The future is bright for futurists: 5 crucial characteristics of their craft


Futurist helping others
Futurists are in a fortunate position: their insights will be sought after as long as we believe the future will be different from today. In the present age of rapid change, global demand for futurists is booming. Powerful leaders at high-profile companies like Google, Microsoft and Visa regularly consult with futurists.

However, as more and more people aspire to become futurists, it is important to clarify what a futurist actually does. The overarching role of a futurist is not to provide outsourced thinking about the future, says leading futurist Ross Dawson. What, then, does Dawson see as the role of a futurist? Read on to discover five key facets of this exciting profession.

1. Helping people think for themselves

Forecasting is not a futurist’s primary goal. In fact, predictions can hinder people’s capacity for independent thinking. As Ross Dawson states, the role of a futurist involves helping everyone to “become their own futurist, to think more broadly, to be open to different ideas”. Over the past fifty years, futurists have differentiated themselves from their less credible historical counterparts, partly by extending their role beyond forecasting. Today’s futurists are less likely to say what the future will be than to describe how or why a future could appear, asserts the Association of Professional Futurists (APF). As Dawson has told the Australian Financial Review, “A prediction can have negative value, by misleading people, by taking away all the uncertainties and the possibilities.”

2. Inspiring leadership

A true futurist aims to encourage leadership at all levels. In a keynote speech delivered before the Dutch Future Society, Dawson examined the role of the futurist as leader. Futurists “need to help others to think forward and in turn to act better today”, Dawson noted. This is vital because “we are at a critical juncture in human history, when actions we take—or do not take—today will shape our collective future to an extraordinary degree”.

3. Transcending boundaries

The most important aspect of thinking about the future, Dawson emphasizes in a blog post, is that “the future transcends boundaries”. Whether you are planning for change in a company, an industry, a geographical region or any other domain, “the key issue is how its boundaries will change and what new possibilities will come from outside. However limited the scope of your interest, you need to consider almost everything, across society, technology, business, and the evolution of humanity.”

4. Provoking new ways of thinking

For people who struggle to embrace change, the insights of a futurist may not always be welcome. Therefore, the role of a futurist is sometimes that of a provocateur, Dawson remarks in a discussion with futurist Gerd Leonhard. Provoking people into taking action can be easier for external futurists than it is for in-house futurists, because the latter may struggle to transcend the boundaries and expectations of their industry. As Dawson states, “For a futurist it is uniquely valuable to come from outside the given system, be it in personal background, industry experience, or geographical location.”

5. Managing information overload

In today’s highly networked world, the sheer volume of data can be overwhelming. In this context, a futurist can help by making sense of information: filtering it, connecting ideas, and communicating them in an accessible format. This process can assist time-poor business decision makers to look beyond the short-term future and make tangible adaptations to change. Whether drawing out the obvious or transcending the obvious, a futurist can remind us, Dawson asserts, that “The future is not predetermined. By understanding the nature of change we can act to create a better future.”

The role of a futurist, therefore, involves helping others to shape a bright future by teaching them how to make well-informed decisions today.

Image source: Alice Popkorn

Crowds and the future of creativity and innovation


Recently, I gave the opening keynote at the Crowdsourcing Week on Connecting the Crowd: The Future of Creativity and Innovation. Below are the slides for my keynote. Please note that the slides are intended as visual support to my presentation, and are not designed to be meaningful on their own. However, they may still be useful or of interest to those who did not attend the keynote.

Here are a few quick notes on what I covered:

1. Humanity
As computers transcend many human capabilities and work is dehumanized, we must focus on the skills and abilities where humans excel beyond any imaginable machine capability. At the heart of those human capabilities are creativity and innovation.

2. Crowds
Crowdsourcing, in ‘tapping the minds of many’ through a wide variety of mechanisms, can bring about an extraordinary degree of new connections from which creative ideas emerge. There is absolutely still a role for individual genius, and we need to explore further the domains in which individuals or small groups excel, and where crowds can create unique value.

3. Creativity
Studies show that creative abilities are on the wane in the US. To remedy that we must allow the sexual life of ideas to flourish, enabling connections and networks to form. Organizational network analysis helps us to design more innovative companies and business ecosystems.

