The evidence is in: we are all born to be futurists


I believe that we all need to be our own futurists: in a rapidly changing world we need the skills and capabilities to think effectively about the future so we can act better today.

Perhaps humans are all in fact born to engage deeply in the future, it is simply a capacity we need to develop further.

Renowned positive psychology professor Martin Seligman, in a recent New York Times article prefacing his forthcoming book Homo Prospectus, says humans are intrinsically focused on the future.
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How to use a futurist to create value: shifting executive thinking


Liz Alexander of Leading Thought has recently published an interesting free ebook titled How to Use a Futurist, which compiles examples of how 24 futurists have created value for clients.

This was my contribution to the ebook (5MB pdf):
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8 key insights into the Future of News: Making media relevant to a 21st century audience


The news industry is undergoing radical transformation. It is also at the forefront of 21st century innovation. The convenience and hype around live video recording, social media, and a variety of new platforms and interfaces are helping ordinary people to become not only consumers of news, but also creators of news. What does this mean for the future of the news industry?

Leading futurist Ross Dawson gave some important insights on “Creating the Future of News” in his opening keynote to the 2015 International News Media Association (INMA) World Congress. Despite the challenges facing traditional printed news, Dawson pointed to our increasing demand for information. “Humans have an insatiable appetite for news and media, and that will continue to grow,” Dawson told the New York congress attendees. “News is exceptionally important for the future of individuals, for the future of companies, and for the future of humanity.”

Here are eight key insights into the future of news, drawn from Dawson’s talk at the INMA congress.

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1. Every organization needs to develop their media capabilities

We all thrive on the flow of news. The relationships between organizations and their customers are no exception. Today, “every organization is a media company,” Dawson observed. Consequently, organizations across diverse industries need to harness media capabilities. This involves creating an environment in which media skills can be developed and readily tapped. In fact, in the 21st century, most media is created for—and created by—everyone. The popularity of Twitter, Instagram, Reddit, and many other platforms is turning individuals into news creators in widespread contexts.

2. News must be immediate, direct, and relevant

The decline of print media is becoming a hard fact in many parts of the world. Dawson is well known for his Newspaper Extinction Timeline that he created in 2010. Although the futurist believes predictions in general are unreliable, he created the Timeline to “wake up” people who were falling behind in the world of modern media.

The reality is, most people now expect news to be instantaneous. Recording functions on devices such as mobile phones and tablets mean that anything anywhere can be recorded and become part of the news. Open source intelligence is changing the news landscape as never before. As a result, timeliness and direct reporting are ever more important.

Relevance is also key. Technology is making it easier to customize news for audiences and individuals. Dawson showed how the social value of news flows into the industry value of news, with direct implications for the revenue of news organizations.

3. Boundaries are there to be transcended

Organizations must push the traditional boundaries of media if they are to survive in the competitive 21st century climate. In his keynote Dawson quoted Professor James Carse, the author of the influential book Finite and Infinite Games, saying: “Finite players play within boundaries; infinite players play with boundaries.”

Dawson told the INMA audience that “[the concept of] journalism is a boundary which we need to transcend.” He cited recent developments in automated journalism as an example of this transcendence.

4. Engaging people’s senses and emotions is key

Visualization will be increasingly important to the future of news, as will interactive user experiences. Infographics, moving 3D charts and multi-format news are already on the rise. Media labs are now using emotion sensors to detect people’s reactions to interactive media. The proliferation of interfaces from smartphones to wearables to virtual reality is seeing new experiences such as Facebook’s immersive Oculus Rift headset, Microsoft’s HoloLens holographic computer, and Magic Leap’s 3D computer-generated imagery.

Applying new user experiences to create interactive news media has significant potential. As Dawson noted, the total global crowdfunding raised for film, theater and music was 100 times greater than the amount for stand-alone journalistic pursuits. This suggests the value people place on exciting, immersive experiences.

5. Organizations need intelligent platform strategies

The flow of news into the future will require platform expansion in order to create the multi-channel news and multi-party interactions appreciated by consumers. Consequently, organizations will need to build a structured method to understand how platforms develop relative to each other. Game theory can be applied to examine the trade-offs and contingencies of choosing particular platforms.

Another solution news organizations could consider is building their own platforms. With the right tools and expertise, this can create unique and compelling offers to attract users.

6. Inviting active participation reaps rewards

Nowadays, we are no longer mere recipients of media. We are participating in media. In some countries, people already spend more time on social media than on accessing formal news sources. News is mobile, and over the next five years, three billion more people will have access to smartphones and the Internet. In this context, news organizations need to consider the many benefits of inviting users to participate in news creation.

News organizations must understand that relying on their media professionals alone will no longer be sufficient. According to Dawson, successful companies will harness the power of crowds and automation to add value to their products and services. In his book Getting Results from Crowds, the futurist listed 12 applications of crowdsourcing in news, from iReport for reporting to Storify for story compilation to Cell Journalist (now ScribbleLive) for video. Dawson believes that organizations who pay their contributors—including the crowd—will attract a greater proportion of talented people than their competitors.

7. Aggregation is critical to entice subscribers

It seems logical that people are more likely to buy a subscription to a news source if it brings together most of the news that interests them. News aggregation is therefore critical to collating the types of individual, local, national and global news that appeal to an organization’s target audience. Furthermore, subscriber memberships will need to evolve to make members feel part of a community, with shared values.

