Hello, I’m a Futurist! — or the three biggest misconceptions when thinking about the future!
Hello, I’m a Futurist! That’s most likely the first sentence you will hear when meeting me either in a professional or personal context because there is just no way to differentiate both parts. Once you’ve started to think in a specific future-driven way, as I would describe it, there is no way that you’re only doing this as a profession — it’s a vocation, a form of thinking, a new mindset of how you see the world as a whole.
So why do I call myself a Futurist? Because it sounds awesome! I know it sounds somehow selfish, but it’s kind of cool when your friends tend to use you as a secret weapon by having a profession no-one usually guesses because, to be honest, rarely anyone knows it exists. Besides that, for me, it combines many topics that are important to me, and I am passionate about: technological progress, social change and empathy, creativity, and critical thinking.
However, by saying, “I am a Futurist,” I also start implanting a totally wrong idea into my listeners’ heads. What most people imagine after hearing the word Futurist for the first time is more something like this ….
…a person with a crystal ball, a Fortune Teller, a person that can predict the future. Since forever, humans wanted to predict the future and get ready and prepared for what may come. But is this the true intention of a Futurist? Can we predict the future and is preparing for it really enough? Unfortunately, even when you look up “Futurist,” the first definition you will find is this:
“a person who studies the future and makes predictions about it based on current trends.”
But to be clear, being a Futurist is so much more. Hence, in the following, I want to outline why a Futurist is not what you think it is and what are the 3 biggest mistakes you will make when thinking about the future:
MISTAKE #1: Futurists predict the future!
A Futurist gains a specific mindset through challenging their own assumptions over and over again. When studying and practicing Strategic Foresight, which is the professional term of this practice, you challenge yourself and your own beliefs, biases, assumptions, and even what reality is. So, you may wonder what this has to do with the future at all? The future is connected with the present, and the past and the way we think about the future is based on our current and past assumptions, biases, and experiences. Before we start thinking about the future, we, therefore, need to make sure that we are aware of the filters we have in our minds and the glasses we wear in order to counterbalance our own perceptions. Only then, we will turn our head towards the future, get out the crystal ball and ….
… sorry had to bring this up once again. In fact, the future is not written, yet, and therefore, it cannot be predicted.
Moreover, it is changing with every decision and action we make today. And the choices we make today are based on how positively or negatively we think about the future. So, if the decisions we make today are based on our perception of the future, then does the way we think about the future influence the future itself? Let’s break this down…
Firstly, why do we need Futurists when they don’t predict the future? Because we can map and outline diverse pathways of the future. We create alternative worlds that challenge our minds and current assumptions, to start a new conversation about what lies ahead, to remove all barriers so we can see clearly what we can achieve and to raise the questions we haven’t even thought about before. But do Futurists also provide all the answers?
No. In most cases, not. Because by exploring the topic with a Futures Thinking mindset and defining questions, we’ve already started to look for answers in a far different place we usually were. So, Futurism, Foresight or Futures Studies — whatever you want to call it — is really about triggering peoples minds to think in a different, more diverse direction rather than providing all the answers.
Secondly, you’re asking yourself now, why do we need Futurists at all or why should you start thinking like a Futurist yourself by applying tools and methods of Strategic Foresight?
I have a simple answer for you: Because you’re already doing it!
All the decision you’re making today about the future are based on whether you see the future bright or dark. You will be taking more risks when you think that the future looks excellent rather than if you thought that war, economic crisis or family drama lied ahead, then you may save some money rather than spending it on a new car. In fact, you’re actually already applying Foresight every day by building your decisions on your assumptions of the future which are, after that, based on your past and present believes and experiences. The question is now, do you want to continue doing almost blindfolded something you’ve haven’t been aware of doing all the time, or are you considering that it makes sense to know how to make better decisions as your decisions are directly influencing the future? And if you’re not aware of your biases, how can you be sure you’re not misinterpreting your reality already? Then, similar to how you’ve learned maths, grammar, or speaking a language, Foresight, and Futures Thinking can be learned. The future is actually more similar to the construction of the past than you think. In school, you’ve learned how to understand the history and what to do with historical data, but nobody told you how to analyze data about the future that does not even exist yet and how to think about the future in general.
MISTAKE#2: We only need to prepare for the future!
Once you’ve understood that you need the Foresight to make better, less biased decisions and that Foresight is about understanding the future, the next assumption pops up: Foresight and being a Futurists is mainly about understanding the future. It is about analyzing and discussing what may lie ahead and then prepare yourself for all future circumstances — which are also called scenarios-by building robust strategies you then can follow.
What are scenarios in general? There is actually a common mistake of how we think about the future. We usually see it as linear, and we speak about it in its singular form. As Futurists, we talk about ‘futures’ As the future is not written, yet, it actually does not exist and, therefore, when we talk about it we must consider all its various appearances ergo multiple futures. For each of those futures, we create a specific image of how it may appear, and each of those images is called a scenario.
The following graph outlines the idea that the future is seen as a cone of multiple futures rather than one straight line ahead. And it visualized the notion of various futures.
The Futures Cone, use and history
From time to time, people ask me about the Futures Cone and how it came about. Let me give a brief history of how I…
Further, scenarios are a conversational tool, and what most people don’t expect is that the actual output or image is less important than you think. As Futurists, we acknowledge that the future is unpredictable, and many of our assumptions will be wrong, but it is still absolutely necessary to think about it in order to stretch our thinking. It doesn’t matter how accurate, probable, or even feasible the scenarios you built are, because it is about the conversation that happens in between when creating scenarios that are so special. You can also describe it as a rubber band fixed to your brain. By thinking and discussing multiple scenarios, your mind stretches a little bit further in each direction. And although your current beliefs and experiences want to pull it back to the possible and feasible space by talking to diverse people about various scenarios your brain learns to stretch to the edges and starts thinking outside of your comfort zone.
