Why I’m proud to be a futurist

Eric Garland Futures Studies 7 Comments

All my friends know that I have a problem with the F-word.

Futurist.

The word sounds cool and has such a weight to it. It ought to be a sought after job title, yet despite my experience as a bona fide professional futurist, I have struggled mightily these past few years with it. The word is fraught with connotations and denotations, not all of them good. The term has been so abused by glib hucksters that many think of futurist as any keynote speaker talking about the latest gadgets, or a techno-optimist attempting to get you to believe that we’re a decade away from immortality. Because I’m not likely to talk about uploading your soul into your iPhone, I’ve tried to get away from the term. I use “strategic trend analyst” or anything to try to convince people that I’m not one of those pundits long on buzzwords and short on rigor and expertise. So I’ve been using anything but the dreaded F-word to describe my work.

Well, I have decided to make a statement. Dammit, I am a futurist and proud of it. I’m taking the word back.

A few months ago I attended the memorial for my mentor Joe Coates, a man from whom I learned the title “futurist” and from whom I shamelessly stole every idea and technique I know today. When you read the elegy for my friend, you will understand why I take futurism seriously and why I have hated to see it cheapened. It is a serious discipline practiced by serious people, and just the small gathering of the Coates family and Washington DC’s community of futurists was enough to remind me of that this was a discipline, a community of practice filled with many brilliant minds – people who thought about a world larger than themselves. This community came together in the nuclear age around the problem of technology potentially wiping out humanity. It developed over time to help leaders think about complex problems in the government and business world. It has much of which to be proud.

Futurism has also had a rough time in the last decade, one that has left our community of practice, and perhaps the rest of the intellectual world, a little lost. Thinking about the future has been under assault, and we should deal with that before what comes next, which could be a golden age.

Futurists emerging from a dark age

The ability to process information about potential future consequences resides in the prefrontal cortex. Fear is processed back in the amygdala and effectively shuts down the rest of the brain. This will explain the last decade of trying to tell people about what’s next.

Recent years have not been very kind to futurists mostly because of the intellectual trauma of current events. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and after the (easily predictable) banking crisis of 2008, telling anybody about the longer-term implications of their decisions was a pretty tough sell. There is that expression “scared out of your wits,” and it certainly applies to the past decade. Every time people got frightened by events they were not anticipating, they responded in the worst yet most predictable way possible – by turning off their wits and focusing on the short-term. Not only do budgets decrease for the use of professionals who can help guide you through complex strategic situations, when events are traumatizing, the culture tends to even mock futurists for trying to help.

I covered this in my cri de coeur in The Atlantic entitled “Peak Intel: How So-Called Strategic Intelligence Is Making Us Dumber.” While I am pleased to report that in the years since the publication of that essay circumstances have improved for futurists, I stand by what I wrote. The intellectual environment for legitimate foresight after the financial meltdown was absolutely poisonous. Executives were still attacking futurists for describing the obvious implications of trends, such as income inequality or weakness in the housing market. I watched executives have a meltdown in front of their staff because I dared mention that the Baby Boomers were getting older. There were plenty of shrewd consultant types who simply produced palliative information about the next five minutes and called it foresight. Particularly for about three years after the implosion of financial markets, things were as bad as I described.

I am relieved to report that the intellectual environment has vastly improved as some of those same executives caught in the throes of normalcy bias are finally staring into their business’ metrics and realizing that no, things are not normal. The inexorable march of technological trends and social evolutions shows increasingly that we have never been in a recovery, but a transformation all along. Futurists knew it, but it was not a popular narrative when so many just wanted the world to go back to “normal.”

So here we are in 2015, and where there was defensiveness now we find increasing curiosity. Despite the predictable rejection of foresight when people are under stress, there is a rising tide of interest in how to manage these brand new dynamics in the world. Where executives recently sought concrete answers they now are seeking improved questions. Luckily, there is a group of professionals with reliable intellectual tools that can assist in just that endeavor.

Four characteristics of a futurist that will never go out of style

There is a reason that futurism never disappears completely, even after organizational cultures might be wracked with spasms of fear: the tools of foresight reliably deliver value to leaders. Irrespective of society’s seasonal needs for novelty (“Show us some new gadgets!”) or needs for a scapegoat (“See? Your predictions are wrong because something bad happened!”) the real tools of the futurist will always be appreciated in a complex, rapidly-changing world.

1. Systems thinking

Futurism depends on seeing the world as an ecosystem, connected in ways we rarely take time to consider. Leaders trying to guide a single organization in a complex world will always need the ability to think in terms of systems to maximize their outcomes. Moreover, it will always pay to have people outside the organization – and its inevitable politics – keep thinking about the broader world.

2. Taboo busting

The future is actually built on ridiculous predictions coming true. Women working outside the home, doing business with the Red Communist Chinese, people owning their own computers outside of the office, gay people allowed to get married in Iowa – each of those realities would have been considered absurd if they were made as as forecasts. People in organizations will always be lauded more for “accurate” assessments of the status quo rather than daring to provide a vision of a “ridiculous” future that could change everything. Leaders will always need provocateurs willing to show dramatic and instructive visions of what’s next, experts who lack a stake in internal politics and who are skilled at navigating resistance. Nobody is better prepared for that vital role than futurists.

3. Innovation

In both business and government, there is significant lip service paid to creating outside-the-box solutions. Innovate! they all say, and they say it with such sincerity. The reality is that internal politics do not facilitate the creation of disruptive new ideas, much less their implementation. This is where futurists will always be of use. Rigorous trend research, the hallmark of any true professional in the field, serves as the feedstock for innovative ideas. Organizations will rarely tolerate an internal figure coming up with radical new ideas with little justification. Researching exactly what’s changing and exploring the implications for an organization gives a high-definition picture of what may be on the horizon and invites anticipatory responses. When you know more about what your future will look like, then it makes more sense to come up with new initiatives – that innovation which we say we want so badly.

4. Leadership

In times of strife, people who are scared make fun of anyone attempting to see beyond the next five minutes because they supposedly will not make an “accurate prediction” about The Future. Professional futurists never deal in the prediction of single, unavoidable futures, but in the exploration of multiple possible futures driven by the trends we uncover. The soul of leadership is in seeing through chaos to  a preferable outcome, detailing a vision, and driving an organization toward a new version of success. That skill set is the purview of only the best leaders and futurists remain critical to this endeavor.

The future is so bright, shades, etc.

Yes, things have been tough for futurists in recent years, but I am standing up to say that our best years are still ahead. No matter what the world looks like, we will need leaders in our organizations who can see the bigger picture, dare to speak the unspeakable, conceive of radical new solutions, and drive us toward lofty goals. In fact, these are the eternal qualities of leaders, the ones they make statues of, from Augustus Caesar on up. Even if somebody has a problem with the word “futurist,” surely they must admit that the values brought by futurists are just as eternal. For this reason, I plan on using the F-word in 2015 and beyond.

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