8. Value creation flows between individuals, communities, and ecosystems

“True community is connection,” Dawson told the INMA audience. In line with this mantra, many newspapers aim to bring their readers together. Some, like The Guardian, even extend this to creating their own dating websites. Regardless of the method, the fact remains that in an open world, value creation occurs most beyond the organization, across ecosystems. The news organizations of the future will not simply create value for their participants, they will encourage them to create value in their own ecosystems. This cycle is crucial to the flow of innovation that media companies can mobilize to create an exciting and adaptive future.

Savvy sci-fi futurists: 21 science fiction writers who predicted inventions way ahead of their time


Many futurists, scientists and inventors have been inspired by the imagination and anticipation of the future inherent to science fiction novels. From the Internet to iPads to smart machines, some of the world’s greatest advances in technology were once fictional speculation. As sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke wrote in Profiles of the Future (1962), “The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.”

Sci-fi is a powerful genre because it envisages how society could function differently. “This is the first step towards progress as it allows us to imagine the future we want, and consider ways to work towards it,” writes physicist and philosopher Dr. Helen Klus. “It also makes us aware of futures we wish to avoid, and helps us prevent them.”

The 21 sci-fi futurists featured below gave some of the earliest recorded mentions of inventions that have since become a reality. Several of these authors doubted that their fictional inventions would ever come to fruition, or thought it would take much longer for their inventions to occur than it actually took. Others were remarkably spot on. Regardless of accuracy, however, what these future thinking authors all recognized was that change is an inevitable and powerful force that can blur the boundaries between fiction and possibility.

1. Rocket-powered space flight: Cyrano de Bergerac, 1657

1.rocket Steve JurvetsonWhile astronomer Johannes Kepler had envisaged lunar travel in his Somnium (The Dream) written in 1608, the idea was so strange at the time that Kepler chose to have demons transport his protagonist. In 1638, Bishop Francis Godwin had a similar flight of fancy: his protagonist in The Man in the Moone hitched a ride with migratory birds. But in The Other World: The States and Empires of the Moon, an early science-fiction story by French author Cyrano de Bergerac, the protagonist makes a machine that launches when soldiers fasten fireworks underneath it:

“I ran to the Soldier that was giving Fire to it… and in great rage threw my self into my Machine, that I might undo the Fire-Works that they had stuck about it; but I came too late, for hardly were both my Feet within, than whip, away went I up in a Cloud.”

In a literary sense, this passage evokes the exhaust flames produced by rockets with internal combustion engines. The first rocket that propelled something into space—the satellite Sputnik—would be launched 300 years later, in 1957.

2. Submarines: Margaret Cavendish, 1666

Many people attribute the first mention of a submarine to Jules Verne, who described an electric submarine in his famous book 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1870). However, few people know that an early form of submarine was mentioned in The Description of a New World, Called The Blazing-World (1666), a book about a satirical utopian kingdom, written by Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle. The book is perhaps the only known work of utopian fiction by a woman in the 17th century, as well as one of the earliest examples of what we now call science fiction. Cavendish’s protagonist talks to sentient animals about various scientific theories, including atomic theory, before travelling home in a submarine when she hears that her homeland is under threat.

3. Machine-automated language: Jonathan Swift, 1726

Jonathan Swift, the well-known Irish satirist who wrote Gulliver’s Travels, critiqued the so-called scientific literature of his time, which was not always the result of rational thinking. Consequently, when Swift described an “engine” that could form sentences, he was satirizing the arbitrary methods of some of his scientific contemporaries:

“…the most ignorant person, at a reasonable charge, and with a little bodily labour, might write books in philosophy, poetry, politics, laws, mathematics, and theology, without the least assistance from genius or study”.

What Swift may not have realized was that his ensuing description of a machine containing all the words of the language spoken in Lagado, a fictional city, is one of the earliest known references to a device broadly representing a computer. Nowadays, computers are able to generate permutations of word sets, as Swift envisaged.

4. Eugenics: Nicolas-Edme Rétif, 1781

4. Australe left align croppedSci-fi writers have had their share of scandal. One such writer was Nicolas-Edme Rétif de la Bretonne, a Frenchman whose work was still deemed licentious in 1911 by the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Despite Rétif’s notoriety, some critics now praise his inventions and naturalistic approach in his science fiction book La Découverte Australe par un Homme-Volant (The Discovery of Australasia by a Flying Man). As well as describing aviation gear two years before Louis-Sébastien Lenormand made the first recorded public parachute descent, Rétif converts early thoughts about evolution, adaptation and transformism into fiction.

Among the creatures Rétif’s hero encounters is an articulate half-human, half-baboon. “The book is part natural history, part imaginary evolutionary experiment, in which Rétif brings these primitive beings to life and demonstrates the genetic mixing that gradually results in both the differentiation of animal species and the emergence of humankind,” writes Amy S. Wyngaard. Rétif imagined Australasia as a sort of eugenic utopia, a century before the term “eugenics” would be coined by Charles Darwin’s half-cousin, Francis Galton.

5. Oxygen in air travel and space travel: Jane Webb Loudon, 1828

A future where women wear trousers and automatons function as surgeons and lawyers was foreseen by pioneering sci-fi writer Jane Webb Loudon. In her book The Mummy: A Tale of the Twenty-Second Century, Loudon gave a very early mention of the notion that, to survive in outer space in earth’s orbit, it would be necessary to take some air with you. She wrote:

“… and the hampers are filled with elastic plugs for our ears and noses, and tubes and barrels of common air, for us to breathe when we get beyond the atmosphere of the earth.”

So, next time you are on an airplane watching a demo about oxygen masks, don’t forget to remember the contribution of Jane Webb Loudon!

