I’m not sure whether all the details in my story are fully correct, so I rush to tell it before someone proves me wrong. I heard the story more than a decade ago, at a futurists’ conference, and it was about the importance of asking the right questions when you plan for the future.

According to my secret source, in 2007 the Council of Westminster in London were discussing how they could make Oxford Street the main shopping attraction during the coming Olympics in 2012. Experts in city development had all kinds of ideas for improvement of the worn-down street, ranging from better pavements and more rubbish bins to a fancy zebra crossing at Oxford Circus.

Then someone said, ‘Never mind the Olympics – how can we keep Oxford Street the main attraction in London for the next 30 years?’ Suddenly, the discussion stopped; all the previous ideas about new rubbish bins and better pavements became useless as they would only give the street a temporarily facelift.

The politicians realised that if Oxford Street and Central London were to flourish far into the middle of the 21st century, they needed to be able to bring another half a million people in and out of the city. This resulted in a 20-billion-pound decision to build the Crossrail, a new 117-kilometre-long train line that modernises London’s Underground and allows the city to keep growing. If everything goes as planned, the Crossrail will be opened next year – a few years delayed.

In this case, real change didn’t start until someone asked a so-called ‘hyper question’, a question that superseded all other questions and put them into a larger perspective. We need these hyper questions more than ever in a world where it seems almost impossible to predict the future. Often, decision makers get absorbed by solving day-to-day problems while neglecting future opportunities.

We only reach as far as our questions take us, and many leaders limit their dreaming unnecessarily because they feel they have to be realistic. But you don’t have to have realistic when you question your future – only when you plan it.

Nils Elmark is a consulting futurist and the founder of Incepcion, a London-based consultancy that helps organisations develop new and braver dreams.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Scan Magazine.

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