Published by Vaughan Roberts on 18th June 2020

Book Review: Uncharted: How to Map the Future Together, by Margaret Heffernan.

Simon & Schuster, 2020 353pp; ISBN 978-1-4711-7978-2 £20.00

Reviewed by Vaughan S. Roberts

How do we think about the future? How do we predict the future? What roles do complexity and uncertainty play as we seek to chart directions for individuals, projects and organizations? Margaret Heffernan is an entrepreneur, university lecturer, writer and popular giver of TED talks and she seeks answers to such questions in her latest book. Uncharted is divided into three parts and ten chapters.

The first part is headed ‘Addiction prediction’ and examines how all models of knowing the future are fallible and let us down. She insists this should not be an argument for hopeless resignation but rather a call ‘to be bolder in our search, more penetrating in our enquiry, more energetic in our quest for discovery’ (p 7). She begins by reviewing the story of early prediction in the work of some of the world’s first economic pundits such as Irving Fisher, Roger Babson and Warren Persons. Their ideas helped to shape the economic and social thinking of people like John Maynard Keynes and William Beveridge. However, according to Heffernan, the financial crash of 1929 and what happened subsequently revealed ‘three profound problems endemic to forecasts that dog them still today: they are incomplete, ideological and self-interested’ (p23). The lesson she draws from this is we should never surrender to predictions but use them to challenge all of our horizons.

If the analysis of economic numbers is a flawed predictor of the future, what about history? Does it repeat itself? Everyone has a tendency to see their own history being repeated. So the Arab Spring was seen as both a repeat the Berlin Wall’s collapse in Russia and the Boston Tea Party in the USA. More starkly, the same is true in such things as flu outbreaks and famines. Heffernan concludes, ‘history offers us a rich inventory of ideas and ingredients with which to interrogate, explore and craft not old but new narratives of our own making. History doesn’t repeat itself because we keep changing and it keeps changing us’ (pp 63-64).

The next type of prediction to be examined is various forms of psychological modelling – the MUSE app, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and the Clifton Strengths report – widely used across different businesses and organizations. Here we encounter a shadow-side of stories in what Heffernan calls ‘narrative essentialism’. We are given certain immutable information about ourselves which shapes our personal stories and closes down the complexity of character and experience. This leads Heffernan onto a lengthy discussion of genetics and eugenics. Everything from the challenges that genetic counsellors face in guiding people through their genetic data to the ethical decisions around CRISPR genomic editing suggests that predictions, even in a scientific space, are by no means straightforward.

Part two is entitled ‘What would you do if you were free?’ To begin with Heffernan shares a series of stories which explores different experiments in organizational change. From these experiences she concludes that if, ‘we want to map the future, we start by acknowledging that we don’t know all it holds, that everyone can contribute, but no one knows what we will find’ (p 148). Nevertheless, we must embark on these journeys rather than handing responsibility to others who know no more than we do (i.e. forecasters). This leads into a discussion of scenario planning, which Heffernan clearly believes has value in dealing with some of the complexities of future planning and forces ‘individuals and organizations out of their narcissism to confront how much of their success depends on others’ (pp 174-75).

Next, she turns to the arts and what can be learnt from artists. Heffernan suggests four lessons: (i) Noticing – details matter; (ii) Simmering – the importance of daydreaming; (iii) Stating – start a project and ‘explain less, mean more’; (iv) Failing – often leads to better questions. Finally, in this section, she writes about ‘cathedral projects,’ a term coined by Stephen Hawkins. These are large-scale ventures destined to last longer than a human lifetime, which ‘endure long into the future as symbols of faith and human imagination’ (p 205). The examples Heffernan considers are CERN, the Wellcome Sanger Institute and the Sagrada Familia cathedral in Barcelona. In essence: ‘True cathedral projects aren’t just long, they’re broad: in their base of support, in the number and diversity of people and ideas they bring together. In doing that, they create and sustain the legitimacy that allows them to endure’ (p 234).

Part three is called ‘Life happens’ and begins with a story about a funeral, however it is not a tale about the death of someone but about the death of a priestly vocation. The catholic priest and family friend who has taken the funeral wants to give up his calling and get married. This is a personal story of existential crisis but organizations and societies have these as well – Nokia, Barings Bank, the story of how AIDS was discovered. Themes of bereavement and death are explored further in the penultimate chapter, ‘Who wants to live forever?’ It starts by noting research which suggests older people are happier and goes onto discuss how death is part of a natural process which should be honoured and dignified. To this end Heffernan contrasts the approach of the transhumanist movement with that of a local hospice and concludes with some personal reflections on the value of death.

The final chapter considers three projects that stretch into the future – the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovation (CEPI), the Svalbard seedbank and the work of the Future Generations Commissioner for Wales. Looking back on these developing stories and the others recounted in Uncharted, Heffernan closes by noting the deeply paradoxical nature of mapping the future: ‘Imagination, creativity, compassion, generosity, variety, meaning, faith and courage: what makes the world unpredictable are also the strengths that make each of us unique and human’ (p 320).

Two things particularly struck about this book – the use of language and stories. There is a great deal of religious language in Uncharted – prophets, faith, evangelical salesmanship, parochial (healthy) v provincial (unhealthy), and repeated use of ‘cathedrals’. It is interesting to note that such words and their hinterlands have meaning in a book about organizations and change.

In addition, Heffernan uses a large number of stories to draw out and illustrate her points. She is aware of some of the dangers here (e.g. narrative essentialism). For me the crux comes in her chapter on ‘Building Cathedrals’ when she observes: ‘Cathedral projects are all voyages of discovery in uncharted territory. What they find, in people who make them and the distance they cover, is unpredictable at the outset … What keeps them on course is a shared, passionate commitment to guiding principles that demand that the best be allowed to emerge and be improved, by anyone, from anywhere’ (p 232).

Those who like their churches to be organized by strategic action plans will probably find this book challenging and frustrating in equal measure. While those who discover churches and their futures to be more complex and unpredictable will find much to help them in understanding a different form of messy church.

Vaughan S. Roberts is Chair of MODEM, Team Rector of Warwick and author of Kingdom Stories: Telling, Leading, Discerning (SCM Press, 2020)

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