6. Debit cards: Edward Bellamy, 1888

Edward Bellamy’s novel Looking Backward: 2000 to 1887 featured an American utopian society that used so-called “credit cards”. Bellamy’s concept actually relates more to debit cards and spending social security dividends than borrowing from a bank. The main character describes how people are given a stated amount of credit on their card to purchase goods from the public storehouses:

“You observe,” he pursued as I was curiously examining the piece of pasteboard he gave me, “that this card is issued for a certain number of dollars. We have kept the old word, but not the substance…The value of what I procure on this card is checked off by the clerk, who pricks out of these tiers of squares the price of what I order.”

Debit cards and credit cards would be invented more than 60 years later.

7. Electric fences: Mark Twain, 1889

7. electric fence Hannah BannerA lesser-known fact about American novelist and humorist Mark Twain is that he predicted the electric fence. In his novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Twain transports an American engineer back in time to the court of King Arthur, where modern engineering and technology win him fame as a magician. In one passage, Twain described the electric fence in considerable detail, before concluding that it has a marvellous use in defense:

“Now, then, observe the economy of it. A cavalry charge hurls itself against the fence; you are using no power, you are spending no money, for there is only one ground-connection till those horses come against the wire; the moment they touch it they form a connection with the negative brush through the ground, and drop dead.”

Electric fences were not used to control livestock in the United States until the early 1930s.

8. Videoconferencing: Jules Verne, 1889

Famous French sci-fi pioneer Jules Verne described the “phonotelephote”, a forerunner to videoconferencing, in his work In the Year 2889. The phonotelephote allowed “the transmission of images by means of sensitive mirrors connected by wires,” Verne wrote. This was one of the earliest references to a videophone in fiction, according to, a site that traces inventions and ideas from science fiction. In the Year 2889 also predicts newscasts, recorded news, and skywriting—inventions which have all come to fruition well before 2889.

9. X-ray and CAT scan technology: John Elfreth Watkins Jr., 1900

In a visionary article for the Ladies’ Home Journal entitled “What May Happen in the Next Hundred Years”, an American named John Elfreth Watkins Jr. made several remarkable predictions. One of the most striking was his prediction of X-ray and CAT scan technology:

“Physicians will be able to see and diagnose internal organs of a moving, living body by rays of invisible light.”

In the same article, Watkins also foresaw high-speed trains, satellite television, the electronic transmission of photographs, and the application of electricity in greenhouses.

10. Radar: Hugo Gernsback, 1911

10. radar U.S. Naval Forces croppedThe beauty of Hugo Gernsback’s prediction of radar lies in its intricate detail. The description occurs in Gernsback’s series of short stories, Ralph 124c 41+, which was a play on “One to Foresee For One Another” (and appears to have anticipated texting language as well):

“A pulsating polarized ether wave, if directed on a metal object can be reflected in the same manner as a light ray is reflected from a bright surface… By manipulating the entire apparatus like a searchlight, waves would be sent over a large area. Sooner or later these waves would strike a space flyer. A small part of these waves would strike the metal body of the flyer, and these rays would be reflected back to the sending apparatus. Here they would fall on the Actinoscope, which records only the reflected waves, not direct ones…From the intensity and elapsed time of the reflected impulses, the distance between the earth and the flyer can then be accurately estimated.”

In 1933, a working radar device that could detect remote objects by signals was created.

11. Atomic bomb: H.G. Wells, 1914

One of the most unfortunate legacies of science fiction is the genre’s inspiration for the atomic bomb. In The World Set Free, H.G. Wells predicted that a new type of bomb fuelled by nuclear reactions would be detonated in the 1956. It happened even sooner than he thought. Physicist Leó Szilárd apparently read Wells’s book and patented the idea. Szilárd was later directly involved in the Manhattan Project, which led to the tragedy of nuclear bombs being dropped on Japan in 1945. Strikingly, Wells spelled not only spelled out the idea of a sustained atomic reaction, he also predicted the moral and ethical horror that people would feel upon the use of atomic bombs, and the radioactive ruin that would last long after the bomb was dropped.

12. Cyborgs: E.V. Odle, 1923

12. clockwork face George BoyceThe Clockwork Man by E.V. Odle depicted a cyborg as a major character and also helped to introduce steampunk. The Clockwork Man is a cyborg who suffers from a glitch that causes him to fall into the world of 1923. The book dealt with what happens to humanity when people merge with machines and live inside a vast cyberspace-like world that seems to offer them infinite plenitude. It wasn’t until 1972 that the cyborg concept gained greater currency, when Martin Caidin’s novel Cyborg speculated in depth about human-like bionic limbs. Today, cyborgs are becoming a reality.

Some readers believe that E.V. Odle was a pen name used by Virginia Woolf, who dabbled in science fiction and sought to protect her credibility as a serious writer. Most consider this an unfounded rumor, and hold that E.V. Odle was Edwin Vincent Odle, a little-known British playwright, critic, and author. Regardless of the author’s identity, Virginia Woolf’s work seems to have influenced the novel. Reviewer Annalee Newitz calls the book “an odd mashup of Virginia Woolf and H.G. Wells”.

13. In vitro fertilization: J.B.S. Haldane, 1924

J.B.S. Haldane was a British scientist who also imagined the future directions of biology in his book Daedulus; or Science and the Future. The work proclaimed how scientific revolution might alter the most private aspects of life, death, sex, and marriage. This was a bold move given the uproar that inventions like birth control were causing in contemporary media.

Haldane predicted the widespread practice of in vitro fertilization, what he called “ectogenesis”. His theory of reproductive technology and his scientific futurism influenced Aldous Huxley’s novel Brave New World (1932).

