I've always enjoyed retrofuturism. If you're unfamiliar, retrofuturism describes visions of the future as imagined in the past. Retrofuturism gives us a glimpse into how our ancestors pictured the world changing in the years ahead. Much like us today, folks living in the past liked to to forecast how the innovations of their time might transform the lives of their children or their children's children.

It's easy to treat retrofuturist idea as an object of fun. A picture of a Victorian maid controlling an "electric scrubbing" machine feels quaint to us. It's a strange mash-up of anachronisms, and sometimes it's hard to stifle a chuckle. It's charming.

But to what extent is the humour we find in retrofuturism a function of our own insecurity? After all, we face the same problem our ancestors did. Our visions of the future are always obscured by our present and our past. There are limits to our imagination. We simply lack the conceptual vocabulary to imagine a future that is too far afield from what's already familiar to us. As contemporary futurist Amy Webb argues in The Signals are Talking, "we face the same perceptual bias as all of the generations who came before us; we have a difficult time seeing how not only the far future will unfold but the near future as well." We can't predict the future so much as we project ahead the present, or at least aspects of it.

We can't predict the future. And yet we continue to try. After all, there's a lot at stake. Those who are able to accurately divine the future can prepare for it; those who cannot are doomed to be overwhelmed by a world that's passed them by. We need to be able to spot trends before they become full-fledged movements and transform our society.

What is a trend?

A trend, by Webb's definition, is "a new manifestation of sustained change.... A starting point that helps us to simultaneously meet the demands of the present while planning for the future." Think of our Victorian ancestors: the problems they look to solve are familiar to us, even today. They want cleaner homes, or to be able to communicate with loved ones far away. We're still trying to solve these problems today. To spot trends, we need to be attenuated to fundamental human needs—the core jobs to be done. These are surprisingly consistent across time. The Victorians, just liked us, were fascinated by new modes of mobility because they solved one of those underlying human needs. Where we imagine jet packs to expedite our commute, they imagined stylish airships taking them to the opera.

What changes is the enabling technology. As Webb argues, “a trend is driven by a basic human need, one that is catalyzed by a new technology.” But in keeping an eye on emerging technologies, it’s all too easy to get distracted by the latest shiny new thing. These fads and flavours-of-the-month deceptively conceal beneath them real shifts that are only just emerging.

Organizations typically struggle with this, Webb writes. The abide by old paradigms of corporate research which looks back into the past, rather than ahead. Focus groups and surveys might help reveal the extent to which an average person is aware of a trend that’s already hit the mainstream. But when it comes to seeing the future, Webb argues, it’s necessarily to look elsewhere.

The futurist’s method

To identify trends before they emerge, Webb suggests we look to the fringe. By looking at the fringes—the hackers, the outsiders, the sub-cultures of our society—we can identify early patterns that may coalesce into a trend. “Those at the fringe,” Webb writes, “daydream productively. They are adept at using metaphors, and so they are able to focus on the hypothetical relationships between things, rather than the things themselves.” Fringe thinkers see the world in a more expansive way, pushing boundaries beyond what’s probable toward what’s possible.

Information from the fringe forms constellations. As discrete points, they may be meaningless; but, with the right perspective, patterns may emerge that point from an isolated  to a trend. Webb offers the acronym CIPHER to help identify those patterns: watch for Contradictions, Inflections, Practices, Hacks, Extremes, and Rarities, and map the nodes and relationships between them.

Then, imagine many possible futures across different timelines, ranging from the immediate future as far ahead as 30 years hence. Consider not just the probable—what is likely, if current patterns continue—but also the plausible, or what is conceivable given what we know of the laws of science and humanity. Then, stretch further and consider the possible, those things that are farfetched today but that may become possible in the future.

And yet, it’s not enough to just identify these points. Webb emphasizes that would-be futurists must challenge themselves and engage in deliberate disagreement. Break elements of the future into their constituent parts, and attempt to disprove each one. Consider what would have to be true for a given possible future to come to pass.

The futurist’s dilemma

Webb offers a method intended to help her readers identify emerging trends that will coalesce into the patterns that will drive the future. She doesn’t claim to be able to see the future with perfect accuracy, but provides guidance for making sense out of the noise that surrounds us. The problem we face, she argues, isn’t future shock so much as it is disorientation, the result of a constant barrage of information. What she offers is a way to sift through that information and make sense of it.

How far ahead can we see? It’s difficult to say. But there’s no doubt value in making the effort. This is the futurist’s dilemma: their work is necessary, but impossible.