The future is a mystery

Future Foresight

For years now I have cringed when someone introduces me as a “Futurist”

Thanks to media attention, marketing hype and the proliferation of snake-oil-salesmen, the once respected academic discipline of foresight now conjures up images of mystics and shamans and if I had a pound for every reference made to me concerning crystal balls then I could have retired years ago!

Let me set the record straight – a futurist does not “predict the future” – quite simply because there is no such thing as “THE” future – there are MANY possible futures.

The role of a futurist is to envisage and outline as many of these as they can through methodical and disciplined approaches utilising a variety of constructs and frameworks in order to help their clients determine the preferred future and start creating it.

Futuring is most commonly applied to inform strategy and drive innovation and at a high level the process is quite simple:-

  • start by mapping the current state of the particular area of interest and understand the history of how it got to that state
  • establish a baseline for the “expected” future if nothing changes
  • scan for the trends that are driving change and the impacts they might have
  • extrapolate multiple different “possible” futures and their associated implications (here is one of the ways I do this)
  • pick the “preferred” future and start building it

To bring this to life, let’s look at an (oversimplified and by no means exhaustive) example of the topic of “the future of personal transportation” :-

  • Current state
    • today, millions of people all over the world make use of cars powered by internal combustion engines using fossil fuel instead of horses
    • people die in vehicle accidents due to human error
    • we got here because Henry Ford showed us that we didn’t need “faster horses” and
    • city streets were becoming so congested with horse manure that it threatened to drown us (hey! I warned you this was an oversimplified example!)
  • Baseline
    • cities will become so polluted that we won’t be able to live in them
    • increasing number of people continue to die in vehicle accidents
    • we will run out of fossil fuels
  • Trends
    • increasing public awareness of environmental impacts of pollution and fossil fuels
    • climate change fears driving emissions policy leading to entire countries banning combustion engines
    • alternative fuels leading to low / no emissions from vehicles
    • battery technology dramatically improving
    • artificial intelligence reducing chance of human error in almost every aspect of life
    • technology accelerating innovation in every industry
  • Possible futures
    • all electric autonomous vehicles
    • no cars at all
    • total ban on personal transportation in favour of mass transportation
    • personal transportation “on demand”
  • Preferred future
    • personal transportation on demand in the form of renewable energy powered “autonomous drones” – ones that fly, roll, ski, float / whatever is appropriate in order to maximise ease of use and minimise impact on environment and society in general

The above is not a “prediction” per se (although when it comes about I’m going to point people back to this article!) – it is an extrapolation based on what I believe to be a very “plausible future” based on the work that I do tracking TIPS (Technologies, Innovations, Patents & Startups) and it’s a future that I personally believe will become a reality before I die of natural causes – because multiple companies have already started to build towards this very future that I have outlined.

As an Innovation Consultant (my preferred title), I use the above approach to help my clients make informed decisions about their future strategy and above all, ignite their innovation initiatives – I hope that my simple explanation above will help you to understand the process involved in “thinking like a futurist” and encourage you to do the same in your organisation.