Haldane also stressed that humans need to make advances in ethics to match our advances in science. Otherwise, he feared, science would bring grief, not progress, to humankind.

14. Teleoperated robot surrogates: Manly Wade Wellman, 1938

14. robot surrogate Sebastian DoorisThe short story The Robot and the Lady by Manly Wade Wellman offered an early fictional account of teleoperated robots. The context is entertaining: roboticist Dr. Alvin Peabody seeks a date with another researcher in the field, Muriel Winthrop, but fears he is too “scrawny and fluffy-headed” to attract her. So he chooses his “tall, dashing” prize robot to speak and act for him. Ironically, Winthrop also chooses a robot surrogate to woo Peabody. When both parties discover the mutual deception, they believe they are made for one another and hasten to meet in person.

Some robot surrogates already exist. See, for example, the Inmoov Robots for Good designed for hospitalized children, the InTouch medical rounding robot for doctors, and the Geminoid human replicas.

15. Microwavable heat-n-eat food: Robert Heinlein, 1948

In Space Cadet, famous sci-fi author Robert Heinlein took the newly invented microwave one step further by predicting the rise of ready-to-eat, microwavable food:

“Theoretically every ration taken aboard a Patrol vessel is pre-cooked and ready for eating as soon as it is taken out of freeze and subjected to the number of seconds, plainly marked on the package, of high-frequency heating required.”

It took a few decades before Heinlein’s vision became an everyday reality.

16. Earphones: Ray Bradbury, 1950

In Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury described earphones that were much more convenient than the huge headphones of his day:

“And in her ears the little seashells, the thimble radios tamped tight, and an electronic ocean of sound, of music and talk and music and talk coming in, coming in on the shore of her unsleeping mind.”

In-ear headphones were released to the mass market in 1980.

17. Machine intelligence outsmarting humans: Clifford Simak, 1951

In Time and Again (also published as First He Died), Clifford Simak depicted a chess game between a man and a robot:

“In the screen a man was sitting before a chess table. The pieces were in mid-game. Across the board stood a beautifully machined robotic.
The man reached out a hand, thoughtfully played a knight. The robotic clicked and chuckled. It moved a pawn…
“Mr. Benton hasn’t won a game in the past ten years…”
“… Benton must have known, when he had Oscar fabricated, that Oscar would beat him,” Sutton pointed out. “A human simply can’t beat a robotic expert.”

Simak’s early sci-fi reference of robots or computers being unbeatable at chess occurred four decades before futurist Ray Kurzweil predicted in The Age of Intelligent Machines that a computer would beat the best human chess players by 2000. In 1997, sure enough, IBM’s “Deep Blue” beat Garry Kasparov.

18. iPad: Arthur C. Clarke, 1968

18 newspad us vs themThe “newspad” conceived in Arthur C. Clarke’s novel and film 2001: A Space Odyssey has been realized in the iPad, albeit with a greater variety of functions. Clarke wrote:

“When he tired of official reports and memoranda and minutes, he would plug in his foolscap-size newspad into the ship’s information circuit and scan the latest reports from Earth. One by one he would conjure up the world’s major electronic papers…Switching to the display unit’s short-term memory, he would hold the front page while he quickly searched the headlines and noted the items that interested him. Each had its own two-digit reference; when he punched that, the postage-stamp-size rectangle would expand until it neatly filled the screen and he could read it with comfort. When he had finished, he would flash back to the complete page and select a new subject for detailed examination…”

19. Electric cars: John Brunner, 1969

Perhaps one of the most prophetic novels ever, John Brunner’s novel Stand on Zanzibar, set in 2010, creates an America under the leadership of President Obomi, plagued by school shootings and terrorist attacks. The EU is in existence, major cities like Detroit become impoverished, tobacco faces backlash but marijuana is decriminalised, and gay and bisexual lifestyles have gone mainstream. The inventions used in society include on-demand TV, laser printers, and electric cars. Brunner believed these cars would be powered by rechargeable electric fuel cells, much as they are today, and that Honda would be a leading manufacturer. Recently, Honda has affirmed that its electric vehicles are a “core technology”.

20. Real-time translation: Douglas Adams, 1979

The amusing little Babel Fish in Adams’ renowned The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy brings real-time translation to Arthur Dent and his fellow characters. Several apps now on the market for Android or iOS mimic the Babel Fish’s abilities. One of these apps is Lexifone, which translates from one language to another when someone speaks during a call. Microsoft has also been developing real-time translation for Skype.

21. The ubiquity of the World Wide Web: David Brin, 1990

21. world wide web SEOBrin’s famous book Earth made several remarkable predictions, inspiring fans to monitor its success rate. One of the most prominent and important of these predictions was the ubiquity of the World Wide Web, in a decade where the Web was still new and uncertain. “In EARTH, I portrayed my 21st-century characters using screen displays filled with clickable links—in other words, Web pages,” Brin told PopMech. “As it turned out, Marc Andreessen and Tim Berners-Lee had similar ideas at the same time and were plugging away at changing the real world, making possibilities come true for everyone.”

The ongoing role of sci-fi

As futurist Ross Dawson has observed, “Fiction about the future whets our appetite for new technologies. It is how we discover what it is we truly want, driving new developments.”

As the pace of change continues to increase, a statement by scientist and sci-fi author Isaac Asimov rings truer than ever: “It is change, continuing change, inevitable change, that is the dominant factor in society today. No sensible decision can be made any longer without taking into account not only the world as it is, but the world as it will be.”

Science fiction writers foresee the inevitable. They inspire us to turn fiction into reality, but they also remind us to reflect on the consequences of our actions and remember what is most important to humanity.

