Illustration: Leandro Castelao

When you ask expert futurists to make predictions, more often than not they tend to balk. They are not in the business of prophecy, they would argue. Their job is to make sense of uncertainty, or to reduce what Scott Smith, the co-founder of Changeist, a futures and innovation research and consulting group, calls the “chaotic noise” surrounding the future. “It’s not so much just throwing a dart in the wall and saying, ‘I predict X will happen,’” he says.

Reducing “chaotic noise” might sound simple enough. But, as Winston Churchill famously said, “It is always wise to look ahead, but difficult to look further than you can see.” After all, who doesn’t want to live in a world where complexity is broken down into plausible, logical scenarios, with a probability affixed to them? But what do we do when there is conflicting information out there? What happens when an issue that used to seem straightforward turns out to be anything but?

In the series Against the Grain, we examine wide-ranging topics that are riddled with question marks—from urbanism and foodism to the future of sports and the resurgence of so-called “dead” technologies—and attempt a clear-eyed look at both likely and unlikely outcomes. Are cities booming or fragmenting into the suburbs? Are health care costs skyrocketing or plateauing? Are Americans getting fitter or sicker? Does the global web promote freedom or tyranny, or both?

Try googling these questions and you’d be forgiven for walking away none the wiser. “When you hear a forecast or prediction you want to ask yourself what’s in it for the forecaster,” Smith explains. “And what are the implications of that? And what can change to make that not true?”

Against the Grain will delve into seemingly counterfactual information that can be touted by opposing sides to make varied, even contradictory arguments. As each blog post in the series focuses on a different field or industry, we will use simple tools to try and solve for complexity, the impact of variables and the pace of change. As a society, Smith argues, “we’ve gotten ahead of ourselves in terms of the speed of innovation, but we often haven’t stopped and thought about the possible impacts and implications of that.”

This series will try to do just that: to step back and critically examine some of the core issues affecting our lives today—without the use of a metaphorical crystal ball. “It’s fun for people to be an armchair futurist,” Smith says, “but it’s more complex than just holding a finger up to the wind, and that’s the difference between a prediction and an exploration.”

So exploration it is.

In “If We Have a Future, Food Needs One Too,” we take a critical look at recent, cutting-edge innovations in the culinary field—from molecular gastronomy to chefs who forage for their own ingredients—and explore what meals of the future might be like. Interestingly, a chasm appears to be forming between the high-end restaurant business, which tends to favor local and organic, and the weighty task of feeding an ever-expanding population. But will we be ready for a future diet that will feature fake meat, printed 3D food and—take a deep breath—bugs?

Speaking of diet, Paleo seems to be all the rage these days, with its relatable farm-to-table approach to food. Add to that the FitBit craze and the prevalence of the standing desk, and it appears that America’s waistline is slimming by the minute. Or is it? Aren’t we also said to be in the grip of a historic obesity and diabetes epidemic? A closer look at the issue will suggest that we are split between two ends of the socioeconomic scale—with one becoming healthier while the other is stuck in a seemingly endless cycle of sickness and poor nutrition.

This cycle isn’t helped by the fact that health care costs are continually rising. Or—if you’re seeing a trend here—are they? In “Which Way Are Healthcare Costs Really Going,” we look at the widespread notion that health care spending is going through the roof, as we attempt to fine-tune the findings: While health care costs are indeed rising, they are doing so at a slower rate than they have in decades. In health care parlance, we’re finally “bending the cost curve.” But will this trend continue, or is it simply the result of an economy that is rebounding from a recession—and are we bound to see costs spike again?

To recognize the complexities we encounter and the potential directions they could lead, says Smith, is to take the first step: “Scenarios allow you to say, ‘Okay, we’ve taken what looks like chaos and we’ve narrowed it down to a few possibilities, and now how do we react in those circumstances?’ It’s about framing hypothetical futures to try to come up with a strategy. In doing that, interesting innovations emerge.”

Such innovations often take the form of a hybrid between past and future. Consider the revival of old-school technologies like the vinyl record or the Polaroid. Sure, they could be merely a nostalgic turn or a temporary fad, but they could also point to larger issues that the digital revolution has failed to account for—like the lack of quality and nuance in sound and visual technology. So will the disruptive innovation of tomorrow be an even more efficiently pixelated technique, or are we bound to see analog make a comeback?

And how about sports? The long-term effects and dangers of football are only beginning to be fully understood. Yet concussions are said to be down 25 percent this year due to new NFL guidelines. Are we experiencing the end of football as we know it, or is the sport alive and kicking? As ever, that depends on whom you ask and what they have to gain. We posed the question in “The NFL Challenge: Keeping Gladiators Safe.”

Such conflicts and opposing stakes are thrown into sharp relief when we examine the effects of the Internet on public policy. On the one hand, by democratizing technology to ensure that every person holding a phone can effectively become a citizen journalist, the Internet has helped spur revolutions all across the Middle East, notably during the Arab Spring. It’s connected billions of people the world over. On the other hand, we’re increasingly seeing that same technology used by dictators and democratic governments around the world as a tool for control over these early, Wild West days of the web.

And as both opportunities and threats meet our digital futures, our physical connectivity tells seemingly contradictory stories too. As cities take center stage in the 21st century, with 70 percent of the world’s population expected to live in them by 2050, there’s much ado about their march toward global domination. As you might expect, other camps claim it’s much ado about nothing. Which is it? Well, that depends on which cities you’re talking about; all cities won’t meet the future in the same way.

When it comes to making sense of an uncertain future, experts try to isolate variables, define the “macrodynamics" of the forces driving change, and distinguish among changes with different timelines. Cultural trends tend be fluctuating and short-lived, given to change based on constantly shifting tastes. Human behaviors, like shifts in educational trends or voting patterns, tend to evolve more slowly, requiring changes at a deep level. Demographic and economic shifts can take even longer, and judgments about them tend to have a higher reliability than shorter-term changes. Think of quicksand versus a slow, tectonic shift. “There are certain regularities in nature or economic cycles that have rhythms to them, although these rhythms get disrupted over time,” Smith says. “I think one of the things that makes the present moment feel so uncertain is that we’re at a point where some of those rhythms of life are changing.”

Sometimes it may feel like we’re standing in the middle of a busy intersection, where what used to seem like givens—how we eat, where we live—are lost among too many other options. Thanks to the proliferation of data and the seemingly omniscient, omnipresent Internet, too much information is part of the problem, amplifying the sense that we’re navigating in the dark. But the present moment is also exciting, in that we’re constantly “looking for windows of opportunity where forces converge,” as Smith puts it.

Against the Grain is our attempt to seek out those places where positive change may be lurking among the dizzying array of alternatives. We may be navigating in the dark, but we can, at the very least, do so with the headlights on.

Next: If We Have a Future, Food Needs One Too