Like many great quotes that sum up a powerful idea, the line about the ‘best way to predict the future is to invent it’ has a number of claimants for it’s own invention.
It may have been Abe Lincoln, although the evidence is thin. It certainly wasn’t Alan Kay that first came up with it, but when the former chief scientist at Atari spoke of the research carried out at the famous Xerox PARC in 1982, (the Palo Alto centre credited with inventing laser printing, graphical user interfaces and the mouse, amongst other items) he used the phrase to describe the ethos of that organisation. It’s mission: to design a truly personal computer. Atari themselves used the phrase for an ad a year later, but it was management guru Peter Drucker that really took the message to the masses, being attributed with inventing the idea by many media sources.
But it is to none of these luminaries that we should perhaps turn for the origins of this inspiring message. In 1963, Hungarian-British electrical engineer and physicist, Dennis Gabor wrote in his book ‘Inventing The Future’: ‘the future cannot be predicted, but futures can be invented.’ A review in the New Scientist reprinted an edited version, and the phrase took hold.
Gabor truly did invent his own future, having fled from Nazi Germany in 1933 he established himself as a British citizen. Working at the British Thomson-Houston company, he broke new ground in the study of electron inputs and outputs, which eventually led him to the invention of holography – an achievement for which he was awarded a Nobel Prize.
But that wasn’t the end of Gabor’s amazing endeavours. As a Professor at Imperial College London, he gave PhD students tough tasks to complete, one such being the invention of the flat screen TV!
His patents were said to be remarkable, and his writings on the future were incredibly influential. He predicted the importance of automation, cautioning society on its impact on workers, whilst admitting in 1970: “No one can deny that automation is capable of liberating mankind of almost all monotonous drudgery, of mining with the pickaxe…and mind-numbing work at the conveyor belt.”
The prototype futurologist and technologist explained in his Professorial Inaugural Lecture in 1958: “ The first step of the inventor is to visualise, by an act of imagination, a thing or a state that does not yet exist and which appears to him in some way desirable. He can start rationally arguing backwards and forwards, until a way is found from one to the other”.