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World Future Society forecasts future trends

MADISON – Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld once said there are known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns. University of Wisconsin-Madison Director of Executive Education Linda Gorchels used this statement Wednesday night as a catalyst to discuss probable tomorrows and future predictions. By drawing upon major points made by the past eight speakers for the Madison chapter of the World Future Society, Gorchels wrapped the society’s year by re-emphasized major trends in technology, demography, education and culture.

“There are a lot of unknown unknowns. When talking about probable tomorrows, are you really thinking about things that you don’t concentrate on on an ongoing basis,” Gorchels said.

According to Don Nichols, director of the UW-Madison La Follette School of Public Affairs, who spoke in September, employment will shift from large manufacturing centers to “clusters” or “hubs” because the cost of technology and research now exceeds the cost of manufacturing. Large manufacturers, Gorchels summarized, will increasingly outsource services such as research and marketing due to those costs.

“We will have changes in manufacturing … changes as far as technology, changes in terms of outsourcing of typical white-collar jobs. … Maybe we should be thinking of Milwaukee as a machinery hub and Madison as a biotechnology hub,” Gorchels said.

Another prediction, discussed by UW-Madison School of Business Information Technology Director Scott Converse in January, was that disruptive technologies will continue to develop at an accelerated pace. Disruptive technologies, as defined by Converse, do not perform as well as existing products initially but eventually reach a critical mass of users and change the status quo. Examples include digital photography and iTunes.
“A lot of experts predict … it won’t be too long before the music business is a pure service industry. What Scott predicted was that in the next five years, the big five music companies will drop to two. And one of those two will be non-current player Apple computers with iTunes,” Gorchels said.

She also touched upon digital education and technological trends in schooling. In March, Sun Prairie Area School District technology coordinator Louis Loeffler talked about ways in which technology could contribute to adaptive teaching. He explained technology could help tailor education to students’ learning styles but cautioned that placing hardware in schools without adequate staff development is a fruitless venture.

Audience member and retired physics professor C.H. Blanchard feels technology-aided adaptive teaching is not always right for the classroom.

“I go to elementary schools a lot and I see a lot of new technology sitting in a corner while the teacher struggles to teach and keep discipline. … Is the right way to [adaptive teach] with some machinery? Not at all,” Blanchard said.

Madison resident Bob Bean believes education could benefit from technology, but only if staff members know how to properly utilize it.

“There’s no question that a lot of older teachers are saying they are not ready for the technology that’s been dumped on them and they don’t have the budget to teach teachers to use it adequately. And some of the technology and software is just totally inadequate but that doesn’t mean there isn’t good stuff out there if they had the time to learn it,” Bean commented.

Gorchels closed the meeting by acknowledged the ever-increasing and inescapable role of technology in people’s everyday lives.

“There is no place that technology doesn’t exist. We have so much capability, as far as technology, that we don’t even know what we don’t know. We also have technology available every time you turn around. People can’t escape the noise. You can’t escape technology,” Gorchels said.

The Madison chapter of the World Future Society will reconvene September 2004.

Kristin V. Johnson is the Associate Editor of WTN. She can be reached at

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