Forget Futurists: Unless You Plan on Doing Futurism Right

Eric Garland Uncategorized 5 Comments

Right on time, the media is rekindling its affair with Futurists, the love that dare not speak its name.

The cycle is the most predictable thing in all of predictology – as we blossom into the mania of Boom and Bust, the media becomes enamored of these exotic creatures that call themselves experts in the study of what’s next. Who Are These Futurists, and What Can They Tell Us? Lately, I have seen several major consultancies launch “foresight” services, business magazines are speaking glowingly about these useful forward-looking chaps, and even Al Gore’s new book is nothing but classic futurist material, entitled THE FUTURE. It’s as if we’re back in the good old days of Thinking About a Shiny Future! Hooray!

Full disclosure: I am one such Futurist, though I have become a very public critic of the field itself and its relationship to organizations. I have been in the field long enough to see several Boom/Busts where foresight is concerned. And after the drubbing foresight took in the last five years, I see the current uptick in references to foresight as nefarious.

futuristsOur collective desire to go back to The Future is not the same thing as appreciating Foresight.

Here’s what I mean: The Future is about tech-driven growth of the current model. It is the media-friendly version of futurism, the one that focuses 90% on gadgets, 5% on new business models, and at maximum 5% on dystopian visions of a world gone completely wrong. It’s a pep rally for the big and the splashy, driven largely by trends in technology, awash in venture capital. Economic fundamentals, social trends and philosophy are last to be invited the party, arriving only in time for the hangover, The Bust.

Foresight is a balanced approach, one that encourages us to consider all of the trends in front us: emerging technologies, eroding liberties, economic inequality, new values, potential risks. This version of looking ahead isn’t just obsessed with shiny toys and lots of money; it exists outside of Boom and Bust and abhors easily predictable speculative bubbles. It is always the type of thinking that is first to go in a crisis, as we saw when thoughtful futurism was shown the door after the traumatic events of 2001 and 2008. Internal foresight groups got fired. Innovation was forsaken in favor of short-term security and cash flow management. Authority trumped imagination.

I say you should ignore this new round of future giddiness entirely – unless you are also interested in figuring out why we refuse to consider a balanced approach to foresight when we need it most – as a way to avoid man-made financial catastrophes and as a way to choose humane solutions for society.

If you aren’t going to appreciate foresight for its true usefulness, spare me your obsession with gadgets and money.