Seven Tomorrows – the perils of predicting the future

Fourth in a series of eight articles

By Gwen Holdmann
June 15, 2023

Human history has always been complex and unpredictable. But one significant difference between our modern experience and that of past generations is the incredible pace of technological innovation. When we think about the big forces driving our world and what we would have considered cutting edge technology forty or fifty years ago, it looks quite different than it does today. Many of the innovations we now take for granted were not even really imagined at the time – things like smart phones, home computers, and ChatGPT. Forty or fifty years from now, things will almost certainly look unimaginably different again.

Electricity is intimately intertwined with technological advancement and, as a society, we are becoming increasingly reliant on it. How we use, produce, and manage it looks totally different today than it did a generation ago, and it continues to evolve rapidly. Herein lies the challenge with making expensive, long-term investments in large energy infrastructure. Tomorrow’s world will look different than today’s. We know that with certainty. So how can we ensure those investments will continue to pay dividends for years to come? How do we design the energy system for tomorrow, today?

A couple of years ago, while hanging out on my sailboat in Unakwik Inlet in Prince William Sound, I read an obscure 1983 publication called Seven Tomorrows that was given to me by a friend. The book was clearly from the original printing, and had the subtitle Seven Scenarios for the Eighties and Nineties. It seemed silly to read a book about a future that was now decades in the rearview mirror, and the fact that the futures presented were all bleak and depressing didn’t help draw me in. They had names like: “Apocalyptic Transformation”; “Chronic Breakdown”; and “Beginnings of Sorrow.” The slightly less dystopian scenarios had names like: “The Center Holds”; “Living Within Means”; and “Mature Calm.” There was clearly no happily ever after being predicted by this group of authors. It all read like a series of fictional worlds - none of them remotely resembled the actual timeline I had lived through.

As I flipped the pages, my boredom tinged with voyeuristic horror of the unpalatable futures that might have been, I had an epiphany. This book was important not because they got the future right, but because they got it so very, very wrong. I’ve had a morbid fascination ever since. How could a group of smart people, “experts” in their field, get the relatively-near future so wrong? And implicit in that question: is our own ability to imagine the future any better?

Seven Tomorrows was the outcome of a scenarios planning exercise led by SRI International, formerly the Stanford Research Institute. They brought together about 40 leading experts from diverse fields, and used years of research and data available from SRI to inform the scenarios. The lead author, Paul Hawken, would go on to co-write Natural Capitalism with Amory Lovins in 1999, one of the most influential environmental economics books of the past several decades.

There is a lot I could include here about confirmation bias, the diversity of participants, the need to rigorously question assumptions, and the importance of taking into account fringe views as well as mainstream perspectives. But over time I’ve become convinced that even if their process had flaws, the biggest issue is missing three really big technological advancements that have impacted the entire trajectory of human history in the decades since. Without the benefit of hindsight, it is difficult to say they should have foreseen these trends. Certainly the edges were visible, though perhaps not necessarily fully understood or part of mainstream knowledge and awareness. These included energy abundance due to advances in hydraulic fracking;  the internet and information era; and widespread adoption of wind and solar power.

Squeezing oil out of rocks

I would wager that if you teleported the authors of Seven Tomorrows to the present day and told them that the U.S. is the top oil-producing country in the world and has exported more petroleum products than it has imported for the past several years, they would be incredulous. Due to their own lived experience and, hence,  biases, they were unable to envision a world where energy scarcity was not a pressing concern. Implications related to energy supply and scarcity pervade every scenario. And it was not only an economic concern – they also predicted serious geopolitical conflict spurred by competition over dwindling fossil fuel resources. In no scenario did they envision the U.S. having access to cheap, abundant – and importantly – domestically produced oil and gas decades in the future. So what happened?

The oil and gas industry developed a technological solution, spurred by dwindling supplies and high market prices, that largely diffused the energy crisis - at least for the U.S., and at least for the near term. What is now colloquially known as “fracking” allowed U.S. producers to access tremendous amounts of previously unrecoverable fossil fuels. This revolution was a long time in the making and involved slow, incremental process improvements over decades until a tipping point was reached – both in technology and in regulation and permitting. Hydraulic fracturing (fracking) involves pumping a liquid slurry under high pressure into underground formations often a mile or more below the ground. This creates pathways to allow previously inaccessible natural gas and oil to migrate through the subsurface to production wells. This process of squeezing fossil fuels out of oil- and gas-bearing rock formations vastly increased the recoverable portion of the U.S. hydrocarbon resources.

