What do futurists do and how to think like one

Last week I attended the World Future Society’s (WFS) 2010 conference in Boston, my fifth. I’ve been a member since the one in Toronto in 2006. It’s there that I first met Ray Kurzweil among other futurists.
I remember not sleeping the entire time due to all the new learnings coursing through my brain – it felt like I was being totally rewired. The experience greatly influenced and continues to shape my practice as a creativity professional – working with people in organizations to crack open new thinking to create exciting new futures.
Speakers at WFS present new thinking in technology and science, marketing, demographics and other social factors, economics, and environment. They use foresight methods, including data analysis, trending, scenario planning and many more to guide futures decision making by analyzing and combining what has occurred and what may happen in social, technological, environmental, economic and political arenas.  Businesses, governments, non-profits, educators are all well represented as conference participants.
At WFS 2006 I attended a pre-conference program I like to call How to Be a Futurist 101. It was (and still is) taught annually at the conference by Dr. Peter Bishop, Associate Professor in the College of Technology,  Coordinator of the graduate program in Futures Studies at the University of Houston and Future Studies Adviser at Singularity University.

What do futurists do?

To futurists, the future is like a flowing river, it has no end; it is in constant motion.
Futurists help people manage their expectations about what’s next, including the smooth flow and the rocky obstacles. They operate from a mind-set that the future is not necessarily a direct extension from the past.  Through research, trending and forecasting methods they open many doors to consider alternative future scenarios and aid clients select a preferred one, given the conditions that exist. It’s important for clients to decide which stream to create by aligning their path with their values.
Futurists facilitate knowledge acquisition and decision-making with these questions in mind:
  • What old era is ending?
  • What new era is beginning?
  • What problems exist that signal a shift is underway?
  • What might the next new era become?
  • What is going to happen and how might it impact society, technology, economics, environment, public policy?
  • What might happen instead?
  • What is the preferable future?
For example, a few years ago I learned about a type of fax machine that has polymers in it instead of ink.  The purpose?  To send items to others, keys, rings and pens, in its early stages, to others at a distance without needing to ship them via mail or courier. Someone thought of replacing the ink with another medium – and a new invention occurred that could influence the way our future unfolds.
Person A places the item in his ‘fax’ machine, and it’s composition is read layer by layer.  This blueprint is sent to Person B’s ‘fax’ machine and is replicated, layer by layer with polymers. A futurist would look at this new technology, anticipate its use and consider its implications for society, further technological developments, and influence on the environment, politics and economics, at the least.
My first thought on hearing this news and seeing the machine:  Hm.. I wonder how manufacturers of printers and faxes will be affected, or, when the device grows in capacity to a point where people can order furniture using the technology, how that will influence the delivery industry.  What if people could order houses that way?  Great fodder for imagination!

Disruptive or Revolutionary Change

Note taking circa 2010

Futurists continue to remind us that disruptions occur. New inventions, technologies, social movements, environmental catastrophe’s, political upheavals, etc unexpectedly appear creating shifts in behavior and business. Take for example the inventions of the television, airplanes, twitter, or mobile computing.

Anything in your life change recently?  Has the recession or the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico influenced how you behave or think about things?  To think like a futurist use the questions above. Consider what alternative futures might unfold, then, select the one you would like to see, and begin behaving as if it were in place.
Futurists are all over these and other developments, extrapolating futures scenarios that may ensue. They use trending patterns to anticipate which may be more likely to occur and help people make important decisions regarding which they will choose, all things considered.
Change is the name of the game for these professionals.  They recognize that transformational change is on the horizon. They engage people to reconsider their assumptions and beliefs about tomorrow.  Solving problems, altering the way things are done, and changing attitudes are all part of the game.

How to think like a Futurist

Futurists focus attention on three levels of thinking. They know the future is uncertain, that there are many futures not just one, and that the assumptions people have influence the future that is being created.
You can think like a futurist following these simple and different levels of thinking.
  1. What is the expected future?  Identify assumptions and their implications using critical thinking, mathematical methods and cause and effect reasoning.
  2. What are alternative futures? Challenge assumptions, use imagination and creativity, and test the implications of a number of scenarios from many and considered viewpoints.
  3. What is the preferred future? Clarify what is most important, give different weights to the criteria you are using, develop and organize ways to influence new thinking and action.

Further references

A blog entry from Good written by Mathias Crawford from The Institute for the Future spell outs what futurists from a futurist’s perspective.
World Future Society website provides data and insights (their next conference is in Vancouver, BC in July… see  you there?)
A slide deck pdf from a presentation made by Peter Bishop is available online. You can see it here. Forecasting_Workshop_Peter_Bishop
As well as touching base with futurists from all over the planet, gaining insights into what might be next from many perspectives, and learning new methods for inspiring new idea and new decisions, one other really neat thing about going to the WFS meetings is this – they GET what a creativity professional is. Fancy that!