How can Big History help us think about the future?
When thinking about how long humans, Homo sapiens, have existed, you can use this proxy: if you consider the universe’s total age — from the Big Bang until today — is represented by the length of your forearm, human existence takes up just the tip of your fingernail.
“So what?” you might ask. It might seem either overwhelming or irrelevant. But, if we want to think about the future, we have to understand the trajectories and patterns in our past.
We futurists constantly ask ourselves, are there cycles, processes or repetitive patterns that can help inform where we might be going? How have past technological disruptions changed economies and communities, giving us insights about what might change in the next one? How can they help to inform new innovations or approaches?
One rule of thumb when thinking about the future is: if we want to systematically consider what might happen going forward, we have to look at the patterns going at least twice as far back in time. This means if we want to design for 2070, and think about technologies, new industries, community needs or jobs that might emerge over 50 years; we have to consider the rates and processes of change going back 100 years to 1920.
Is socio-technological change accelerating (the answer is yes, we must adapt and respond faster and faster), and if it is, how different might life in 50 years look like compared with today?
Humans have reached an age where the impact of our activities is changing the very planet on which we live, on a scale we find quite difficult to comprehend. A study published in Nature found that in 2020, human-made materials weighed more than all life on Earth combined. While another in the Scientific American stated that human activities, the droughts, melting ice and rising seas linked to anthropogenic climate change, are changing the axis on which the earth rotates as it orbits the sun.
Although rather short-lived organisms, humans are having an outsized influence on our planet and we need to start thinking and anticipating on a scale that takes such an impact into account. However, this will require a deliberate change in how we think about the future.
In the same way that Big Data finds patterns in the trails of our digital footprints, history reveals patterns in the human existence. Finding common patterns from the first start of the universe until the present day might provide us with the tools and processes to understand our future on a planetary scale. Speaking metaphorically, we have to take into account the whole arm, not merely the tip of the fingernail. We have to consider ‘Big History’.
Looking for universal patterns
Big History is a multidisciplinary study that seeks to put the human story into the context of a 13.8-billion-year story from the Big Bang to now. It identifies nine different thresholds that describe inflection points and when new epochs of complexity, evolution and innovation emerged.
It grapples with trends from across the whole of existence using many lenses, including astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology, anthropology, politics and economics, to find the patterns that recur on our planet. What allows longevity? What describes resilience? What are the common patterns that cross epochs and can transcend even geological timelines? Do they repeat themselves in different types of systems, human, ecological or astronomical?
Are there principles in the previous period or epoch that defined and set the constraints for the current one? What are the Goldilocks conditions that mean something disruptive might emerge?
These are not small questions, with simple answers. But in asking these questions and taking a multidisciplinary approach, we can find new perspectives and possibilities. It provides us with a different set of lenses to identify how the future could be different and, as a result, how we might need to respond. It helps us understand how the world is interconnected and what we might need to do differently to respond to challenges.
One such pattern observed throughout time since the Big Bang is that of increasing complexity. Looking at this pattern provides us with a different perspective on our future. If increasing complexity is a universal condition, what can we expect in 50 years from an even more complex economy, supply chain or industry? What does that mean about how we make decisions? How can we design with that complexity in mind and respond to it, instead of getting stuck attempting to simplify how we understand our world?
Another way in which this multidisciplinary approach can help is in understanding what in the past can help us with designing for the future. Big History lets us move beyond a dichotomy of sciences versus the humanities and recognises how both are needed to understand our world and our communities. We set these disciplines up in opposition to each other, when in fact they might have more in common than we realise.
A recent study by the University of South Australia found that the process of creativity in STEM is similar to the process in the arts. Lead author and professor David Cropley said, “As it turns out, creativity is general in nature — it is essentially a multifaceted competency that involves similar attitudes, disposition, skills and knowledge, all transferable from one situation to another.”
Perhaps there are more similarities and universal patterns in life than we realise.
Building for the future
Big History gives us insight into what we should build now, for a future that is not yet here. This is obviously of great interest to organisations and governments who constantly face challenges and opportunities over growing populations, their move to the cities, their increasing inequality and their increasing consumption.
The engineers and designers engaged to build the new cities have to plan for housing, water, waste, energy, transportation and food. And they have to do this against a backdrop of what natural resources will either support or threaten the planned urbanised population in 30, 50 and 100 years’ time. Juggling immediate human needs against the longer time frames of natural resources gives us a chance to enhance humanity, but sustainably.
Big History doesn’t resolve all our problems, although it does provide a powerful framework for understanding them. It is characterised by several features: perhaps the most important is system thinking. Big History takes its subject — the Cosmos, Earth and Life — as a system in which humans operate, allowing short-term human decisions to be judged against long-term natural implications.
It is not merely trying to understand humans, it’s trying to understand life as a whole. And when we can understand and identify these frameworks and universal patterns, we can anticipate what comes next; not only what the next generation will need, but also the ones that will come after.
Up until now, through the first, second and third industrial revolutions, it has been possible to separate humans and our activities from the natural world we inhabit. It was a successful strategy for the development of our modern civilisations, until it wasn’t.
As we move deeper into the 21st century, we must address the challenges we created in those previous industrial revolutions, responding to how to decarbonise our economies, address the impacts of climate change and yet continue to allow people across the globe to improve their living conditions and prosperity.
Big History attempts to bring new perspectives and different mindsets, and identify new approaches to think about the future over the long-term, while putting all of human history, universal history and the collective knowledge of humans to use.
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