What is a futurist?

05 Jul 2006|Lee Shupp

When I reveal to clients and colleagues that I’m a trained futurist, I often get bewildered looks, and then comments along the lines of “pork bellies or crystal balls?” No, I’m not a futures trader who works commodity markets. And no, I’m not a fortune teller either. I am interested in the process of change, and in how the future will be different than the present or past. Rather than “predicting” the future, I study underlying forces of change to understand how different alternative futures may play out in different contexts.

Many of my futurist friends have also encountered this confusion, so we recently posted a FAQ list of common questions about futurists and futures research. Hear is a short version for quick consumption with comments about how the FAQs apply to my world:

What is future studies / futures / a futurist?
Futurists explore the future to anticipate and prepare for change in order to make better decisions today. In my case, it’s often about aligning product development cycles with future consumer behavior, so that products and services help people to do the things that either are or are becoming important to them.

The objective is not just to know exactly what will happen in the future, but to be ready for a range of likely alternatives. Rather than bet the farm on one assumed future, we hedge our bets across a range of plausible futures.

How many futurists are there?
The futures field is small but growing worldwide. Our best estimate is that around 2,000 professionals make their living as full-time futurists, although not all call themselves futurists. Many more incorporate futures tools into other roles and responsibilities, as I do.

How would you describe a typical futurist?
Futurists come from a wide range of backgrounds. What they have in common is big picture thinking, strong pattern recognition, and innate curiosity.

Futurists hail from all walks of life, be it liberal arts, psychology, engineering, the sciences. A growing number are coming from the dozen or so futures degree programs worldwide. I was trained at the University of Houston program, just down the road from NASA, where I met an extraordinary group of people who really challenged my thinking.

Other characteristics typical of futurists include openness to new experiences, comfort with ambiguity, systems thinking, seeing options and alternatives, questioning and challenging assumptions, a global outlook, a long-term time horizon, and the ability to be comfortable with complex, often conflicting data.

How does one become a futurist?
Some become futurists by earning a graduate degree in futures studies, and others learn on the job through professional development.

Many professionals become futurists by acquainting themselves with futures concepts, tools and methods, familiarizing themselves with the literature, and participating in futures conferences and organizations.

What are the main organizations involved with the future?

World Future Society (1967) — 20-25,000 members who subscribe to The Futurist magazine and attend annual meetings; mostly centered in the U.S Mainstream futures for newbies, interested non professionals and the Old Guard.
World Futures Studies Federation (1971) — several hundred members spread across the globe with a rotating secretariat, and includes many academics and a focus on “preferred” or normative futures, i.e. what the world should be like.
Millennium Project (1998) — volunteer group with “nodes” across the globe that produces the annual State of the Future report, an interesting read.
Assn of Professional Futurists (2003) – almost 200 professional futurists and students in futures degree programs, with a focus on professional futurists.

What methods do futurists use?
Futurists take an inter-disciplinary approach and employ a wide range of methods, from trend analysis to scenario planning, to simulations, to strategic planning and visioning. I am a “street futurist” who emphasizes ethnographic and anthropological approaches combined with environmental scanning and tech forecasting.

Futurists use data from the past and present, and our concepts and methods to understand how the present will evolve into possible alternative futures. We also borrow liberally from other fields, such as forecasting, chaos theory, complexity science, organization development, systems analysis, and sociology.

What is the history of the field?
In the US, the formal study of the future began after World War II when Herman Kahn of RAND started using scenarios to explore the consequences of nuclear war. In Europe, Bertrand de Jouvenal’s Art of Conjecture was a key development in the emergence of futures studies there.

Royal Dutch Shell became the most recognized corporate practitioner of futures studies in the 1970s, using scenarios under the guidance of Pierre Wack, who learned/borrowed the technique from Herman Kahn. Shell later produced several leading “2nd generation futurists.” (You can buy the latest Shell Global Scenarios to 2025 at amazon.com, and they are really interesting.)

Since then, futures has spread beyond its roots in the US and Europe to become the global movement that it is today. There is increasing interest in using futures tools to better understand, and shape, the future. Futures thinking is becoming commonplace in organizations ranging from Fortune Global 1000 companies to consultancies to government agencies, non-profits, and educational institutions.

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