The concept of fracking dates back to 1865, the year that Edward Roberts received a patent for his invention that would be called the “Robert’s Torpedo.” His oilfield invention, which involved opening fractures in a formation by detonating explosives downhole, had an immediate impact. Production from some wells increased 1,200 percent after being treated, thus vastly improving oil production from America’s young petroleum industry.

By the late 1940s, hydraulic fracturing had been demonstrated as a safer and ultimately more effective alternative to dropping explosives down a well bore. By the late 1980s, it was in common use to increase productivity from gas wells. However, an even bigger advancement was on the horizon – combining fracking with improved horizontal drilling technology in shale formations. These advancements in drilling and hydraulic fracturing have enabled tremendous amounts of natural gas to be extracted from underground shale formations that were long thought to be uneconomical.  

This innovation – and the energy abundance in the form of cheap natural gas that followed – has probably shaped the fate of the U.S. more than any other single trend in the past 20 years. It’s not completely unsurprising that the Seven Tomorrows authors missed it; what is more surprising is that they did not consider any scenario in which energy abundance could be possible. They failed to question their underlying assumptions or check their biases as a result of living through the traumatic oil crisis of the late 1970s and, as a result all of their scenarios, sailed far wide of the target.

graphic showing historical US exports of petroleum products
Graphic provided by Gwen Holdmann
Historical US exports of petroleum products, 1949-2012

Dancing with the Sun

In Naples, Florida where my parents retired, there is a peculiar statue that would catch my eye whenever I walked past it. It is a bronze replica of a couple dancing, holding a miniature human and a small solar panel between them, atop a pedestal adorned with actual, very old solar panels. It is called “Sundance” and it has a plaque that reads: “the Böers celebrating the first steps into a Solar Future – 1973.” It turns out the statue was commissioned by Karl Wolfgang Böer, an early pioneer of solar photovoltaics and someone who was a lead champion for its widespread adoption. I made some inquiries and learned that Karl and his wife still lived in Naples. I made an appointment to visit them.

Image described by caption and credit below image
Photo courtesy of Erika Holdmann.
Sundance - the Böers celebrating the first steps into a Solar Future – 1973.

During a lively afternoon conversation on their veranda, I learned about their history and life story, including  the house Karl installed solar panels on in 1973, and what he believed was the first home that was powered by 100% solar energy. And that was the event - which occurred exactly 50 years ago this month - that the statue commemorates.

Perhaps if Karl had been invited to participate in the workshop that led to the Seven Tomorrows book, he would have advocated for including a future that incorporated his vision of solar homes across the country. But he was not at that table. Alas, none of the scenarios predicted wind or solar as being anything more than a niche application that might have some utility, but neither would be a major factor in future energy supply.

Last year, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), a total of 240 gigawatts of new solar PV capacity was installed and commissioned worldwide. This is roughly 100 times the entire installed generation capacity across all sources in the state of Alaska. Globally, the cumulative global capacity is now approximately 1,185GW, which is roughly equivalent to the installed capacity of the entire U.S. That is mind boggling. And much of this is distributed solar – installed on rooftops much like Karl envisioned. Solar energy is expected to surpass coal by 2027 to become the largest source of power capacity in the world.

Karl described to me the painstaking and extremely expensive process of fabricating those first panels – a full decade before Seven Tomorrows was published. It took significant improvements in manufacturing processes and materials science to realize the cost reductions and performance improvements of solar PV to become the ubiquitous technology we know today. Those improvements, and the solar revolution they enabled, were beyond the ability of the Seven Tomorrows team to envision. What are the innovations in the energy space that will be game changers for us?

