death because we were entering an ice age. Then it was that we would fight over, and run out of, oil before the end of the 20th Century (well they got half of that prediction right), but only if we made it through the inevitable nuclear winter that would likely happen by the end of the 1980s. And when the Cold War failed to ignite and a wall fell down instead, well then it was that we were going to fry due to global warming. And if climate change doesn’t get us, well no worries ‘cos the world is ending on 21st December 2012. (Well, ending for humans at least. I’m not sure there is any suggestion that the planet itself will cease to exist)

The debate between predicting the future and learning from history cropped up throughout the recent technology management conference I attended at Cambridge University. Scenarios can provide a valuable tool to highlight the possible effects different routes could lead to and avoid focusing on only one possible outcome. But learning from history remains a crucial art that should not be forgotten. As the old quote goes – “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” (George Santayana)

If you are interested in the full broadcast, the Radio 4 show is currently available for download – Start the week


Final note: joy of joys, I’m back off to see the client again on Friday. Now Friday and M1 are two words that should never share a sentence (same goes for Friday and M6, Friday and M25, in fact Friday and any blinkin’ road in the UK), so I’ll be risking the train this time.

[Update:] And would you believe it, the trains all ran on time. Not only the trains I travelled on, but every single train on the display at the various stations was listed as running on time… Thank goodness the weather continues to be miserable – I would think I accidentally got on the Eurostar and left the country if there wasn’t something to moan about 😉

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