Looking Back at Past, We See the Risk of Guessing Future

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You should be reading this while wondering if it isn't time to have the wings adjusted in your flying car, debating over the dinner you'll be having delivered via a tube to your home, and curious over why those obsolete C, X and Q keys are still on your keyboard.

Predicting the future has always intrigued western culture; built into the very exercise is an optimism that things will only continue to get better (except in sci fi movies - if you've seen the movie 2012, you know you may not need that five-year plan).

The long-range forecasting business is an entertaining enterprise, and profitable, too, should you happen to guess right. There seems to be no shortage of the so-called "futurists," whether in academia or on the speaking circuit offering credit unions educated guesses about how trends are going to play out and how to be prepared to meet them.

Here's one safe prediction: "futurist" will remain a pretty good gig. Really, whoever goes back and looks at what a futurist predicted before a credit union conference five or 10 years ago to see how accurate they were? Besides, that's all history and we're talking about the future, baby. The only interest any futurist seems to have in the present is ensuring that the check for the speaking fee has cleared.

The prognostication practice is one frankly fraught with complete guess work, even by the best of them. We have no more idea what life will be like in 2109 than folks in 1900 could guess what the world would be like in 2000.

Consider, for instance, some of these predictions by experts assembled by The Ladies Home Journal who were asked in 1900 for "what may happen in the next 100 years." Keep in mind, as the magazine noted, "these prophecies... come from the most learned and conservative minds in America." Among the nearly 30 predictions:

• There will probably be from 350 million to 500 million people in America...and Nicaragua will ask for admission to our union after the completion of the great canal.

• The American will be taller by from one to two inches...He will live 50 years instead of 35 as at present - for he will reside in the suburbs. The city house will practically be no more...The trip from suburban home to office will require a few minutes only. A penny will pay the fare.

• Gymnastics will begin in the nursery...Exercise will be compulsory in the schools...A man or woman unable to walk 10 miles at a stretch will be regarded as a weakling.

• There will be air-ships, but they will not successfully compete with surface cars and water vessels for passenger or freight traffic.

• Photographs will be telegraphed from any distance...Snapshots of its most striking events will be published in the newspapers an hour later...Man will see around the world. Persons and things of all kinds will be brought within focus of cameras connected electrically with screens at opposite ends of circuits...

• There will be no wild animals except in menageries. Rats and mice will have been exterminated. The horse will have become practically extinct.

• Storekeepers who expose food to air breathed out by patrons or to the atmosphere of the busy streets will be arrested with those who sell stale or adulterated produce.

• There will be No C, X or Q in our everyday alphabet. Spelling by sound will have been adopted, first by the newspapers.

• Wireless telephone and telegraph circuits will span the world...By an automatic signal (parties) will connect with any circuit in their locality without the intervention of a "hello girl."

• Pneumatic tubes, instead of store wagons, will deliver packages and bundles...Food will be served hot or cold to private houses in pneumatic tubes or automobile wagons.

• Mosquitoes, house-flies and roaches will have been practically exterminated...Cheap native rubber will be harvested by machinery all over this country... Figs will be cultivated over the entire United States.

To mark the 100th anniversary of credit unions in the U.S. in 2009, a few months back Credit Union Journal invited leaders from throughout the credit union community and from our readership to become futurists themselves and share predictions for what credit unions will look like in the year 2109. So many readers responded that we begin the first of a two-part series on Credit Unions In 2109 in this issue.

When looking to the future we tend to focus on technological change and "wonderous" developments, often overlooking how much we do now that would have been considered "wonderous" 100 years ago. Even 20 years ago.

There is fear by some that credit unions won't be able to maintain the technological pace, and will eventually become old-fashioned and forgotten. The failure there is in not recognizing that a credit union isn't a technology, it's a concept, an idea, a set of principals. And good ideas and concepts and principals tend to outlast technological change.

Indeed, it seems a safe bet that a century from now physical location will be completely irrelevant, eliminating the branch advantage banks have. People will be able to embrace better business models regardless of location, and that will only bolster CUs.

But as they say, the more things change, the more they stay the same. I'm pretty confident that in 2109 the front page of Credit Union Journal will feature a story on small credit unions-those under $25 billion-lamenting they just can't survive much longer; and will include a profile on a board member recalling how he helped charter the credit union back in 2009. And the lead story, "Holograms of CUNA, NAFCU Boards Call Off Merger Talks."

Frank J. Diekmann can be reached at fdiekmann@cujournal.com.

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