Envisioning the future so that it compels action


The current issue of Brunswick Review features an interview with me titled Visions of Tomorrow.

While it is a wide-ranging interview, as often, I was asked about the role of the futurist. Below are some of my ideas on thinking about the future and taking action from the article. See below the quotes for some further thoughts.

Read the full article to also see my commentary on specific issues such as emerging economies, crowdsourcing, professional services, and the future of work.

Knowledge and relationships – not predictions – are the windows to the future says author and entrepreneur Ross Dawson

A futurist is not a fortune teller. Ross Dawson, a futurist, helps businesses face the demands that an endless chain of tomorrows always brings. His job, he says, is not soothsayer, but trusted adviser. “People ask me, ‘how do you become a futurist?’” Mr. Dawson says. “My usual response is, ‘You claim you are, and people either believe you or they don’t.’”

The trick behind that, he adds, is that you have to have already established credibility. The second of his four books, Living Networks, anticipated Facebook and the rise of social media. “That helped,” he says.

How do you define the role of futurist?

Someone who helps people and organizations think about the future, so they can act better today. One project I’m working on is a taxonomy of futures studies and how futurists think, to explain the many different approaches. But that’s how I define it.

I don’t believe that predictions are useful. In fact, they can sometimes have negative value. If you hang your hat on a prediction, you’re likely not looking out for changes that are coming that will prove it wrong. So all the thinking that goes behind that prediction is lost. The reason to think about the future is to work out how we can shape it to create the world we want. The future is made by people.

In your speaking engagements with corporations, what is your message?

The only valid intent of speaking is that you change people, particularly how they think about or frame the future.

An organization has inertia. It has history. It has specific ways of working. Governance, for example, the highest level of responsibility for the organization, has to be able to manage risks to ultimately have a sustainable organization, to grow and create value over the long term. Yet governance is often more focused on risk of action than opportunity or the risk of inaction. So how do you frame the idea of change in a way that allows you to create the structures to allow the organization to transform itself?

Pulling together these ideas, I believe a futurist has to have a real impact in order to justify their role.

The intent is to help clients think usefully about the future, but if it remains at the level of thinking then in fact it is not very useful. It requires changed behaviors at the individual or organizational level.

In a rapidly changing world no organization can stay static. They need to transform themselves, not for its own sake, but to adapt to the future business and social environment.

To do that successfully requires envisioning the future in way that compels action; the futurist’s role is not to do that for their clients, but to help them do it for themselves.

Image: Lurm