Image sources: Steve Jurvetson, Gallica Bibliothèque Numérique, Hannah Banner, U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, George Boyce, Sebastian Dooris, us vs th3m, and SEO

6 key insights into the flow of innovation: Creating value in an open world


Embedding innovation into business structures is widely seen as vital for the future success of organizations. Innovation is enabling an extraordinary pace of change in the whole structure of who we are, how business works, and how society functions. “Innovation has become a flow, and must be a flow,” observes leading futurist Ross Dawson.

By learning about the flow of innovation, organizations can turn the realization that we are living in a world of innovation into a positive impetus for change. Here are six key insights into the flow of innovation, drawn from a keynote speech that Dawson gave at the 2015 APIdays Sydney conference.

1. Networks are at the heart of everything

“In a world in which we are moving towards a truly fluid economy, driven partly by powerful twin technological and social trends towards openness, networks are at the heart of everything,” Dawson says. In his book Living Networks, the futurist notes that we have shifted to a society where “value is created by the network, not by the organization”. Rich connectivity makes networks more pervasive, and it is in this connectivity that innovation becomes a flow.

The present decade is full of exciting possibilities because the networks in which we are participating are “coming to life”, Dawson says, and mimicking the workings of our biological networks. What conditions are allowing networks to come to life? Our ability to “enable the connection, enable the flow, enable the innovation, enable that diversity of things coming together”, the futurist observes.

2. Connections are most valuable when they are diverse

The value of diversity is becoming increasingly evident in today’s world. Diversity is key because innovation is all about bringing together different directions and perspectives that have not been connected before. The 1993 Nobel Prize Winner for Chemistry, Kary Mullis, pointed out the value of innovation by recombination, stating, “I put together elements that were already there, but that’s what inventors always do. You can’t make up new elements, usually. The new element, if any, was the combination, the way they were used.” The moral of the story: a team with a broader range of experiences is more likely to challenge conventional wisdom and appreciate the innovation potential of new developments.

3. Innovation with the most important impact occurs at the levels of the organization and the business model

Dawson distinguishes five main domains in which business innovation can be applied: the product or service, marketing, processes, the organization, and the business model. While innovating at each level is required, higher-order innovation is more likely to be repeated and to reap the biggest returns. This is partly because traditional, inflexible organizational structures depend on habits that reinforce the existing business model, as Rita Gunther McGrath observes in Harvard Business Review. Therefore, many organizations need to revise their structures and business models if they want to keep pace with change and reinforce innovation.

4. External networks should mirror internal networks

Klein bottle orangePicture an organization as a Klein bottle (left), an object whose inside and outside have the same surface. In a similar way, an organization’s internal and external networks must be integrated. This analogy shows that the dividing line between the outside and inside of an organization is increasingly fluid. Part of this fluidity is due to open data, says Dawson. He cites Amazon as a prime example of a company that harnesses platform thinking to open up its organizational boundaries. Amazon’s founder and CEO, Jeff Bezos, gave all of his teams a mandate: to expose their data and to ensure that their interfaces are externalizable. Employees were told anyone caught breaking these rules or communicating outside the interfaces would be fired.

5. Open data creates value

Business is being shaped by a fundamental, ongoing trend towards openness. This trend is derived from a virtuous cycle where social attitudes shape technology, which in turn shapes social attitudes. Dawson explains that today’s leaders must manage three layers of information inside organizations: proprietary data, information shared with trusted partners, and information thrown open to the world. “There are massive risks to not taking action, not exposing information,” he warns. Organizations who cannot decide what information should be available and what should not are being left behind.

6. Value creation occurs most beyond the organization, across ecosystems

One of the most important messages from Dawson’s APIdays keynote was that “Organizations cannot stand alone. They must be able to create value across systems.” The notion of the business “ecosystem” is signalling a change in strategy: a movement from value creation inside the organization to value creation across a broader space. To succeed in this transition, leaders must realize that they cannot capture all the value for themselves, or their organizations will erode. This is because today’s networks are created not only for the creators, but also for the broader community. The only organizations that will fully develop the flow of innovation will be those that allow sufficient value creation for other participants.

Ecosystem web2
Image sources: Micah Elizabeth Scott and Rosmarie Voegtli

How do you become a futurist? 10 key elements of a career thinking about the future


Many people are curious about the steps that futurists take to build a name for themselves in the futures industry. As a result, futures thinkers are often asked, “How do you become a futurist?” While there is no single career path that all futurists follow, here are several common threads that connect the learning and career history of leading futurists.

Backgrounds in diverse domains

What is striking about the backgrounds of prominent futurists is their individual and collective diversity. The education, industries, and geographical locations of today’s futurists are wide-ranging and sometimes surprising.

Exposure to variety in study, work and society

From film to writing to technology and more, futures thinkers across the globe engage with manifold domains. Some eventual futurists, including leading futurist Ross Dawson, intend to develop a well-rounded career history before adopting the futurist label. Dawson writes in a blog post, “When people ask me what is my background that prepared me for being a futurist, my response is ‘varied’. I worked across six distinct careers in several countries before engaging in my current path.”

Other futurists start their careers without necessarily intending to become futurists. Instead, they gain exposure to a variety of disciplines and gradually discover that being a futurist would be an interesting career suited to their strengths.

Mastering systems thinking

For those who aspire to become futurists, it is important to develop a deep understanding of systems thinking. In the experience of futurists from Genevieve Bell to Amy Webb to Rebecca Costa, travelling and living in diverse countries and cultures can help to form a systemic worldview. Costa attributes her ability to see the “big picture” to her cross-cultural upbringing and education in Japan, Laos and the United States.