Additionally, especially large organizations with a long history and traditions struggle to talk about the past and the present when inevitable mistakes have been made. By starting a conversation about the future, no one can genuinely be wrong or right as everyone can only have an opinion about it because we simply do not know how the future will unfold. Therefore, the conversations will contain less negative energy or in other words, people are more open to discuss the future rather than the past or present. It is a similar reason why we start 10, 20, or even 30 years ahead when creating scenarios. If you want to build scenarios that are only 3–5 years forward, you most likely will pull all your information from your current status quo and your past experiences. Hence, your scenario will not change much from today because your discussion is based on your current mindset with a focus on what is feasible or not possible during this short period. By setting the scenario far into the future, we’re stopping our brains to source too many ideas from past and present experiences, because in 30 years a lot may happen and your near-past experiences won’t even exist yet. Hence, this is precisely the state your brain needs to be in: open, imaginative, creative, and beyond today’s possibilities. It is relatively simple to bring any extreme scenario back into a grounded space and make it relevant for the present, but it is quite hard to think outside the box when you start with that many limitations.
Finally, because the conversations when discussing scenarios are so much more important than the final image or story of your scenarios, you should never create them on your own or only with your core team. Instead, start an early discussion around them with a great variety of people of diverse backgrounds and mindsets. Scenarios are created to understand how other people think about the future and which imagines you’re missing because of your own perceptions and biases. Even when you’ve learned to be aware of them, it is almost impossible to entirely eliminate them. Therefore, you need to listen to the people that disagree with you to understand their underlying assumptions to build various scenarios and to train your brain to go beyond your standard thinking patterns.
Scenarios are training for your brain and behavior — stretching your mind like a rubber band to the edges of what is possible and being challenged by others on your assumptions. Why? Because once your brain learned how to react in complex and uncertain situations, it really doesn’t matter how well the future matches your scenarios. You’ve already learned to adapt and come up with strategies for complex cases so that you will exactly know what to do, especially once you’ve learned to think in diverse patterns.
In the end, how do you want to steer an organization into the future if you haven’t thought about what may come and where you, as an organization, want to go? Just because the future is uncertain and complex doesn’t mean ignoring it is any solution at all.
MISTAKE #3: Small teams equal small impact!
Coming back to the fact that your decisions are based on the image of the future you’ve already have in your head, don’t you want to learn how to create an image that strives for a better future?
You’ve learned before scenarios are there to outline and map the future so that there is a map of multiple futures rather than a black box with no idea of what may come. You can also think about it as a physical map with different pathways leading towards various destinations. The remaining question is which pathway do you want to take personally or within your organization? And can you even influence or swap pathways by your own doing?
In the end, do you really think preparing for the future is enough? Leading an organization by being prepared means that you will react passively and only adapt to what may come instead of actively shaping the future on your own.
When thinking about the future, you should always think about a desirable future, you as a company, person, or organization want to achieve. The desirable future should also create a positive outcome for you, your organization, your community, as well as for the environment. Sometimes it also helps to think about which future do you wish for your children or grandchildren?
Hence, Foresight always focuses on a holistic approach to creating better futures for humans and the environment. Of course, you can say that this sounds extremely cheesy or even naive but shouldn’t we all strive for a better future rather than just standing by and meanwhile everything goes wrong?
Since the future is not predictable, it is on you to act in the present, to challenge the status quo in order to stay future relevant. Even the smallest organization can change the future. This is proven by many startups and visionary minds. They disrupted or eliminated entire industries by doing things in a way nobody had done before.
SUMMARIZING THE BENEFITS OF FORESIGHT
1)Grasping impacts, pathways, and agency
Exploring the long-term impacts of our actions while shaping a desirable future and a pathway to get there are the basic ideas of Foresight. Both are required, pathways are useless if you don’t know where they’re heading and a future vision is wasted time if you have no idea or even a plan to get there.
2) Creating motivation, contribution, and purpose
Many organizations assume there is no need for change as long as the profit is growing. However, by applying Strategic Foresight methods, organizations can refocus on their purpose and empowering every employee to understand their part towards a common goal. By understanding long-term implication organization can reshape the organization and retrain employees for future tasks.
3)Dealing with complexity, uncertainty & unpredictability
You cannot eliminate complexity nor uncertainty in times where the pace is high. Therefore, to think more clearly about complex situations, you need to think ahead. What do you do if you’re not getting an answer? Apply Futures Thinking to explore, unwind and don’t be afraid to change your mind as new information comes along. Being adaptive and admitting being wrong is so much more important than trying to prove that you’re still right when all signs showing the opposite.
The future is not written, yet; therefore, it is on us to start shaping a future we desire rather than being paralyzed from an image of a negative future in our heads that needs to be replaced.
If you want wo learn more about Foresight and my perspective on Futures Thinking, listen to my podcast with FuturePod :
A Hybrid Futurist - Tanja Schindler
Tanja is an emerging futurist who has merged the best of the German and Australian approach to Futures. Coming from a…
Cheers to the future, Tanja — passionate futurist.
My next blog post will be about which 21st-century skills do we get from foresight and why those soft skills are so crucial for any employee. Stay tuned.