Signals and Sensemaking

Rebecca Ryan, APF
Sep 13 · 4 min read
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^^That photo up there? It’s the largest radio telescope ever built, more than 30 football fields large. Why am I showing you this signal-hunting device with 5–10X more potential to discover alien civilizations? Because I have a question:

What signals are you picking up?

Your ability to detect signals is critical to making sense of what’s going on around you.

And your ability to make sense is critical to anticipating and imagining better futures.

And that’s your job as a futurist, visionary, leader, and change agent.

How do you do develop your radar?

We’ll get to that. First, let’s remember what a signal is. Because that’s what our radar is trying to pick up.

“[…] signals of the future are all around us. Often these are things or developments that are on the margins. They may look weird or strange. They are the kind of things that grab your attention and make you ask: ‘Why is this happening? What is going on here?’ A signal can be anything. It could be a technology, an application, a product/service/experience, an anecdote or personal observation, a research project or prototype, a news story, or even simply a piece of data that shows something different.”

~Marina Gorbis (a personal hero), Institute for the Future
“Five Principles for Thinking Like a Futurist”

Three questions to locate signals

  1. What’s happening on the margins of your domain or community?
  2. What strikes you as odd?
  3. What’s grabbing your attention and making you ask “What’s going on here?”

Three capabilities to refine your radar

  1. Read widely. Preferably, not the news. Here’s the list of resources we recommended to our 2020 Futurist Campers (notice the breadth) and here was their first reading assignment (notice the depth.) The point? Use your big, beautiful brain to think more widely and more deeply.
  2. Talk frequently with folks who are younger than you, older than you, different from you. Don’t talk about the weather. Ask, “What are you noticing?” or “What are you excited about?”
  3. Slow down. Sit quietly outside without your phone. Just be present. Just notice. Let your eyes wander. Listen. Open your senses. Within a few minutes, you’ll notice your shoulders drop and your mind start to thaw, to rejoin the present moment. Stay with it. Don’t reach for your phone. Stay with your self, letting your mind do what it wants to do: make connections, wander, wonder. Engage your mind to consider signals it’s noticed recently. With a pen and journal, note them.

How do futurists use signals?

In my experience, signals — like delicious meals — are best shared. Twice a week, I gather with local government nerds for two rounds of discussion:

Round 1: Everyone shares a couple signals they’ve picked up since the last time we met. We track our signals in a google doc.

Round 2: Everyone riffs off each others signals in an effort to connect the dots, anticipate what the signals may be telling us, and ask deeper questions.

This is a meeting I try to never miss because my viewpoint is always expanded. And it’s simple enough that all leaders can build it into their executive team meetings.

Here’s a sample of signals my group has shared recently:

  • Local governments across the U.S. will experience up to 40% loss in revenue as a result of COVID-19. Implication: in previous recessions “nonessential” services like parks and recreation are cut first, followed by cuts to education and public health.
  • There has been a 39% increase in the percent of uninsured, the largest increase ever recorded. In addition, returning workers may bring drug and alcohol problems back with them to work. Source: Business Insurance magazine (subscription required)
  • Curing addiction? Researchers have figured out how to “erase” memories that lead to drug relapse. Implication: We may never win the war on drugs, but maybe science can help users get clean and sober.
  • Cities, local hospitals, and school districts declare racism a public health issue. This is already backed by the public health and medical communities, paving the way for policy reform.
  • Former Fed Chairs Bernanke and Yellen advise investments in public health as economic balm. Will public health finally get the funding it deserves?
  • Big banks are setting aside billions of dollars, anticipating loan defaults. In addition, most economists are now anticipating a Q1 2021 mortgage meltdown.
  • Cybermercenaries-for-hire are hijacking routers and disrupting websites and online services at record setting rates. Implication: arms race in cybersecurity.
  • Australian university discovers a blood test that can detect COVID-19 in 20 minutes. No more waiting 5–10 days for test results!

What about you? What signals are you picking up?

Pssst. Sometimes my signals group meets live on Zoom so you can join in. See the schedule here. And if you liked this post, you’ll like my fortnightly newsletter. Sign up here. Thanks for spending some time with me. — Rebecca Ryan

Rebecca Ryan, APF

Written by

Passionate about better futures. Futurist, economist, Zen priest. This is where I workshop my ideas. Also: and

Rebecca Ryan, APF

Written by

Passionate about better futures. Futurist, economist, Zen priest. This is where I workshop my ideas. Also: and

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