Lego globe_640x640

Building capability and credibility

Futurists sometimes face skepticism from members of the public who misunderstand the real role of a futurist, thinking, for example, that futurists are like astrologists! Consequently, for people who decide to build a name for themselves as futurists, credibility is key. Futurists also need to be credible so that the people they work with are engaged and receptive.

Education and self-education

One way to gain credibility is to complete a tertiary futures studies program. The Acceleration Studies Foundation provides a helpful list of futures studies courses from around the world. For futurist Maree Conway, studying the Masters of Strategic Foresight course at Swinburne University of Technology, Melbourne, was a life-changing experience. Conway reflects on her website that “The concept of responsibility for future generations and being a good ancestor struck a real chord with me, and by the end of the two years of the course, I had decided that I wanted to work in the futures field.”

While study can help to boost credibility and define one’s career direction, a large part of the capabilities of a futurist is often self-taught. The path of self-education can involve building experience in one or more careers, seeking out professional development, and maximizing opportunities for mentoring and networking.

Career paths

Although increasing numbers of futurists are studying and teaching futures programs, the game changer for most futurists is their career development. Major fields that futurists emerge from include science and technology, marketing and trends, social studies, anthropology, and the environment and sustainability. Within these disciplines, there are three main pathways that futurists tend to follow:

1) working at a consulting firm
2) corporate roles as in-house consultants or futurists, and
3) founding their own consultancies or strategic foresight businesses.

Across all of these pathways, expertise in strategy and planning is crucial.


Several professionals have donned the “futurist” label after the publication of future-thinking articles or books that have become widely known and appreciated. For Ross Dawson, the “futurist” breakthrough came after the publication of his book, Living Networks, in 2002, where he outlined the upcoming explosion of social networks. Another example is futurist John Naisbitt, whose 1982 book Megatrends inspired millions of readers, including futurist David Houle.

Megatrends John Naisbitt cover

Social networking

Most futurists today harness the power of social media to improve public recognition of their work as a futurist or as a futurist by another name, such as a foresight practitioner or futurologist. Prominent futurists usually have thousands of followers on Twitter, as well as using Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, Google+ and other social networks for maximum effect, by sharing some of the fascinating and useful insights into the future they glean from their work.

Professional development

Professionals from a range of fields often develop their personal interest in the future by reading the latest literature on future trends, forecasting, organization and system change, science and technology, and other forward-thinking topics. They may also attend conferences and seminars about the future and join professional associations such as the World Future Society or the Association of Professional Futurists (APF). Candidates to join the APF must be recommended by a member and must meet two of the six selection criteria, which span employment as a consulting or organizational futurist, obtaining a postgraduate degree in futures studies, or demonstrating competence in teaching, writing or speaking on futures theory or methodology.

Mentoring and fostering connections

The process of learning about the future can be boosted by closely connecting with one or more professional futurists. Following them on social media is a starting point, but working for them or learning from them through direct mentoring can be a powerful asset. The benefits of mentoring for inspiration and know-how are vouched for by futurist danah boyd, who looks up to Genevieve Bell as a mentor in the technology space, and futurist Glen Hiemstra, who learnt from Ed Lindaman, an early member of the World Future Society.

The power of media

One way to solidify your education and expertise in particular fields is to develop a media presence. Most prominent futurists have their own websites that include links to their recent mentions in newspapers and their interviews on television or radio. If major media channels recognize your work and describe you as a futurist, this strongly supports your positioning and your ability to create value.

Creating value as a futurist

Becoming a futurist is not simply about forging a career, making money or acquiring fame. Futurist Ross Dawson believes that futurists have an important purpose: to create value for clients and the world around them. To achieve this goal, futurists must encourage leadership at all levels; that is, they must inspire other people to help create brighter futures.

Surian Soosay futurist pic

Image sources: dirkb86, bidorbuy, and Surian Soosay

The best futurists ever: How Buckminster Fuller anticipated today’s challenges over 50 years ago


220px-BuckminsterFuller1By Ross Dawson

When I’m asked who my favorite futurists are, usually the first person who springs to mind is Buckminster Fuller. He was an extraordinary inventor, a true visionary who had a massive impact on how we think, and was way ahead of his time.

You can discover more about his work from the Buckminster Fuller Institute.

Today I was looking again at some of his work, and was struck at how prescient his thinking was. Five decades ago he was talking about many of the issues that are today dominant in our considerations of the future. He brought deep and powerful insights that are exceptionally relevant to us today, not least to the future of work. His work remains powerful and useful.

I have taken a selection of quotes from his work (from WikiQuotes) below that are still highly relevant today. Let us learn from his wisdom.

Talking about Massive Open Online Courses and the pull of education:

Children, as well as grown-ups, in their individual, glorified, drudgery-proof homes of Labrador, the tropics, the Orient, or where you will, to which they can pass with pleasure and expedition by means of ever-improving transportation, will be able to tune in their television and radio to the moving picture lecture of, let us say, President Lowell of Harvard; the professor of Mathematics of Oxford; of the doctor of Indian antiquities of Delhi, etc. Education by choice, with its marvelous motivating psychology of desire for truth, will make life ever cleaner and happier, more rhythmical and artistic.
– 4D Timelock (1928)

Talking about the role of humans versus computers:

“Man is going to be displaced altogether as a specialist by the computer. Man himself is being forced to reestablish, employ, and enjoy his innate “comprehensivity.”
– Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth (1963)
[Note: Fuller was an apostle of “comprehensive thinking” – thinking about the whole and not just the parts]

Talking about the very current debate on a basic living wage as automation replaces jobs:

