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What do futurists really do?

My elevator speech, unfortunately, takes more than the ten-floor standard height of a downtown Washington DC building to get across. I should move to Manhattan or Kuala Lumpur. The reason is, I need more time to gently but clearly clarify things for folks who have in their heads a direct, sure, and understandable idea of what a futurist should be. Their idea is wrong, but that’s not their fault nor is it their problem.

I start my elevator speech saying I help people in organizations understand how the world is changing and what it could mean to their business. They say, “so you mean like predicting technology and stuff?”

“Yes,” I say, “but not only that. My role is to look across the sweep of change shaping our world, and explore how social change, and technological change, and economic change will come together and create our future.”

If they are still with me, they ask: “So what is the track record for your predictions?” or, “Did you predict the Internet?”

Here’s where the dogma of my field leaps to action. “Futurists don’t predict the future,” I feel myself beginning to say. I stop, I try again. (The elevator has long since stopped at the top, and I have to hold the door open to finish my point. so there’s an alarm going off, figuratively, and maybe literally, too.)

“Futurists explore the range of possibility for the future. We can’t know the future, with certainty, so we don’t try to make specific predictions.” At this moment, they sometimes get a gleam in their eye: “How clever” they think, this guy can’t get caught being wrong!”

I soldier on: “But we can help people understand much better how change is unfolding, and what the possible and probable outcomes could be.” Here the fair-minded will nod and give me a sense that they don’t hate or pity me, which is nice.

But what some people hear in this is “I have no idea what the future will be.” Usually now they are looking around for someone else to talk to, or perhaps for an emergency exit.

So what do futurists really do?

Futurists spend the time, have the tools, and bring skills and experience to explore change. They observe, detect, and explain what changes are unfolding and the possible and likely outcomes of them. If they do their work well, the bring to this an ability to help people understand things better: they offer frameworks for understanding and interpreting change. They “put the story together” showing not just what forces and trends are at play, but how they could add up: they portray whole futures: of sectors, of regions and community, of aspects of life.

Futurists keep a sense that there’s a range of possible outcomes in our future, but they also get close to making predictions: they share ideas on things that are rather sure to happen. I have been in my profession since 1987. Twenty-five years ago, when I was new in the field, we were exploring the power of the Internet. We were talking about miniaturization of electronic devices and about ubiquitous computing and communications through things held in the palms of our hands. We were talking about the wave of Baby Boomers passing through the American population and the impacts of an aging society that would emerge. We talked about conflict over resources and the rise of Asia.

We talked about these things and the alternative potential outcomes, but got our clients thinking about the changes that in fact, emerged. We were right because we took a broad view. We were useful because we changed minds about the future.

We’re at your floor now, thanks for listening.

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{ 4 comments… add one }
  • Cindy Frewen (@Urbanverse) January 11, 2013, 1:57 pm

    John, this is a gem. wow, thanks. May I quote you?
    “got our clients thinking about the changes that in fact, emerged. We were right because we took a broad view. We were useful because we changed minds about the future.” nice.

  • John Mahaffie January 11, 2013, 2:06 pm

    Hi Cindy, quote away. I am glad it resonated.

  • Neil Brand May 2, 2013, 1:47 am

    hahaha. Once upon a time I started a masters degree in foresight. Two of the first tasks we were given were (1) answer the question “how long is now?” and (2) give an elevator pitch on what a foresight practitioner does. Soon we were talking about plausible futures, 200 year presents, transformational narratives and cognitive dimensions of time. We impressed each other, but the rest of the university started using the stairs!

    I came across your site accidentally. Actually I’m scanning the websites of other professional futurists trying to locate an old classmate. And what I see in all their home pages is that no one has worked out the elevator pitch yet!!

    These days I just tell people that I help them to act more wisely. I don’t stress the future part of it. “How might the future look?” quickly becomes “how might we see things differently from the way we see them now?” I don’t tell them that if I’m successful life gets harder for them, because they become aware of an ever increasing variety of alternative futures and they have to work out themselves which ones are valid.

    Anyway your blog is great. I enjoyed the quotes, and they also brought a smile because I remember being struck by some of the same ones reading Alice in Wonderland to my kids. (My daughter answered the “now” question – she said now goes on until I do the things I promised for later).

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