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The Futurist Rising

Wednesday, October 1, 2008 - 09:46

At its core, engaging with a futurist is an attempt by business to discover new choices for the future. By Ann-Maree Moodie

"If you spend part of the work week in an interim management role or running your own consultancy, and the remainder serving on a board or two, chances are you refer to yourself as a 'portfolio' worker." - Charles Handy.

"Perhaps fixing up the house is your thing? A slap of paint on the kids' bedroom walls while the osso buco bubbles on the stove, and for after dinner, your latest knitting project awaits your attention. That warm feeling is called cocooning for a reason." - Faith Popcorn.

Whether they are called social researchers, trend trackers, economic forecasters or cultural trend commentators, futurists are enjoying something of a surge in popularity as business grapples with tough economic times and an uncertain future.

Some futurists, like the Irishman Charles Handy and the US's rather unusually named Faith Popcorn, have an international reputation borne by their forecasts of the way that society will work and play.

Handy's predictions of 'portfolio careers' in his 1989 book, The Age of Unreason, and Popcorn's 1992 'cocooning' prediction in The Popcorn Report: The Future of Your Company, Your World, Your Life, which foresaw a revitalisation of the homemaking economy, both continue to resonate.

In Australia, some of the best known names in the field are Phil Ruthven (economic forecasting), Bernard Salt (social trends), Richard Neville and Richard Slaughter (both a kind of futurist-at-large). Two books by Tim Flannery, The Future Eaters and The Weather Makers, are examples of how a futurist asks questions and then seeks out answers.

Whether it's a global issue such as world peace, poverty or climate change, or an issue of more immediate effect to an Australian business such as petrol prices, drought or transport infrastructure, futurists are engaged to help shape strategic thinking within organisations.

"A futurist is someone who cares about the future, on an individual basis, but also on an organisational or global basis, depending on where they choose to focus their energy," says Maree Conway of Thinking Futures. "No matter what level a futurist works, invariably their underpinning aim is to work with people to build a sustainable future for themselves, their communities, their organisations, their countries and for the welfare of the planet."

Adding value
Futurists are variously engaged by boards, CEOs and other C-suite executives to focus staff on a longer-term view of the business, the market and the economy. They help leaders to anticipate, understand and prepare for the future, and then act upon the decisions they take.

"It's easy to engage a futurist as a speaker for an event, and most will provide a stimulating, interesting and often thought-provoking presentation," says Conway. "But this sort of engagement is usually just a once-off, with limited ongoing value to a business.

"The area in which a futurist can add value to a business in an ongoing way is in strategy development: helping business build stronger strategy by thinking long term, and understanding better what their business will look like in the future - and the environments in which it will be operating - to build competitive advantage or to simply be ready for whatever the future brings."

A foresight capacity
Engaging a futurist is as much about discovering new choices for the future as it is about shaping the future you desire. For this reason, understanding the jargon is important. It is common to hear the term 'foresight' when talking about futurists. Foresight is the capacity to think systematically about the future to inform decision making today, says Conway. The term, 'futures' refers both to the research, methods and tools that are available for us to use to develop a foresight capacity, and to the field in which futurists work.

"At the time I engaged the work of two different futurists, we were doing work around organisational values and purpose, and working on the question, 'what type of business do we want to become?' in a cultural, strategic and operational sense," says Stephen Johnston, former Fox managing director turned executive search consultant with Korn/Ferry International.

"Like most organisations, the perennial problem for us was short-term thinking, in that focus was on the 'here and now' despite our desire to take a longer-term view. I wanted a futurist to talk to the team to provide a jolt and get us collectively looking at what we do through a broader lens. What I like about the notion of a futurist is not that they are predictors of the future per se, but rather they are able to demonstrate that a big-picture view is possible."

Scoping out possible futures
The great wise man of the tribe, a seer sitting in the temple or a woman hunched over a crystal ball are some of the images that spring to mind when the word 'futurist' is mentioned.

In reality, futurists are not people into making attempts at seeing or predicting the future, but rather researching trends and analysing past events in order to help business to sketch a vision of a future market, consumer, event or lifestyle.

"We tell our clients that there is no such thing as one future, but a range of possible futures," says Charles Brass, Chairman and Founder of The Futures Foundation. "The first future is business as usual. Then there are the probable futures that a business will have a reasonable idea of being able to predict. But it's the plausible and possible futures that are harder to examine because you need to look further. The wider the scope of your investigation, the more time, energy and money you have to invest, but you will know that you're better prepared."

Types of futurists
According to Andy Hines, the co-author of Thinking about the Future: Guidelines for Strategic Foresight, there are three types of futurists:

  • the academic futurist works almost exclusively in universities, researching problems and publishing papers and books
  • the consulting futurist is the most visible because it is his or her role to 'sell' the future
  • the third type is the organisational futurist who is often the interface between the academic and consultant futurists.

"Strategic foresight activities are unique among business practices because they deal with the long-term future," writes Hines. "For this reason, they naturally introduce fuzziness and expose uncertainty."

For example, take the question, 'what will a particular technology mean for the world of business in 10 years?'. The first priority is about framing issues that arise immediately, defining the boundaries of the technology and what is meant by the world of business; the second, understanding the depth and scope of research required and assessing available resources to accomplish it; and the third, considering the number of alternative scenarios or images likely to be required and what outcomes the client is likely to want. "And these [questions] are only the beginning," says Hines.

When Stephen Johnston engaged a futurist he was cognisant of the potential for his employees to see that person - and maybe also Johnston himself - as a crackpot.

"The downside risk of engaging a futurist is having people think they are listening to a clairvoyant and that we are engaging in an exercise of make-believe or a hypothetical discussion," says Johnston.

"The benefit is that if there is evidence of a structured approach to thinking, people pick up on that and they understand. While the future is uncertain, a fact-based approach to interpreting facts, figures, trends and influences is both possible (despite short-term pressures) and can be a driver of exciting new ideas."

Creating a future that hasn't happened
Just as it's possible to teach leadership and entrepreneurship, academics have also found a way to teach the future. At the Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, Dr Peter Hayward is the Program Director for the Masters of Strategic Foresight, a two-year degree by coursework, first offered in 2001.

"By its very nature, the future is a philosophical provocation because the future hasn't happened," says Hayward. "What a futurist is employed to do is to alert leaders and decision makers in business that because the future hasn't happened yet, they have the opportunity to create the future they want.

"Futurists tend to wrestle with problems that can't be solved by the present. Therefore, the role of the futurist is to ask questions about what we can do and, importantly, from an ethical and morale perspective, what we should do. It's about giving decision makers options to choose from. I always say that if a futurist is stimulating thinking but doesn't offer anything useful, then the job isn't done."