We must do away with the absolutely specious notion that everybody has to earn a living. It is a fact today that one in ten thousand of us can make a technological breakthrough capable of supporting all the rest. The youth of today are absolutely right in recognizing this nonsense of earning a living. We keep inventing jobs because of this false idea that everybody has to be employed at some kind of drudgery because, according to Malthusian-Darwinian theory, he must justify his right to exist. So we have inspectors of inspectors and people making instruments for inspectors to inspect inspectors. The true business of people should be to go back to school and think about whatever it was they were thinking about before somebody came along and told them they had to earn a living.
– “The New York Magazine Environmental Teach-In” by Elizabeth Barlow in New York Magazine (30 March 1970), p. 30

Talking about the Circular Economy:

Pollution is nothing but resources we’re not harvesting. We allow them to disperse because we’ve been ignorant of their value.
– As quoted in “The View from the Year 2000” by Barry Farrell in LIFE magazine (26 February 1971)

Talking about augmentation and extension of our senses:

Up to the Twentieth Century, reality was everything humans could touch, smell, see, and hear. Since the initial publication of the chart of the electromagnetic spectrum, humans have learned that what they can touch, smell, see, and hear is less than one-millionth of reality. Ninety-nine percent of all that is going to affect our tomorrows is being developed by humans using instruments and working in ranges of reality that are nonhumanly sensible.
– R. Buckminster Fuller on Education (University of Massachusetts Press, 1979), p. 130

Describing the rise of the living networks:

The new human networks’ emergence represents the natural evolutionary expansion into the just completed, thirty-years-in-its-buildings world-embracing, physical communications network. The new reorienting of human networking constitutes the heart-and-mind-pumped flow of life and intellect into the world arteries.
– Grunch of Giants (1983)

Talking about applying technology to create better futures:

I do know that technologically humanity now has the opportunity, for the first time in its history, to operate our planet in such a manner as to support and accommodate all humanity at a substantially more advanced standard of living than any humans have ever experienced.
– Grunch of Giants (1983)

On everyone’s personal responsibility to shape a better future at a time when our capabilities are massively amplified:

I have to say, I think that we are in some kind of final examination as to whether human beings now, with this capability to acquire information and to communicate, whether we’re really qualified to take on the responsibility we’re designed to be entrusted with. And this is not a matter of an examination of the types of governments, nothing to do with politics, nothing to do with economic systems. It has to do with the individual. Does the individual have the courage to really go along with the truth?
– Only Integrity is Going to Count (1983)

These quotes just brush the surface of the depth of Buckminster Fuller’s work. I will come back later to some of his important themes and work.

The future of analogue people in a digital world


A little while ago, I gave the keynote at Bridge Point Forum on Future Directions in the Digital Age, the title riffing off the conference’s theme of The Rise of the Digital Age.

I opened by making the critical point that, while the digital world is rising around us at an extraordinary pace, humans are completely analogue. Nothing about humans is digital. While we can conceive of and enact digital processes and thoughts, these are created from fully analogue neural networks.

This means that one of the most important frames on our future is understanding the interface between analogue humans and our increasingly digital external environment.

I illustrated the idea with segments of this movie of three Geminoids – essentially robot replicas of humans – together with their human models.

There is obviously a long way to go, but digital (and some analogue) technologies are getting closer to replicating some aspects of what we understand to be human.

Our analogue nature is in fact at the heart of what makes humans so much better than computers at many things such as conceptualizing, synthesis, and relationships.

There are many capabilities that were long considered to be uniquely human, such as playing chess at the highest level, yet brute digital processing power beat us long ago. Other amazing capabilities built on our analogue structure, such as facial recognition, are now being matched or transcended by digital capabilities.

All of which means that human interfaces with digital machines must be a large part of our future. They may be simple, such as visual and gesture interfaces that play to our analogue strengths. Or they may be more direct, such as the thought interfaces shown in this movie.

Perhaps an increasing number of people will choose to make themselves partly digital, as Kevin Warwick of I Cyborg fame has done. Or perhaps we will simply create better interfaces.

I do not believe our human analogue richness can be fully captured in digital structures (which is a subject for another post). Which means that the interfaces between analogue humans and the digital world in which we are immersed will be absolutely central to our future.

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The future of travel and tourism: safe adventures, real-time guidance, and new frontiers


Recently, I spoke about the future of travel and tourism on the Morning Show.


Some of the things I talked about:

* The impact of the ageing developing world population, including the quest for “safe adventures” and the likely continued rise of cruise ships as a way to travel.

* The desire for greater experience in both travel and destination, resulting in the possibility of glass-topped aircraft to see the night skies as never before, and moving beyond the usual tourist itineraries to ever-more exotic locations.

* A massive rise in sustainable tourism, with low impact hotels and activities and the opportunity to observe rare species.

* Medical tourism continuing to grow, supported by ageing populations and soaring costs of medical attention in developed countries.

* Technology driving our pre-holiday and vacation experiences. We will be able to experience what it’s like being there before we go. We will get personalised recommendations based on our interests and profile on where we should go and what we should do.

* Real-time translation will allow conversations with people wherever we go.

* Space tourism is on the verge of reality, with Virgin Galactic already having sold 500 tickets at $200,000 a pop and many new competitors arising.

* The spaceships that allow space tourism could enable far faster global travel, including potentially 4 hour flights from Sydney to London.

Futurist, futurologist, foresight practitioner, visionary, foresighteer: what’s in a name?


