A Primer on Futurists

As organizations increasingly try to grapple with the seemingly endless scorching rate of technological innovation and change, more are engaging the services of self-described futurists for advice on how to adapt.

What Is A Futurist?

Basically, futurists are those who look to and provide analysis and insights on potential futures.  They help others anticipate and prepare for potential changes and disruptions in order to make better decisions today.   Think of futurists as in the same league as historians.  Futurists explore the future, just as historians study the past.   Historians are  concerned with origins, roots, stories/points of view of where we have been in the past and how we got to where we are today.   Futurists are interested in emerging trends, technologies, goals, purposes.  In short, futurists are interested in where we might be going in the future and how we can get there.   It’s interesting to note that in many cases good futurists have a little bit of a historian inside of them (e.g. studying the past can help predict potential futures.)

 

What Do Futurists Do?

Futurists research and explore the full range of potential / plausible futures.  A futures consultant or facilitator helps clients expand their typically narrower focus on the future to a broader range of possibilities.  They forecast the future, not just to know the future as an abstract description, but rather to prepare for it as a concrete reality.
The objective is not just to know what will happen, but to be ready whatever does happen.  The objective is not necessarily to be exactly right (which is impossible), but rather not to be wrong–that is, not to be surprised.  Surprise means inadequate preparation, late response, higher risk of failure, even chaos or panic.  Thus, preparing for the full range of plausible futures is the objective of futures studies.

Futurists take an inter-disciplinary approach and employ a wide range of methods, from trend analysis to scenario planning, to simulations, to strategic planning and visioning.  Since the future does not exist, we must study ideas about the future. Futurists use data from the past and present, and our concepts and methods to understand how the present will evolve into possible alternative futures. We also borrow liberally from other fields, such as creativity, complexity science, organization development, systems analysis, and philosophy.

What Type Of BackGround Do Futurists Have?

Futurists come from a wide range of backgrounds. What they have in common is big picture thinking, strong pattern recognition, and innate curiosity.
Futurists come from a wide range of backgrounds and walks of life, be it liberal arts, psychology, engineering, the sciences. A growing number are coming from the dozen or so futures degree programs worldwide.
Other characteristics typical of futurists include openness to new experiences, comfort with ambiguity, thinking systematically, seeing options and alternatives, questioning and challenging assumptions, a global outlook, a long-term time horizon, optimistic, and having a sense of purpose.

How Can I Train To Become A Futurist?

The formal study of the future goes by a number of names, including “Strategic Foresight”, “Futures Studies”, and “Prospective Studies”. 

Formal futurist higher education options are somewhat limited.  There are about a dozen degree programs worldwide.   Within the United States there are two main academic programs created that focus on training futurists 1) the University of Houston (M.S.) and  2) University of Hawaii (M.A. and Ph.D.).  Both programs have been around for over 30 years.

Futurists without the formal education learn on the job through professional development.  Many professionals become futurists by acquainting themselves with futures concepts, tools and methods, familiarizing themselves with the literature, and participating in futures conferences and organizations.

What Professional Networks Are There?

Here are some places to go to find more information….

  • World Future Society  20-25,000 members who subscribe to The Futurist magazine and attend annual meetings; mostly centered in the U.S.  www.wfs.org
  • World Futures Studies Federation   Several hundred members spread across the globe with a rotating secretariat, includes many academics  www.wfsf.org
  • Millennium Project  Volunteer group around the globe that produces the annual State of the Future report and other futures studies, as well as the Futures Research Methodology.  www.millennium-project.org 
  • Association of Professional Futurists  200+ professional futurists and students in futures degree programs.  http://www.profuturists.org/
  • The World Future Council.  http://www.worldfuturecouncil.org. The World Future Council brings the interests of future generations to the centre of policy making.  The Council addresses challenges to our common future and provides decision-makers with effective policy solutions.

Being a futurist sure sounds like fun….and there might just be a future for futurists.  🙂

APF: Top Ten Published Futures Works

Looking for some books to read this summer?  Well, the books on the list below are not necessarily the type of books you would take on that beach vacation you are planning.  No thrilling mysteries on this list.

However, the books on this list were voted the top ten classic works in the area of Futures Work.  So if you are interested in learning more about how to understand the future, you might want to check out one or more on the following ‘classics’.

