What’s a Futurist? (FAQs)

What’s a futurist? And what does a futurist speaker do?

Let’s start by saying what a futurist is not. A futurist is not someone who “tells the future.” We don’t read tea leaves, tarot cards, crystal balls, or tell fortunes. Those who confuse us with soothsayers have never had any dealings with a futurist.

Instead, a futurist is someone who spends time thinking about what might happen in the future, and especially what are the forces at work that will shape and affect our futures. This is not magic, it merely takes time and effort. A professional futurist is someone who takes time to research, study, and think about the future, just as a biologist is someone who takes time to research, study, and think about biology. The end result of a futurist’s efforts is, or should be, a better understanding of the future so that it is easier to make intelligent plans about the future.

In short, then, a futurist is a planner, not a prophet.

As for what a futurist speaker does, I try to present an image or experience of what forces are driving the changes that will create the future. My purpose in doing this is to help people think about the future more clearly, consider what actions would be most useful to them, and then to make robust plans to achieve the future they want.

Being useful today is more important to me than whether I’m right 20-30 years from now. My primary purpose is to help you create the future you want, not merely to predict a distant future event.

What can else can a futurist speaker do? Do you facilitate workshops or seminars?

By an odd coincidence, I do. I’m often asked to help organizations clarify their vision of the future, to conceive of new approaches to help them serve their clients, to conduct innovation workshops in order to invent new products or services, or to improve efficiency, reduce emissions, or increase profitability.

There are a range of futures research tools that can have wide application in both the public sector, and among private sector corporations, as well as the not-for-profit organizations.

But seminars, workshops, and strategic planning sessions are always customized, so it’s important to contact me to explore what might work best for you.

Are there any futurists I might have heard of?

The earliest futurists I became aware of were Buckminster Fuller and Herman Kahn, both of whom emerged in the 1960s. Shortly thereafter Alvin Toffler hit the best-seller list with Future Shock (1970). In 1988, John Naisbett and Patricia Aburdene came to international prominance with their best-seller, Megatrends.

There are lots of other futurists, including Richard Lamm, former governor of the state of Colorado; science (and science fiction) writer Arthur C. Clarke; former Vice-President Al Gore; and the grand master of management science, Peter Drucker. These are not necessarily the best futurists, but they are probably among the best-known futurists.

Within the futurist community, there are a large number of women and men who are experts in a wide range of fields. In all, there are something like 30,000 members of the World Future Society. Of these, perhaps 1,000 are professional futurists who make their living this way.

So, while futurists may not be common, neither are we an endangered species.

How do you predict the future?

I don’t. It’s not my primary objective to predict the future. Indeed, I don’t believe that anybody can accurately and consistently predict the future because the future is too extensive and all encompassing, too broad, and the interconnections are way too complex. Instead, it’s my job to help people plan intelligently for the future. I do this by trying to anticipate what might happen, what early warning signs to look for, and then helping people create contingency plans to deal with these possibilities.

All right, how do you anticipate the future?

There are several specific future studies techniques, which I’ll only touch on here. An environmental scan is just that: watching what is happening elsewhere to see if it has relevance to you and what you do. Hence, for instance, social trends often start in northern Europe before reaching North America. Within North America, they often start on the West Coast, frequently in the San Francisco area, then spread outward from there.

Scenario planning dissects the future into the major forces that drive change, then try to decide how each force might change the status quo. It’s ultimate objective is to produce from a small number different scenarios that portray the major possibilities for the future, along with the “tell-tales” or early warning indicators, that will help you decide which future is likely to come to pass, and to prepare contingency plans to prepare a robust approach to future success.

There are other tools as well that are less widely used, from complexity theory to Delphi techniques to Wild Card analysis. However, at the end, all of these have one central shared feature: those who use any of these techniques must be well-informed about what is happening now, and they must be able to think clearly and coherently about what the next logical consequences might be. Therefore, the short answer to “How do you do it?” is: learn widely, and think deeply.

It must be pretty easy talking about things that might happen 20 years from now. Who’s going to remember?

Since I’m not really trying to predict the future, I don’t worry about whether people remember what I said 20 years ago (although I’ve done pretty well, looking back). Instead, I hold myself to a higher standard: when I’ve finished speaking for you, have I changed the way you perceive the future, think about the future, and prepare for the future? If so, then I’ve done my job, whether it turns out 20 years from now that I was right or not. You should be able to tell when I walk out of the room whether I did my job or not. That’s a subjective measure, and it’s your call.

In the 1970’s, futurists were predicting that by the 2000’s we’d all be working 20 hour weeks, taking 8 weeks vacation a year, flying personal helicopters, vacationing on the moon, and having our housework done by robots. What happened?

Actually, it was the popular press that predicted these things, not the then fledgling futurist community. However, dealing with the predictions themselves, several things were overlooked.

First, concerning the amount of time we’d spend working, people forgot one crucial thing. The future described in this question is the one I describe as the “George Jetson” future. George Jetson worked at Spacely Sprockets, arriving at his office around 10:30, sitting with his feet up on his desk until lunch, then pushing a button and going home.

Nobody thought to ask the question that if pushing a button once a day was all that George Jetson did for a living, then why would Spacely Sprockets need George Jetson in the first place? The implications of that overlooked question go a long way towards describing why we aren’t working a 20-hour week – and why those of us who are working feel like we’re working more hours, not less. The combination of automation and competition of Rapidly Developing Countries is changing the face and nature of work. In fact, there’s a hotly contested debate going on whether robots and Artificial Intelligence will put us all out of work or not.

Robots are here, but they’re used mostly in industrial, commercial, and health care applications, not for doing household chores. It turns out that human beings are far more flexible (adaptable) and far smarter than we ever imagined – as we found out when we started serious work on robots.

But gradually, the specific limitations of robots are being overcome, one by one. After all, a robot for a specific application can focus on the specific requirements of that application. It doesn’t have to be able to dance, use the correct fork at dinner, or comfort a baby as well.

As for vacationing on the moon, I’m just as disappointed as you are – maybe more so as we’ve always wanted to visit the moon (or “Luna” as science fiction fans typically call it). The reasons for the disappointment are NASA, the U.S. Congress, and public opinion. NASA wasted billions of dollars on what amounted to public relations gimmicks, and did it in typical bungling, bureaucratic fashion (“An elephant is a mouse built to government specifications.”)

Worse, when they did get results, they threw them away as soon as public interest (and hence Congressional funding) started to wane. Just as the Apollo missions, for example, were starting to produce significant scientific information on selenology (the lunar counterpart to geology), Congress cut funding for the space program, and NASA stopped sending missions to the moon. My view about a human mission to Mars are along these lines: it’s a public relations stunt, and little more. There are more valuable objectives in space exploitation closer to home.

However, more recently, space tourism has kick-started the private sector’s interest in space exploitation, and companies like SpaceX, started by Elon Musk, Blue Origin, started by Jeff Bezos, and Orbital Sciences, as well as Arianespace of France, are engaged in a true space race. Hence, while your vacation on the moon has been delayed, it may yet happen.

How can I find out more about futurists?
Contact me at: futurist@futuresearch.com. I’d be happy to answer any questions you might have.