What if large corporations, blindsided and brought to their knees by new technology, had been able to anticipate future trends?
What if the millions of unemployed due to recession had been able to see the impending financial crisis coming and prepare accordingly?
Let’s be clear: predicting the future with certainty is impossible; the world is just too complex. Even with the help of technology, we may be never get it 100% right (note this is a prediction itself).
However, it is possible to research and “forecast” possible future scenarios in a way that enables us to shape our future to suit our preferences. This is the primary focus of futurists: the people who research futures studies and develop the skills and tools that enable us to forecast significant events and plan accordingly.
I’m not a professional futurist (I spend most of my time building software for lunar robots), but two years ago, I had the opportunity to learn the foundations of the science of futures studies firsthand from world-class expert Dr. Jim Dator. My colleagues at function(core) and I have applied those concepts to help ourselves and other companies become “future-proof.”
Dator’s Laws of the Future
Professor Dator uses three concepts to help explain what futures studies are:
- “The future cannot be predicted because the future does not exist.”
The only thing that can be said to exist is what is in the present moment. Therefore, we can only study “images of the future.” These are “alternative futures” that we can “forecast” according to current trends in areas such as technology, politics and economy.
Futurists look at a forecast and envision and implement an alternative, “preferred future.” Due to the scope and evolving nature of the processes involved, these alternative futures will continuously change, so futurists must create an adaptable guiding vision, rather than a specific blueprint.
- “Any useful idea about the futures should appear to be ridiculous.”
New technologies allow new behaviors and values that challenge old beliefs. Leveraging new technology is a fundamental aspect of the work of future studies, and the proposed behavioral shifts they imply mean that futurists are frequently challenging the norms of society. This means that futurists are often controversial; but if they want their ideas to be useful, they should expect to be.
- “We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us.”
Technological change triggers social and environmental change. Everything is connected. Think on how the world has changed in the last decade due to technology.
Now think: how will it change in the next 10 years?
If you can do this, you’re already on the path to thinking like a futurist.
Learning how to research alternative futures, how to define a preferred future, and act to make it happen has helped me a lot to define my personal path, as well as in improving the strategy of the companies I have worked with.
For example, I researched the futures of the space industry by the year 2040. One of the outcomes was that the space economy will thrive when the obtention and use of resources in space becomes common. The moon and asteroids around the Earth can be a source of water that can be turned into rocket fuel, as well as rare metals that can be used for manufacturing in space. For me, this a preferred future, because it can benefit a lot life on our home planet and the human exploration of the Solar system. Therefore, I decided to make a career change into this area. I found software engineering to be an interesting field of work in that scope (robotics play a key role in it), and at the same time is future-proof (the skills I learnt and continue to develop open many opportunities for me in any other technology area). So, in less than a year, I targeted this goal and landed a job with a pioneering Japanese startup in the field of lunar exploration. I can say I’m working to make my preferred future a reality.
Now it’s your turn. Answer these questions:
— How were you 10 years ago (personally, professionally, emotionally)?
— What future did you imagine for yourself?
— Did your imagined future become a reality?
— Have you ever thought about alternative futures for yourself?
— Have you ever thought about what kind of future you would prefer for yourself?
— Have you ever thought about how to make it happen?
— And most importantly: are you making it happen?
Let me know your thoughts in the comments!
This article was focused on the why. In following articles, I will detail the how-to of futures research as it can be applied to your personal life as well as to companies and international organizations.
References & further reading
What futures studies is, and is not, by Dr. Jim Dator