The Association of Professional Futurists (www.profuturists.org/) is a community of professional futurists who are all interested in understanding and influencing the future.   Recently, the membership voted on a list of what they called ‘classics’ in the topic of Futures related work.  Here is the “top ten” in order of votes received, along with a description of the work.

  1. Art of the Long View by Peter Schwartz.  Amazon description:  “Presenting a revolutionary approach to developing strategic vision in business and in life, a guide for managers, entrepreneurs, and investors explains how to apply creative and intuitive skills to corporate practices.”
  2. Foundations of Futures Studies: Human Science for a New Era by Wendell Bell.  Amazon description: “Author Wendell Bell brings together futurist intellectual tools, describing and explaining not only the methods, but also the nature, concepts, theories, and exemplars of the field.  Bell illustrates how this sphere of intellectual activity offers hope for the future of humanity and concrete ways of realizing that hope in the real world of everyday life. His book will appeal to all interested in futures studies, sociology, economics, political science, and history.”
  3. The Knowledge Base of Futures Studies, edited by Richard Slaughter.  Website description:  “This CD ROM presents an up-to-date international overview of futures studies and applied foresight.  Readers can access some of the core material of the field produced not only by well-known authors but also by many who live beyond the main centers in Europe and the USA.”
  4. Limits to Growth by Donnella H. Meadows, Dennis L. Meadows, Jergen L. Randers and William H. Behrens.  Amazon description:  “offers a pessimistic view of the natural resources available for the world's population. Using extensive computer models based on population, food production, pollution and other data, the authors demonstrate why the world is in a potentially dangerous "overshoot" situation.  Put simply, overshoot means people have been steadily using up more of the Earth's resources without replenishing its supplies.”
  5. The State of the World (series) by The Worldwatch Institute.  Website description:  “State of the World is the authoritative and comprehensive series that is mapping out what an environmentally sustainable society will look like.  Produced by the award-winning Worldwatch Institute, it has become an indispensable guide for national leaders as well as concerned citizens everywhere.   The topics in the 1998 volume include an assessment of the world's forests, an analysis of the decline of fisheries around the world, a survey of all five major groups of vertebrate fauna that are facing severe stress, and the financial aspects of sustainable development.”
  6. The State of the Future by Jerome Glenn and Ted Gordon.   Website description:  “Produced by the Millennium Project, under the auspices of the World Federation of UN Associations (WFUNA), the State of the Future report contains insights into the Project’s work from a variety of creative and knowledgeable people, obtaining information from and getting feed back on emerging crises, opportunities, strategic priorities and the feasibility of actions.”
  7. The Art of Conjecture by Bertrand de Jouvenel   Website description:  “Originally written in French, this is a classic work on the topic of probability.  It was published in 1713 and shows how de Jouvenel derived the form of the binomial distribution.”
  8. Futures Research Methodology by Jerome Glenn and Ted Gordon   Amazon description:  “Comprehensive and internationally peer-reviewed handbook on tools and methods for forecasting and analysis of global change.  Each chapter in this series gives an executive overview of each method's history, description, primary and alternative usages, strengths and weaknesses, use in combination with other methods, and speculation about future usage.”
  9. The Age of Spiritual Machines by Ray Kurzweil   Amazon description:   “Kurzweil, artificial intelligence expert shows that technological evolution moves at an exponential pace.  Further, he asserts, in a sort of swirling postulate, time speeds up as order increases, and vice versa.  He calls this the "Law of Time and Chaos," and it means that although entropy is slowing the stream of time down for the universe overall, and thus vastly increasing the amount of time between major events, in the eddy of technological evolution the exact opposite is happening, and events will soon be coming faster and more furiously.”
  10. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond   Amazon description.  “The book examines why ancient societies, including the Anasazi of the American Southwest and the Viking colonies of Greenland, as well as modern ones such as Rwanda, have fallen apart.  Not every collapse has an environmental origin, but an eco-meltdown is often the main catalyst, he argues, particularly when combined with society's response to (or disregard for) the coming disaster.”

Well, like I said, these are not for light reading.  For those of you who are building your library of futures related books, I hope this list helps you get started.