4. Structure
There are two primary constraints on taking innovation to crowds: Intellectual Property and Context. The former is significant though IP protection is often over-emphasized. Context is often more critical, as innovation often requires rich organizational context. The two major domains of crowdsourcing for innovation are Defined Tasks and Distributed Ideas, each with a variety of different platforms available. Internal crowds are appropriate where innovation requires the most context.

5. Opportunities
There are a set of capabilities that organizations need to get better at to build their capabilities at creativity and innovation, including outcome definition, communication of context, crowd mechanisms, and getting broader participation. They must look beyond their boundaries in order to get the best ideas and outcomes.

Avatars Ascending: How robots will affect learning, skill development and jobs


Steve Rainwater robot photo 640x426
“Today, when you get a degree, it is already out of date.” This observation by futurist Ross Dawson reinforces the challenge of keeping pace with the smart machine era. Dawson believes that employment, skills and learning must respond to the growing roles of robots in our lives.

Will robots assail or avail the jobs market?

In an article from CIO Magazine predicting smart machine innovations, Forrester analyst Tim Sheedy states, “2015 will be the year we start to see information worker job losses because of intelligent systems.” The article also quotes a startling forecast by Gartner analyst Kenneth Brant: by 2020, smart machines will disrupt the majority of knowledge workers’ careers.

The rise of robots beyond the household and the blue-collar industries is complicating career choices. Zarif Aziz, a new engineering student at the University of Sydney, believes that robots will eventually replace most human workers. By studying a Mechatronics major, Aziz hopes to one day design robots and thereby secure himself a career.

The demand for innovative machines certainly boosts jobs in engineering, technology, and science. However, as Ross Dawson has told CIO Magazine, jobs for humans are not necessarily declining. Instead, jobs are changing in the type and level of skills they require. This was a focal point of Dawson’s keynote speech at the Youth Festival of ICT (YITCon), hosted by the Australian Computer Society.

Having the will to master new skills

At YITCon, Dawson recommended upskilling as a strategy to retain employability. He suggested that skills in complementary disciplines are likely to remain in demand, especially skills that are globally applicable. A Masters in both business and data analytics, for example, could prove more useful than a Masters in business alone.

Furthermore, Dawson explained that people who actively participate in social learning and informal learning would adapt better to the future. Competitions, such as the programming contests run by TopCoder, can encourage skill development and learning from peers. Likewise, Dawson recommends engaging with experts on social media to develop one’s own expertise. This is because community interactions, whether in person or online, remain vital to social learning.

Social skills and emotional intelligence will be crucial to a future where we collaborate with robots. As Aristotle once wrote, “Man is by nature a social animal.” Our penchant for relationships gives us a genuine advantage over robots, Dawson asserted.

Learning to build relationships with robots

Collaboration with robots can actually foster mutual learning. For example, children learning to write can teach the CoWriter robot to show improvements in its handwriting. By watching humans, the Apprentice Robots developed by Pieter Abbeel have learnt to fold laundry and fly model helicopters without being programmed for these specific tasks. Using virtual reality and 3D printing technologies, a full working robot from hardware group Wevolver will soon accompany a hospitalized child’s friends to the zoo. The child will conveniently direct the robot’s interactions from a remote control at the hospital.

Despite the value in such initiatives, robots’ growing capacities for independent learning have provoked ethical concerns and inspired many a dystopian movie. Nonetheless, robotics specialist Professor Hiroshi Ishiguro remains optimistic about a future where humans and humanoids will develop close relationships. Robots, he believes, will become our companions and social partners.

Humanity ahead of machines

However, robots lack intrinsic humanity. As Dawson reminded the listeners at YITCon, our ability to make high-level ethical decisions clearly sets us apart from our avatars. And we shouldn’t forget the vital skill that lets us make robots in the first place: creativity. The power to create what we dream, as Dawson said, “keeps us miles ahead of the machines”.

Image source: Steve Rainwater

How soaring expectations of beauty are shaping technology and society


I recently travelled to Provence in the hills above Nice to give the keynote at the annual EuroCIO conference. I used my framework for the future of the CIO to point to the macro drivers of change in technology and society, and how these are shaping the technology function in organizations, and in turn the role of the CIO.

The single most important shift in society is that we expect more on just about every front that we can imagine. We expect more in everything around us, in terms of excellence in quality and service, opportunity for ourselves and our children, flexibility in our work, and openness and transparency from business and government.

