For centuries oracles have used dreams to predict the future. The biblical character Joseph interpreted the Egyptian king’s dreams and averted a famine. In ancient Rome, Caesar’s wife dreamt of his bloodied body on the day of his murder.

These scenarios may seem like folklore, but John L. Petersen, an eminent futurist who founded the Arlington Institute think-tank in Washington DC, says dreams can be used by civil servants to create strategies. This is especially relevant in a volatile and changing world, where “nothing in the past gives you a good trend or a good indication of what might be coming,” he claims.

Petersen has worked with the US National War College, and also helped Singapore develop the world’s first national ‘horizon scanning’ supercomputer system. He spoke to GovInsider about the importance of using unconventional ways to help civil servants to expect the unexpected.

Dreaming up futures

Can dreams predict the future? While no one may fully understand it, Petersen says that “widely dispersed people begin to have dramatic precognitive dreams in advance of upcoming events of great magnitude.” He believes that if dreams can be collected and analysed meaningfully, it may help to identify and prepare for these scenarios.

The 9/11 Twin Tower attacks in the US shocked the world. Unbeknownst to most, Petersen said a dreamer who worked with Scotland Yard had notified the American embassy in London two weeks before the attack. After the attacks, he had access to 300 case studies of people who had very vivid, unusual dreams up to six months before the attack.

He explains that “advanced technology [can be used] to analyse and cluster them, and then array them visually such that they could be predictive of upcoming events.” If collected over a long period of time, Petersen believes it can become “an accurate, crowd-based predictive system.”

He says we live in an unprecedented time where “we can not only understand what is happening but are also positioned to shape the future.” Instead of planning for a few scenarios, Petersen says the tools available today widen the possibility of identifying potential “wildcards” – low probability, high impact events that catch most people by surprise.

Evolution for revolution

Change is going to be increasingly driven by small groups of elites, Petersen says, and government must adapt. The futurist believes that global trends “are going to empower a small sector of humanity to evolve into a higher level of consciousness, operation, sensitivity, and sophistication.”

“A small sector of humanity [will] evolve into a higher level of consciousness”

These groups are not going to be in traditional positions of authority, however, and they will emerge in pockets around the world. They are going to “figure out a new way to operate,” he says. From #MeToo to the rise of 16 year old climate activist Greta Thunberg, social media has enabled individuals to rapidly assert power over government and create powerful movements.

Petersen thinks the best the public sector can do is to be “sensitive to all kinds of other sources from all kinds of places”. It is about being ready for rapid change, and monitoring the underlying social signals.

The big disruptions to come

There are four major trends that create massive change, he warns: climate change, artificial intelligence, scientific breakthroughs, and eroding trust in institutions. These will fundamentally change how we understand reality, and therefore how we live, says Petersen.

Living things are intricately tied to the environment, and any changes to it can alter “emotions, biology, and social interactions,” according to Petersen. Climate change could upend common assumptions about food, the availability of energy, and our basic social structures.

Meanwhile, technology is changing the nature of work, as manufacturing jobs are gradually being taken over by robotics. Artificial Intelligence threatens to become more capable than humans, and can “duplicate themselves millions of times over,” says Petersen. This poses questions about human existence as the dominant species on the planet.

Technologists are pushing boundaries to find solutions in a world where resources are dwindling and the effects of climate change are becoming more pronounced. While these forces could lead to “new capabilities” for good, they could also uncover scientific breakthroughs that we may not be prepared to deal with, such as extraterrestrial life and the manipulation of time and space.

Trust in centuries-old establishments is also eroding as groups of people get increasingly disenchanted by a top-down structure of leadership. Problems in the European Union and Catholic church are signs of this distrust. As fake news blurs the line between truth and lies, governments are going to have an increasingly hard time retaining trust.

Built to respond not predict

To stay ahead of these trends, governments need to be decentralised to make decisions quickly and expand their appetite for risks. Instead of trying to accurately predict the future, Petersen says, the public sector needs to expect surprises at every turn.

This will require people at the lowest level of government to have a stake in shaping the future. “The first guy who sees the problem can generate a significant kind of response because he or she is empowered to be able to do that,” Petersen explains. For that to happen, an open culture of sharing and communication clear goals are needed.

“You have to be willing to take risks,” Petersen adds, by trying more and learning from failures. He says this will require a fundamental shift in “the central outlook, structure and metabolism of a government.” In a world where there are multiple moving parts, the only way to adapt is to no longer be surprised by surprises.

In other words, civil servants must dream big, share power and expect the unexpected. If they ignore the oracles and the thin wisps of the future then, like Caesar, they’ll face their own Ides of March.