The Internet and the Information Age

The final trend that the Seven Tomorrows team missed is harder to understand – the development of the internet and the democratized access to information that followed. SRI International, who was heavily involved in the Seven Tomorrows process and whose data heavily informed the process, was also a crucial player in the birth story of the internet. Specifically, they were at the receiving end of the first message transferred on the ARPAnet between the University of California Los Angeles, and SRI in San Francisco in 1969. Clearly, SRI was very aware of the underlying techniques and processes that would one day grow to become the world wide web. So the fact they did not build this into any scenarios as a means for communication is a bit perplexing.

They clearly did put a lot of effort into thinking through the flow of information and access to it, along with potential public censorship of information and the implications this could have. However, in general, they thought about news sources in the form of the PBS MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour, which in the early to mid 1980s was the nation’s first and only hour-long nightly broadcast of national news. This meant a good portion of the population was tuning in and hearing the same information, presented the same way. The total disintegration of information channels into ever smaller subsectors was totally different from what the authors imagined the future could hold. In fact, their entire image of computing technology – though recognized as potentially important, was very quaint by modern standards. In one scenario, they envisioned tech-savvy youths that would access computers at public kiosks. Personal computers – let alone a computer combined with a phone disconnected from your wall and that fit into your pocket would have left them awed. This would have been the stuff of Star Trek, not a future they actually could envision.

So how did they miss the importance of a technology they not only knew about, but also actually had a hand in creating? Paul Krugman, winner of a Nobel Prize (and by his own admission not a technologist), infamously contended in 1998: “by 2005 or so, it will become clear that the Internet's impact on the economy has been no greater than the fax machine's." That is a mind-boggling assertion with the benefit of hindsight. But it shows that this is a case where the power that this particular innovation could unleash was not fully understood for years after. Indeed, it perhaps still isn’t fully understood, especially with the new overlay of AI. 

Planning for Alaska’s Future

So where does this leave us? At least for me, it has given me pause and a dose of humility about our own ability to look into a crystal ball and envision the future. We often see the future as some sort of natural progression of the world we know today –  grounded in our own experiences and influenced by the things we understand and know. But history doesn’t move in a linear direction. The “cone of possibility” widens the further we move into the future from the present because uncertainties and unexpected occurrences accumulate over time. The future is shaped by the outcomes and tensions between many different trends and forces that are all interacting and pulling the world in different directions. This makes prediction very difficult. There are literally an infinite number of different directions the future could take.

Equally important, we can’t become paralyzed by uncertainty, by indecision. In the first article in this series I discussed the balancing of risk and reward, and that sometimes a non-optimal decision made in a timely manner is better than waiting too long for the “perfect” opportunity.  At this moment, there are opportunities for generational investments in infrastructure at the federal level that Alaska should position itself to benefit from. But, how should we proceed?

  • Check and re-check assumptions and underlying biases. The Seven Tomorrows authors assumed energy scarcity. What assumptions are we failing to properly question?
  • Invest first in systems that enhance flexibility and build in resilience. For example, beefing up our transmission system seems like a no-brainer regardless of what generation sources are used in the future. It will be the modern highway system we need to move energy around, whatever the source.
  • Preserve optionality. What’s the cost to keep an option in play, while deferring a final decision? That could be licensing for a prospective hydroelectric project, an airborne electromagnetic or magnetotelluric survey of a geothermal prospect, a site assessment for a micro- nuclear reactor or a Front End Engineering Design (FEED) study for a pipeline.
  • Watch for confirmation bias - we all tend to default to a technology or solution we understand the best. And, we tend to interpret new data or information from that perspective. We need to be aware of this tendency and be open minded about alternatives.

Finally, we don’t always need to reinvent the wheel. We should look elsewhere to see what works and what doesn’t. And in doing so, we need to use a critical eye - dig beneath the public narrative to gain real insight. As Otto Von Bismarck noted, “Only a fool learns from his own mistakes. The wise man learns from the mistakes of others.”  So casting a wide net to learn from the lessons–good and bad–from around the world is an important part of planning for Alaska’s future.


Thank you to my friend and colleague Mark Foster for introducing me to the book Seven Tomorrows, and for constantly pushing me outside my comfort zone, provoking me and forcing me to think critically. Additional thanks to Greg Poelzer at the University of Saskatchewan, my dear friend, and someone who has been a wonderful critic of this series.