We also expect beauty.

It is a core aspect of humanity for us to seek and appreciate beauty, whether it is in the natural world or that which we create.

Certainly art has been central to humanity from our very beginnings. Royalty and the wealthy have long sought to make even their basic tools, utensils, and lodgings beautiful.

Yet during the twentieth century we went dramatically backwards, as functionality was deemed paramount and aesthetics often irrelevant. Le Corbusier’s austere apartment blocks and their East German descendants were a powerful symbol of supposedly efficient yet soulless living.

It is telling that almost all the early personal computers were beige, arguably the ugliest color in existence. Even Apple for the first two decades of its existence stuck its technology in ugly boxes, even though their user interfaces set the standard in usability and attractiveness.

However expectations have risen rapidly over the last couple of decades, to the point at which most of us quite simply expect beauty around us, not least in the tools that we use at work and our personal lives.

After long suffering the same blindness as other computer manufacturers, Apple finally woke up with the revolutionary release of its multi-colored iMacs in 1998, making consumers realize they wanted beautiful computers, not ugly ones. Other manufacturers swiftly responded. Today computers and phones are objects of beauty and aesthetics almost more than of function.

All of this speaks of the rise of design, perhaps the central concept of the 21st century. Design is fundamentally about combining function and aesthetics within constraints.

We of course have extraordinary constraints, not least environmental and economic, however working within those constraints design elegantly brings us function. Elegance is essential, and beauty is a simple step beyond.

Beauty is about transcending the mundane. Today we expect that.

Functionality alone is not enough to succeed in an increasingly crowded marketplace. Beauty is also required. We expect it, we can have it, and we are not prepared to settle for less.

Our expectations are increasingly about self-expression, about surrounding ourselves with things that are aligned with the essence of who we are.

In every domain, from enterprise technology through to consumer goods, companies must realize that beauty is now a basic expectation of their customers. And as they do we will together create a more beautiful world.

Image source: Marcin Wichary

Insights into what sustainability really means


Futurist Ross Dawson recently spoke about Building Financial Sustainability at the Vicwater Financial Sustainability Conference.

Ross opened his speech by telling us what we have long suspected. The word “sustainability” has been so overused, misused and abused that it has substantially lost its meaning. He wants us to reclaim this lost meaning of sustainability and to remind us that questions about what is “sustainable” REALLY mean, “Can we keep doing this indefinitely into the future without everything falling apart?”

Ross reminds us that even the very concept of “indefinite sustainability” is very difficult because we don’t live in a steady state world. Reality is constantly shifting under our feet and this sort of dynamism is going to keep us constantly on our toes, so for a system or an organization or even a way of being to be sustainable, it’s going to have to change constantly with an ever-changing reality.

It’s more realistic and practical to talk about paths to sustainability, that sustainability isn’t a destination so much as a road.

The contexts in which we’re going to have to look for paths to sustainability include:

  • Business and Finance: where the dominant emerging trend is that between high-performing organizations – which can seize change and can continue increasingly add value – contrast with low-performing organizations that resist change and subsequently create less value or increasingly destroy value over time.
  • Climate and the Environment: in which, spite of divergent opinions, a consensus is forming that mean global temperatures are rising and that human activity is a major contributing cause. How will we manage sustainability in a world of rising sea levels and interruptions on the water cycle and their impacts on human habitation? What should be done? What can we do?
  • The Social Sphere: In a world of increasing population and urbanization, how will we manage an ever-increasing influx into urban fringes with their inevitable disruption to communities? How will we find work and meaningful contribution for all these people? If the increase of urban riots is a symptom of underlying frustration, inter-cultural tension, divergence and fragmentation how will we manage that? How will we maintain our communities? Some societies seem to be better at coping with change than others. What can we learn from them?

Whatever answers we come up with, we have to face the fact that we’re living in a world of increasing friction between people and the environment and competing needs. Our challenge is about how clever and creative we can be of managing to keep everything together without things falling apart. The higher the Humpty-Dumpty of our civilization sits, the further he can fall.

All these frictions and instabilities will inevitability influence financial and economic sustainability. If we fail to design sustainable solutions in a context of escalating and accelerating change, change will be thrust upon us anyway, and we might not like what we get.

