Popular Mechanics recently published an article, “How to See the Future” by Lara Sorokanich about the work that Futurists do and the Futures Studies degrees that qualify many of us futurists. Below are my reflections and further information from my perspective as a graduate student of foresight to expand on the article’s subtitle, “It turns out it’s possible to earn a degree in Future Studies. We’ve got the Cliff’s Notes.” Glen Hiemstra, the futurist interviewed for the article, very generously shared further insight with me about which I wrote previously.
The article starts off the way many futurists caveat their own presentations: “If history has taught us anything, it’s that people who try to predict the future are often spectacularly wrong.” And follows with “And yet somebody’s got to do it”. Enter the Foresight Professional. AKA Futurist.
Most Futurists do not make predictions, as pointed out in this article (“futurists use science and data to figure out what the world might look like in 20, 50 or 100 years”). Predictions are yes/no judgments about discrete occurrences. I leverage statistical forecasts as one element in a discipline that addresses uncertainty. Futurists, especially those trained in Foresight, seek the futures, always plural, alternatives to the assumed path and align strategy with the organization’s preferred direction amongst the multiple alternatives.
The value proposition of a professional futurist’s skill set applies well beyond foresight work to leadership and management of all stripes. It is said by organizational researchers that the role of a CEO is to consider the future. Maximizing this synergy of fields is my mission behind studying for both an MBA and an MS in Foresight: combining numerical forecasts with scenario planning, creativity, visioning, and strategy. The vision and the doing. The research and the dreaming.
Trends are vectors that point with a direction and a value. X is growing by Y. Trends are dynamic current events that carry an assumption of but not a promise of continued trajectory. I have learned that the role of researching and measuring salient trends in foresight is primarily to set the baseline future. The expected future if things keep going the way they are. Where are things going given the trend we watch now? Then, as with a forecast, futurist seek underlying assumptions and indicators of divergent paths. What are the trend’s limits, what factors amongst stakeholders propel or arrest them, and do they lie as a tangent on a curve? What would break these trends and what happens to the web of players and to our planned future when this occurs?
Trained futurists generally research at long time scales to account for complexity and seek plausible alternatives to what the trends now seen tell us. This is one of the strengths of combining Foresight with Library & Information Science: the context and limits of each type of information along with research literacy.
Futurist Glen Hiemstra shared in the article the three questions he applies to trends: Is the potential future technologically feasible? Is it economically viable? Is it socially and politically acceptable? Applying the three tests explored below to observed trends gives great insight into their longevity.
Please see “Popular Mechanics Article On “Real Occupation” Of Futurists & Insights From Glen Hiemstra” for Glen Hiemstra’s detailed approach to futures work which he shared with me. His foresight approach generally follows the stages of:
- Developing pictures of possible futures
- Defining preferred futures
We see from Glen that seeing the future includes visioning it. Designing preferred futures is a key aspect of foresight work. Glen addresses anticipatory thinking, environmental scanning, scenario planning, visioning, strategies, and more.
Following are my own approaches to the three tests/questions posed in the article.
Is the potential future technologically feasible?
An organization like Google’s X may follow up with, “what will we do to make it possible?” As a futurist also trained in science and business, I add the follow up questions of: who will this benefit down the road, who is working on this technology, what does the market look like, what are the barriers to entry, to whom is it a strategic technology and market, whose life will this improve, what innovations in efficiencies etc. are needed? My education in physics helps to resolve how the conceived technology fits into the structures of science as we know them to be now and what needs to be researched and developed. Being technologically literate aids me in judging what is viable and available now, what obstacles to expect in further developments, and how to strategize around barriers. Being fluent in current events helps me consider the societal elements that impact the diffusions of technology.
Is it economically viable?
My professional training in both Foresight and Business Management informs on if we can and how we can make the future vision economically viable. How do we balance long and short-term priorities? The futurist in me examines the alternative futures that make it viable. The business student in me ask what revenue will it take to make palatable the costs? Where is the break even point? What partnerships can be forged? Who are the stakeholders and which have leverage? What tangential industries will it launch? Who has something to lose and can arrest the advancement of the field?
We can graph at what price points technologies will catch on in what markets as lower bounded limits and set indicators for when it will be ready for mass consumption. Futurists also scan for changes in factors that may shorten this calculus and plan for contingencies.
As I gain economic and financial literacy through my Executive MBA study (as well as through reading the Wall Street Journal etc. daily) I become better at judging conservative growth under current and possible scenarios to balance my futurist mindset. It is a challenge and an adventure bridging future-oriented and economist thought.
Is it socially and politically acceptable?
Is it ethical and how does corporate social responsibility factor in? Is it culturally viable now and will it be in the future? Are values and attitudes shifting and when/will social shifts make the idea widely acceptable?
I am equipped to apply frameworks for ethical reasoning to advancements and I have developed professionally under the value system of librarianship. Libraries, sitting at the junction of technology, content, and people balance change and tradition and the needs of academia and the public sector. I have lived in the context of social justice, am culturally aware, and steeped in current events. I consider the foresight perspective for political and regulatory issues. Foresight aided by library and information science teaches us to scan via the perspectives of multiple parties and the sector categories of STEEP (social, technological, economics, environmental, political) while the MBA study leverages stakeholder maps and graphs of their influence.
These three above questions are great for any organization to ask and can be accompanied by an ethical reasoning model, foresight’s spiral dynamics, or even McLuhan’s tetrad (what does it enhance, reverse, retrieve, obsolesce?).
These questions also expand my developing mission of strategizing for future stakeholders and for the future of all stakeholders.
Thank you, Popular Mechanics and author Lara Sorokanich for the insightful piece on futurists and for covering the work of futurists. Thank you Glen Hiemstra for generously sharing your insights with me and elucidating that key area of futurists’ work of preferred futures. http://www.futurist.com/
– Joe Murphy, from librarian to futurist + MBA
Sorokanich, Lara. “How to See the Future.” Popular Mechanics. 15 Aug. 2016. <http://www.popularmechanics.com/technology/news/a22354/how-to-see-the-future/>.