Interview with Peter Schwartz

‘Inevitable Surprises: A Survival Guide for the 21st Century’ Free Press (Simon & Schuster), 2003. 320pp

Peter Schwartz interview by Austin Williams | 20 November 2003

I first heard Peter Schwartz speak when he attended the press launch of Steven Spielberg’s ‘Minority Report’ at the National Film Theatre on the South Bank. He joined an impressive panel of speakers who had been assembled to describe, interpret and explain the film; including professor of innovation, James Woudhuysen, Sue Meyer of Genewatch and Brian Eno. Schwartz as one of the world’s most eminent futurologists – or scenario planners – had been advisor to the movie, imagineering urban visions of the future to make Phillip K Dick’s science fiction visually believable. Last month he was back in London to launch his new book, Inevitable Surprises: A Survival Guide for the 21st Century.’

Schwartz is no modern day Nostrodarmus. With a wealth of knowledge, statistics and interpretive data behind him to back up his thoughts, he is a convincing speaker travelling the world to advise governments, businesses and anyone, it seems, who cares to listen. His enthusiasm for encouraging a coherent view of the way things work, is infectious.

His career began at Stanford Research Institute in 1972, working primarily for government departments. One of his early ‘defining negative experiences’ he says came when asked by the White House to outline future synopses. Out of 41 scenarios, he claims that 27 have come to pass, but that no-one in the room believed any of it a the time. This convinced him that even if he had the most accurate planning strategy in the world, without engaging the audience, ‘if you could not change minds’, then no-one would give the ideas a second thought. From this point onwards he was determined to ‘make people see… to make better choices’ He is very keen to emphasise that this does not mean pandering to The Good Lie – bending the truth to engender the right responses (so much an accepted part of morally driven journalism these days). Truth, to Schwartz, is important. ‘Better responses’ not ‘right responses’ are what he is about. It is, however, more difficult to tie him down on what he considers a ‘better’ response, other than that of a classic liberal – with a small ‘l’.

He is convinced that advising government was too much like trying to turn around an oil tanker. He had had some success with Defence and Intelligence departments, where there are ordered chains of command, but the introspective bureaucracies of planning, education and transport departments took his reports and ignored them. Typical of someone with a disgruntled view of politics – or, at least, of internecine party politicking – he decided to opt out into the world of business, where good ideas are more likely to be actioned. His role nowadays is to help major corporations look ahead and work out what to do today ‘based on long-term perceptions and insights.’ Essentially, as he reiterates, his job isn’t about the future, it’s about the present.’

Heading the renowned scenario-planning department at Royal Dutch/Shell Group Planning Department in the early 1980s, he had experienced the oil crisis and the Iranian revolution. Eventually, he went on to found the research body and scenario-planning consultancy, Global Business Network.

The morning after the book launch, we met at One Aldwych, a supremely plush hotel in central London. I had worried about meeting him. After all, people with so many policy ideas very often seem to have a scattergun effect in their train of thought. Speaking at the book launch, for example, Schwartz had covered topics from old age to Ice Age; from the photon entanglement in quantum mechanics to the global encroachment of Al Qaeda. Lots of it I’d read about in science journals, but hadn’t made the logical leaps to situate the new discoveries in futuristic applications. That. I suppose, is his job. A few times, I’d daydreamed that he was a locum, cramming desperately to keep one step ahead of his students. I was pleased therefore, to find that he was, in fact, a normal conversationalist, with more than normal range of interesting things to say about an above average range of topics.

Amongst a million other things, he talks about the role of future planning in urban design and is a staunch believer that we ‘should not see the future as a distinctly different place’. In ‘Minority Report,’ the city is imagined as a constrained space, where the urban centre has futuristic structures, but ‘the further out you go, Edwardian terraces are still standing… Cities evolve.’ In fact, it is this sense of history being driven by evolutionary forces – rather than determined by human agency – that worried me about Schwartz’ position. But Schwartz deserves a lot of credit for his rationalism and his defence of progress.

In a particularly outspoken moment he railed against those who argue against development and redefine progress for under-Developed countries. ‘As someone who has travelled the world… those who talk about the nobility of poverty haven’t visited the mother whose child has just died of diarhorrea, or the woman who has to walk five miles to get contaminated water…’ In another moment, as a direct challenge to received orthodoxy, he says ‘ you could argue that Shell has done more to save the planet than any environmental group.’

Indeed, his conversation is peppered with wonderfully positive visions of humanity and historical improvement. At one stage he says that his book ‘is for people who want… to become masters of their own fate.’ My criticism of his presentation is that there is a sense that he judges the future by an ahistorical standard. After all, the future is viewed in less positively than it was 30 years ago. Schwartz can clearly examine facts, trends and consequences, but he is less able to understand ‘why’ things happen, maybe because of his reticence to engage in politics.

In the 70s, the future was seen as a positive place to go; today, it is viewed with trepidation. How much of Schwartz’ scenarios foster, or at least, pander to today’s cautious perception of the world to come. For example, he talks of ‘a war between Christianity and Islam’; he notes that ‘very few people can do very large damage’; and of ‘hordes of Chinese coming into America.’ To Schwartz, these are statements of fact; not of political posturing. Taken at face value at a lot of what he says sounds distinctly reactionary, although that is a lot to do with the fact that we rarely hear opinionated commentary telling of challenging ‘truths.’ In his world-view, he is striving for ‘a future of no extremes,’ although it is hard to imagine that he really naive of the political use of these projections.

Simply put, Schwartz argues that his scenario planning is based on what will happen if we don’t change the way we do things today. For a man who famously predicted (or in his words, anticipated) the scenario of terrorists crashing airliners into the World Trade Centre, he modestly wants to encourage ‘a little foresight and reflection’ in society. You can’t say fairer than that.


Author: austinwilliams

Austin Williams is the director of the Future Cities Project and author of a number of books on the environment and on China. The latest are "China's Urban Revolution" (Bloomsbury) and "New Chinese Architecture: Twenty Women Building the Future" (Thames and Hudson).

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