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Exploring the future of investment management


[Find out more about Ross Dawson’s keynotes for the asset management industry]

Recently I was in Amsterdam for the International User Community Meeting of SimCorp, a leading provider of software for the investment management industry. I gave the keynote on the Future of Investment Management and ran a half-day Executive Master Class on Creating the Successful Organisation of the Future.

Prior to founding Advanced Human Technologies most of my working career had been in financial markets with Merrill Lynch and capital markets with Thomson Financial, with my final role as Global Director – Capital Markets.

My initial client base when I established my company was largely in financial services, and I began to focus on the investment management industry, for a number of reasons.

In the later 1990s my work and research was split between the fields of knowledge management and intellectual capital on the one hand, and futures methodologies such as scenario planning on the other.

I felt that one of the most important applications of our increasing understanding of intellectual capital was in asset management. Clearly information on non-financial indicators was often more important than historical financial data in making investment decisions, and I worked with a number of institutional investors on their efforts to value intangible assets of companies in which they were investing.

As I developed my expertise and experience in scenario planning, I saw there was an opportunity to apply scenario approaches to financial portfolio and risk management. I worked on applying qualitative scenario methodologies across several kinds of financial institutions, including asset managers and fund trustees.

In my book Developing Knowledge-Based Client Relationships, one of the key themes was that of adding value to client decision-making. Many of the case studies in the book examined how to enhance the cognitive and process aspects of financial portfolio decision-making, and I worked in applying that with a number of organizations, including the research departments of investment banks.

Having spent most of the last decade on broader issues such as the theme of living networks and examining the future of work, organizations, media, and government, it was a bit of a homecoming for me to speak at the SimCorp event.

Because I had not been deeply exposed to the industry for some time, in my keynote I spoke about high-level themes such as how changing information flows and distribution mechanisms are creating a wide variety of new opportunities in investment management.

Especially after running a highly interactive Executive Master Class with the most senior attendees at the conference, I found myself rather surprised to find that in fact the industry has changed very little over the last decade. Virtually the same issues – including talent, pricing, fee transparency, active vs. passive management, and distribution structures – are being discussed today.

There is a reasonable case to make that the investment management industry will change less than many others in years to come. The weight of capital to invest will inevitably increase, and there will be strong demand for capable fund management.

However there are certainly disruptions in store in investment management, and the industry currently hardly shines in its structural innovation. One of the speakers at the event noted that two-thirds of investment management firms ban social media in the workplace, a staggering statistic for companies that live off information flows.

In coming back to the industry I certainly see opportunities to help firms consider the future of the investment management industry, including identifying forthcoming disruptions and emerging opportunities.

I also see that there can be great value in applying what I have learned over the last decade and more in futures studies to the investment management process. I will be developing and sharing more content and ideas around the future of investment management in coming months.

The Future of Healthcare: Power shifting to the patient


Ross Dawson recently did the opening keynote speech at Australasian Long-term Health Conditions Conference in Auckland, New Zealand.

NZ Doctor reported on Dawson’s keynote in an article titled Technology shifts the ‘power’ to patients:

Technology is driving a shift of power from institutions and professions towards consumers and individuals, according to futurist Ross Dawson.

A keynote speaker at the Australasian Long-Term Conditions conference being held in Auckland today, 29 July, and tomorrow, 30 July, Mr Dawson wowed delegates with examples of technology changing the way we live and work.

In one case, the brain of a paralysed woman was hardwired to a robotic arm and by thinking, she was able to instruct the arm to pick up a mug so she could drink through the straw.

By 2017, half the people in the world will have smartphones and half will have downloaded a medical app, Mr Dawson says.

Smartphones and other portable devices such as smart-watches, essentially powerful computers, can gather real-time health information.

That’s putting power with the consumer, Mr Dawson says.

The article goes on to describe how social media and smartphones are shifting power in health:

Social media and smartphones are driving the shift of power and increasingly consumers have expectations of good service, irrespective of who is delivering it.

Mr Dawson spoke of smart homes, wired to understand the health needs of occupants, sensing whether someone was in trouble and reacting accordingly.

Such technology would enable people to live longer in their own homes before needing rest home care.

The article goes on to look at Dawson’s comments on remote work, monitoring patients’ medicine-taking, and changing health behaviors.