“By a name I know not how to tell thee who I am,” laments Romeo to Juliette in one of Shakespeare’s most memorable scenes. A similar complaint about the inadequacy of names is often uttered by today’s “futurists”. Be they futurologists, foresight consultants or futurist thinkers by any other name, of what import is their choice of one term over another?

Formerly fashionable futurologists

Name pic_futurologist_grey queue
Futurologists were all the rage back in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s. In History and Futurology (1966), German professor Ossip Flechtheim saw futurologists as the future-thinking counterparts of historical sociologists. Little did he know that the role of a futurologist would soon burst the boundaries of sociology and become multi-disciplinary in scope.

Given that most “ologies” are specific, testable branches of knowledge, some futures thinkers dislike the name “futurologist”. In an article for Futures journal, futurist Ziaudinn Sardar writes, “The pretension that exploration of the future is, or can be, an exact field of inquiry is both naïve and dangerous.” He points out that people who study alternative futures may be more accurately termed mellontologists, from the Greek word for time, mellon. Unfortunately, the association of mellon with big, juicy fruits means that potential mellontologists might not be taken seriously.

Name pic_mellontologist
However, not all “ologies” are the precise fields of inquiry that Sardar envisages. One field in particular comes to mind: astrology. Let’s face it, the term “futurologist” has a whiff of the astrologist about it. Connotations of crystal balls and fortune telling render the term obscure for many people. Perhaps this impression of pseudo-science comes from blending the common term “future” with the formal term “ologist”.

Futurists gain momentum in the present

For some futures thinkers, “futurist” has similar flaws to “futurologist”. Maree Conway writes, “Futurist is an accepted title and many of my colleagues use it, but for me it brings with it connotations of certainty and predictability that are unhelpful.” Futurist Ross Dawson agrees with Conway that the future isn’t certain or predictable. Nonetheless, he states in a blog post, “I am completely comfortable with the term futurist, even if some perceive it as lacking credibility.” Both Dawson and Conway appreciate that “futurist” is less esoteric and academic than many equivalent terms. Plus it is easier to say and has overtaken “futurologist” in the popularity stakes.

However, some people dislike the label “futurist” because it evokes the Italian Futurists, radical artists of the Futurism movement in the early twentieth century. Futures thinker and author Andres Agostini wrote a complaint entitled “Why The Universal Usage Of The Terms ‘…Futurism…’ And ‘…Futurist…’ Is Unimpeachably Wrong As Per Three World-Class Dictionaries!” Nonetheless, the rising popularity of the term “futurist” has since prompted Agostini to style himself as a futurist. Yet the ongoing surfeit of words to describe futures thinkers implies that calling oneself a futurist still has its shortcomings.

Name pic_futurist scrapbook

Foresight and its practitioners, researchers and consultants

The question remains: can using an alternative name to “futurist” or “futurologist” provide a helpful distinction? Maree Conway believes that yes, to some extent, it can. “I call myself a strategic foresight practitioner and researcher rather than a futurist,” Conway writes. “This may seem like semantics, but for me it’s an important point.” Conway wants to distinguish herself from multi-disciplinary futurists who, like Ross Dawson, “are asked to talk about the future of x or y or z and they can put together an amazing presentation to do just that”. While she respects the work of these futurists, her chosen role is “more a guide than a facilitator, more a mentor than a speaker and more a critical friend than an expert with the answers”.

For one-on-one or small group contexts, the term “foresight practitioner” or “foresight consultant” may well be appropriate. But for large-scale international audiences, the broader term “futurist” seems more fitting. Within foresight agencies, adding “researcher”, “manager” or another such term to “foresight” can help to customize and clarify a person’s specific role. Nonetheless, it might be ironic for futures thinkers to cling onto rigid job titles if such titles continue to decline in the future.

Opting instead for a generalized name like “foresighter” or “foresighteer” is not without its setbacks. Most foresight-related names suggest “foreseeing something that is not too far and can be actually pinned down”, complains Ziauddin Sardar. For those like Sardar who stress the uncertainty of the future, it is worrying that foresighteers can create the “illusion” of providing a “product” that “comes wrapped with wisdom”. This perception stems from the fact that foresight lacks a plural in English, resulting in name derivatives with a singular focus. In contrast, names relating to “future” or “futures” can evoke open possibilities.

Name pic_flawed future_cropped

Zooming in versus zooming out

Having a specific focus can prove a double-edged sword for labels from “global trends consultant” to “future strategist” or “scenario planner”. Although these names are more precise than “futurist”, they can be restrictive. For example, the uptake of “scenario planners” is blinding many organizations to other methods of exploring the future. But do abstract alternatives—like “visionary” and “luminary”—take a pluralist vision too far?

A luminary is a broad term for someone who inspires or influences others, often outside a futures context. A visionary, however, can have a deceptively narrow definition. French consulting service proGective clarifies that “Unlike the futurist, the visionary has a strong bias—political or otherwise. He/she believes in a given vision of the future, seeks to convince the decision-makers of that vision, and empowers them to make informed decisions with that vision in mind.” This starkly contradicts the “alternative futures” approach of numerous futurist thinkers, including many “horizon scanners” who aim to resist hype and maintain objectivity.

Value in validity and variety

If the futures industry investigated its internal future of naming, it could clear up some widespread misperceptions and avoid an identity crisis. A futurist facing the public should not have to suffer the dilemma of Romeo that “My name…is hateful to myself, because it is an enemy to thee…” Nonetheless, diversity in approach can strengthen the futures field, especially when insights from different types of futurist thinkers are connected. As Dawson reminds us, “However you describe the role, there is clearly value in helping people to think usefully about the future.”

Image sources: David Kernohan, Boston Public Library, Sibe Kokke and Times Up Linz