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Can you forecast far enough ahead to make strategy worthwhile?

I read last week of some interesting responses to comments made by Jordan Peterson, Canadian psychologist.  He is reported in the Guardian as saying:

“Another problem that bedevils climate modelling, too, which is that as you stretch out the models across time, the errors increase radically. And so maybe you can predict out a week or three weeks or a month or a year, but the farther out you predict, the more your model is in error.

“And that’s a huge problem when you’re trying to model over 100 years because the errors compound just like interest.”

Many climate scientists have responded to point out the error of his ways (for example here, in The Conversation).  Essentially, climate modelling doesn’t start with the weather and predict from there.  Within the random-ish patterns of the weather, there are longer term trends and patterns.  Also (I’m assuming) the factors in the atmosphere that can be modelled are different for short term weather predictions than for longer term climate modelling which will take a ‘macro’ view.

It then occurred to me that maybe I have made a similar error in thinking about strategy, and particularly health and wellbeing strategies.  Because you are dealing with complex systems, I thought there was no point in thinking much beyond the following year when you’d have to revise your plans (though I wasn’t totally consistent: I also suggested 10 year plans).  But surely the same thing applies as with the climate – there are trends and patterns which stretch out over longer periods.

We also have experience of how long particular sorts of thing take (at a macro level).  For instance, if a drug or treatment or some other innovation has passed early safety tests and is showing signs of promise, we have a rough idea how long it will be before it is in daily use.  Of course things may change.  We may have a pandemic and develop a vaccine much more quickly than usual.  The public may take against an innovation (Google glass perhaps?) which could be enough to delay or even halt it altogether.  But generally, when something relevant is in development, it’s worth planning for when it will appear.

So, in general, we can meaningfully consider what may happen 5, 10 even 50 years ahead.  It doesn’t mean we can accurately predict the future, but we can think about the things that have a good chance of happening, and plan to make the things happen that we want to.

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