More details can be found in the complete article.

10 Major Trends for Micro to Mid-Sized Business


By Ross Dawson

I was recently asked by the office supplies chain Officeworks to create a list of trends for micro to mid-sized business, which they used in a promotional campaign, matching relevant products from their offerings with my trends. Here are the 10 trends:

From HQ to CQ

It is not just micro-businesses that are increasingly using co-working spaces. Mid-sized businesses are also using them to shift from an HQ ‘Headquarters’ mentality to a CQ ‘Connected Quarters’ approach in which they seek talent, ideas, community and customers as well as giving their workers flexibility. Co-working spaces are perfect to help talented staff work in an attractive space but avoid unnecessary commuting, to set up branches in other cities, and to connect into the communities that will drive your business forward.

Data-Driven Self-Perfection

A whole new generation of technology is allowing us to track every aspect of our lives, with many Australians discovering that they enjoy and get real value from these deeply personal insights. Business owners have always been immensely motivated to be at their very best. Now that they are able to gather data on their work, exercise, food and sleep, they are using what they learn to improve their performance in every aspect of their lives.

Lightning Gratification

Speed is the name of the game. As the world has accelerated over the last years and decades, people’s patience has eroded to the point of vanishing. Customers now expect gratification will be almost simultaneous with their desires. Service is expected not just during normal business hours but sometimes to all hours of the day, and product delivery is anticipated to be close to instantaneous. Companies need to be good at managing customers’ expectations, but they also need to learn how to respond like greased lightning.

Big Data For Small Business

‘Big Data’ – gathering immense amounts of information to improve performance – is top of the agenda for massive companies like banks, supermarkets and utilities. Now small business is able to seize the opportunity, using similar tools to fine-tune and grow their companies. Applications range from predicting what customers are most likely to buy next or micro-tracking the success of marketing campaigns through to rostering staff when they are most productive. Using these kinds of tools can help smaller business sneak ahead of larger, less nimble competitors.

Your Unique 3D Print

Personalisation is moving to the centre of business, with customers expecting to get unique, customised products, and the companies who can offer that leaping ahead. The rise of 3D printing is a major tool allowing these new services to emerge. Manufacturers and designers can create instant prototypes, marketers are creating startling new approaches, and we are now seeing growing companies attract attention and revenue by efficiently creating products that are made uniquely for a single customer.

Very Personal Digital Assistants

We have long had digital devices to assist us. With the advent of new interfaces such as augmented reality glasses and gesture control as well as almost-intelligent software that understands us and what we want, digital assistants have become very personal indeed. Those who learn how to use these tools well will effectively be outsourcing part of their brain to become smarter, more effective and efficient, with more refined senses and increased capabilities, simply out-classing their competitors.

Visual Power

Information overload has run amok, swamping us with far more information than we can deal with. Long passages of text are rarely read, and people are being drawn to visual representations that convey insights quickly and efficiently. In stores where experience is key, and in every marketing and communications media, powerful visuals are increasingly not just necessary to cut through, but fundamental enablers to being seen at all.

Power to the Worker

The MegaTrend of “power to the individual” is highly visible today in how customers and citizens are calling the tune to previously arrogant institutions. As important is the shift of power to the worker. The companies succeeding today and tomorrow are those attracting the most talented to work for them, very simply by giving them what they want. These elite are looking for stimulating work, flexibility in when, where and how they work, and meaning by having a positive impact through their efforts.

Learn to Earn

As change accelerates, a divide is rapidly emerging. Those who take the time to study and learn about new possibilities are seizing new opportunities, while those who continue to rely on what they know of yesterday’s world are being left behind. As the world of business changes, success is increasingly going to those who understand they need to keep on learning in order to grow their earning power.

Light Up Your Life

In a connected world you are either visible or invisible. Being active in social and business worlds, both online and offline, allows you to be seen and to be found. Those who are interested in others will find that they are interesting to others, becoming beacons to customers and opportunities. In the world of business people often used to hide themselves, adopting false personas, but with a changing society being fully and completely ourselves is not just a personal opportunity, but a way to inspire others, be seen and grow businesses fast.

Futurists on Twitter: An analysis of network centrality and authority


Since the 1990s I have been applying network analysis to help understand the development of technology, business, and society. In 2002 I wrote the book Living Networks to describe how networks are moving to the center of our world.

