Mapping the future

Mapping the future
Published: 
January 2013

Futurists meet a need. In the midst of relentless and constant change, CEOs are looking for tools to manage uncertainty and reduce risk. But that’s not all. Business leaders don’t simply want to prepare for change; they want to influence it.

It’s not something you contract out or do one weekend a year. At every point of everybody’s life we are aware of the past, living in the present and anticipating the future.

What is the future of door and window design, in an era of smart technology and constant connectivity?

How are our changing patterns of births and death impacting on the congregation of a leading Christian church?

What happens to a soft drink company if one of today’s bestsellers turns out to be carcinogenic in 20 years?

 

No, these aren’t Trivial Pursuit questions; they are some of the challenges that futurists interviewed by Momentum are tackling for business today.

Ask a futurist what it is that they do, and it’s what they don’t do that you are first and emphatically likely to hear: predict the future, carry a crystal ball, offer a silver bullet.

Futurists meet a need. In the midst of relentless and constant change, CEOs are looking for tools to manage uncertainty and reduce risk. But that’s not all. Business leaders don’t simply want to prepare for change; they want to influence it.

Futurists claim to help business explore alternative future scenarios. “Of all the possible future scenarios we build, I help business identify the one they want, and to build the path to get there,” says Tim Longhurst, futurist (and GetUP activitist) based in Sydney and San Francisco. To Tim, the trick is knowing the difference between a passing fad and a sweeping change that will radically alter his client’s world. “We are all,” says Tim, “spoilt for choice at the buffet of change.”

FUTURISM HAS A PEDIGREE

Charles Brass of Futures Foundation Melbourne believes that the growth in demand for future thinking is a logical progression from our established interest in the past:

“Think about crime scene investigators or archaeologists, people who have a professional interest in a time and place they couldn’t be at, but have developed expertise to understand that time and place. A futurist has similar tools and techniques to look at a time and place they can’t be at. Only their time is on the other side of now.”

AND FUTURISTS HAVE A TRACK RECORD

It’s futurists, says Shell Oil, that enabled the company to weather the global oil shock of the 1970s. Crude oil quadrupled in price, Western economic activity faltered, stock markets slumped, unemployment rose. The oil industry was hit hard, but Shell Oil, using future scenario building, had anticipated the possibility and had prepared for it. They suffered less dramatically, and then recovered, they say, quicker than most.

There’s also post-apartheid South Africa. In 1991, with Mandela just released from prison, a number of leaders from South Africa’s business, political and civil society met for a series of intense discussions. The future looked precarious.

The four possible scenarios this group described triggered national debate, and ultimately guided policy. The birth of post-Apartheid South Africa, largely avoided catastrophic worst-case scenarios.

WHO ARE FUTURISTS?

Anyone can call themselves a futurist, however a global initiative towards accreditation and professional recognition is being led by The Association of Professional Futurists.

In the meantime, says Tamar Kasriel, listed by Wired Magazine as one of the world’s most influential futurist, a wide variety of activities fit into the futurist box, “from Sir Thomas More to the great science fiction writers, to cool people in Silicon Valley.”

Futurists come from broad backgrounds and have degrees in the likes of history and statistics, and they have successful careers, from activism to academia. Most agree that open-mindedness, the ability to lead people through a complex change process, a multidisciplinary approach to problems and the knack of spotting patterns others miss are attributes that contribute to success.

HOW TO GET THE MOST OUT OF FUTURE THINKING

To Charles Brass, future thinking should be part of normal business. “It’s not something you contract out or do one weekend a year. At every point of everybody’s life we are aware of the past, living in the present and anticipating the future. Futurists work with people to give them an awareness of the impact of what they do in their future.”

Futurists are called on for a range of tasks. “I may be asked in as part of the entertainment for a business conference,” says Tamar, “but I can be most helpful when a business has a specific question it wants to explore and time to give to the process.”

Like any consulting process, businesses that are prepared to follow through on ideas that emerge during the process, benefit most. “It’s no good spending an intense period scoping the future, engaging the team, stimulating ideas then sending everyone back to work, business as usual. That can be a step backwards, not into the future.”

Technology often features.

“Technology is not the whole story, but, “says Tamar Kasriel, “it feels like the sharp end of change. It’s what we see changing, at home and at work. In terms of business decisions, future thinking is also often about technology investment.”

Sohail Inayatullah’s work embraces a spiritual side to future thinking. Trained as a statistician, Sohail extends his evidence-based analysis of megatrends and their impacts with a consideration of how to affect deeper cultural change. “As individuals, and as business people, we need to be acting for a particular future to make a difference to the world our children live in. I know what future I want and I focus on that.”

SHOW US THE MEGATRENDS

We asked our futurists to share their view of megatrends that are changing our world.

JIM CARROLL

Based in Toronto, Canada, Jim is a world-renowned futurist of more than 20 years’ experience.

Global food production – has to double in the next 20 years. We worry too much about the stock market and other short-term indices, and ignore long-term trends that offer massive potential for economic growth for countries like Australia.

Connectivity – everything in our lives is becoming plugged in. This changes everything. Think of health: we can register, record, upload and share statistics like weight, body mass index, blood pressure, heart rate. How we think about and manage health is shifting radically.

Africa – Africa is becoming a megatrend. China views it as an enormous resource and is investing heavily. Many African nations are rising out of poverty.

SOHAIL INAYATULLAH

Dr Sohail Inayatullah looks at future thinking from a business, geopolitical and personal perspective.

Repricing of nature as an externality. We are beginning to include the real cost of water, carbon and other resources into our economic models. This will have a variety of significant impacts on business and consumer behaviours.

Bots (software that runs automated tasks over the internet) – health bots, eco bots, all kinds of bots, monitoring, managing and reporting on behaviour, consumption, usage.

Longevity is changing how we think about life – as we live longer, we aren’t simply adding years, we are renegotiating our whole life cycle. It was birth, student life, work, retirement. Now something new is emerging. Exactly what that is remains unresolved.

TAMAR KASRIEL

Listed by Wired Magazine as among the world’s most influential futurists. Tamar Kasriel runs a future agency in London.

Health how the current economic turmoil will play out over the long term remains to be seen, but there will be significant shifts around the world.

New tribalism a new tribalism is emerging, with people connecting in new ways and learning how they can impact local politics, their communities and larger scale issues, even decisions like whether or not to go to war.

Global economic turmoil how the current economic turmoil will play out over the long term remains to be seen, but there will be significant shifts around the world.

TIM LONGHURST

Tim is head of the strategic foresight consultancy, Key Message, and an advisor to a number of Silicon Valley startups.

Wisdom is in the group – savvy businesses are learning to tap wisdom from outside. This will change business conversations.

Collapsing barriers – traditional barriers are breaking down: barriers to entry; barriers to funding; barriers between businesses, and between business and customers; even regulatory barriers.

The power of small – knowing that taking the first small step in any direction can make a whole bunch of things happen. Small acts can unleash so much power and possibility, so many new ideas, creating a landscape for change.