Uncharted: How to Navigate the Future

Author – Margaret Heffernan

This period, and this season, Nigeria is in Uncharted territory, so it is fitting to read a book with that title. What Heffernan has done in this book is quite interesting. Economists, and certainly me, look out for patterns because it helps us to increase the power of predictability and reduce uncertainty. Oh yes, historically, all the knowledge we often seek is to help us navigate the future better despite its uncertainties. But Heffernan showed with stories after stories that no matter the established pattern of things, random things still happen. Those that are conscious of that navigate the future better.

She said, “the future isn’t perfectly knowable and never has been”.  As much as greater levels of information like we have never seen before has made us able to plan, and make well informed estimates, “the advent of globalization, coupled with pervasive communications, has made much of life complex: nonlinear and fluid, where very small effects may produce disproportional impacts”.

The story quite interesting is that of Irving Fisher, Roger Babson, and Warren Persons, all economists during the 1929 US economic crisis, all contacted tuberculosis, one of the most dangerous diseases at the time in the US and built their reputation on the ability to forecast the dynamics of the markets. However, “only Babson, the least scientific of the three men came out with his reputation enhanced” after the crisis. There are more recent examples in the book – the Donald Trump election and Brexit in 2016.

What these stories, experiences, and everyday lives mean, as Heffernan consistently demonstrated, is that we live in a world “where there is a lot of irreducible uncertainty”. In response to a life of so many uncertainties, Heffernan recommends that we see it as probabilities, constantly acknowledging that we can’t know all that the future holds, and with constant experiments to prepare for it. 

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