Over the years I have analyzed the network characteristics of many domains, including organizations, industries, influence, business relationships, innovation, decision-making and more. I am now coming back to spend more time exploring how network analysis can provide us with useful insights.

To kick off a forthcoming series of network analyses, we have done an analysis of prominent futurists on Twitter who are included on my Futurists Twitter list.

Here is an image of the analysis, with an explanation below.

Click for a detailed zoomable image

Each node in the graph represents a futurist’s twitter profile. A line connecting two nodes represents a follower relationship. On average each user follows and is followed by 37 other people.

Two important concepts in social network analysis are authority and centrality .

Authority reflects importance based on quality and connectedness of followers.

Centrality is a broader concept, reflecting the time it takes for a message sent by that user to reach everyone in the network. More connections mean faster propagation and higher centrality.

In this chart centrality is shown by color (green most central) and authority by the size of the node. As these are related concepts, nodes with the same color tend to have similar size.

The network is fairly well connected, showing a relatively “flat” social structure with no established hierarchy.

The 40 highest authority Twitter profiles in the network are:

@iftf – Institute for the Future
@WorldFutureSoc – World Future Society
@rossdawson – Ross Dawson
@gleonhard – Gerd Leonhard
@DefTechPat – Patrick Tucker
@Urbanverse – Cindy Frewen
@VenessaMiemis – Venessa Miemis
@cshirky – Clay Shirky
@cascio – Jamais Cascio
@bruces – Bruce Sterling
@mitchbetts – Mitch Betts
@frankspencer – Frank Spencer
@futuryst – Stuart Candy
@johnmsmart – John Smart
@Geofutures – Josh Calder
@ThomasFrey – Thomas Frey
@doctorow – Cory Doctorow
@heathervescent – Heather Schlegel
@psaffo – Paul Saffo
@MareeConway – Maree Conway
@dunagan23 – Jake Dunagan
@jenjarratt – Jennifer Jarratt
@kevin2kelly – Kevin Kelly
@wendyinfutures – Wendy L Schultz
@patrickdixon – Patrick Dixon
@Joi – Joi Ito
@GreatDismal – William Gibson
@futuristpaul – Paul Higgins
@futuramb – P A Martin Börjesson
@kristinalford – Kristin Alford
@nraford – Noah Raford
@avantgame – Jane McGonigal
@DavidBrin – David Brin
@jhagel – John Hagel
@fastfuture – Rohit Talwar
@singularityhub – Singularity Hub
@singularityu – SingularityU
@futureguru – Dr. James Canton
@timeguide – Ian Pearson
@FutureCon – Future Conscience

We will later post some further network analyses of futurists using some different analytic approaches

The role of the futurist as a leader


When I was in Amsterdam recently for client engagements I also gave a keynote to the Dutch Future Society about the role of the futurist.

It was a fascinating evening. Given the audience of futurists and those well engaged with the future, my presentation went further out than usual, and the ensuing conversation went beyond that, to issues including the nature of humanity, the ethics of the future, and more.

After the event I was interviewed by Stephan Verveen. The interview, embedded below, covers quite a few of the points raised during the evening.

Freija van Duijne, President of the Dutch Future Society, also wrote a nice post The role of a futurist, keynote by Ross Dawson which summarized my presentation. She noted:

The role of a futurist as a leader

A futurist’s aim is to encourage leadership on all levels. That is, helping people to think in a rich and structured way about tomorrow in order to act to day. Futurists are involved in sense making, giving people the ability to deal with information. Everyone is overwhelmed by the infinity of signals. Futurists help people to open their minds and think of things that they did not think before.

A vital point here is that the role of the futurist is not to provide outsourced thinking about the future.

The role of the futurist is to help everyone to become their own futurist, to think more broadly, to be open to different ideas, to stimulate and provoke into taking useful action.

We are at a critical juncture in human history, when actions we take – or do not take – today will shape our collective future to an extraordinary degree. The future is not predetermined. By understanding the nature of change we can act to create a better future.

Futurists, in grappling with these issues more than most, have a responsibility to help others to think forward and understand the potential impact of their actions.

In fact, in that all of us need to be our own futurists, we all have a responsibility not just to think about the future and how we will act. We also need to help others to think forward and in turn to act better today.