We Are Not All Ninjas

What, exactly, is a Futurist?

For those of us who work at the intersection of information and technology, professional titles suddenly mean everything and nothing. There are Editors for Editorial Innovation. Rockstar Engineers. Tech Monkeys. Curators of Awesome. Directors of Chat Marketing. Chief Ninjas.

I’m one of those people with a silly, made-up-sounding title. I’m a Futurist.

Futurists—the good ones—aren’t alchemists, or oracles or fortune tellers. In many ways, they’re a lot like journalists. Except that rather than reporting on what’s already happened, they report on what’s starting to happen on the fringe. William Gibson, the author of Neuromancer, once said: “The future is already here–it’s just not very evenly distributed.” Jack Uldrich, another futurist, recently offered perspective:

“[Gibson’s] point was that the trends shaping tomorrow are here today but, often, they are on the edge–or fringe–of society. The best futurists are those who can identify trends and technologies that are ‘way off to the side’ today but will move from today’s periphery to tomorrow’s center.”

Futurism has a long, but interrupted history. In the early 1940s, a German professor named Ossip Flechtheim began speaking and writing about the need for “futurology” studies within universities. Then two wars happened. It wasn’t until the 1960s that the second wave of futurists began their work, developing statistical models and using computers to determine how society might look in the future. Back then, futurists were primarily concerned with the far-future ramifications of what was then quite novel: space travel, the Pill, desalinating the oceans, artificial intelligence, personality-affecting drugs, overpopulation and geopolitical instability. Arthur C. Clarke, Herman Kahn, Anthony J. Weiner, Theo Gordon, M.S. Iyengar, Eric Jantsch all imagined what was scientifically probable, while Yujiro Hayashi, Daniel Bell, Bertrand de Jouvenel and Alvin Toffler wondered what those ideas might mean for government policy, journalism, democracy, academic independence and our collective economic welfare.

We’re now in a third wave of futurists, but the work done in the 1960s provides a good backdrop to what’s being done today. I’ve studied the works of those earlier futurists, learning from their models and analysis. Like them, I’ve developed my own system for forecasting.

I work at the fringe, connecting a series of dots that, at the beginning, seem to be completely unrelated. Accurately identifying trends and understanding how they’ll shape tomorrow is really more of a science than an art. It involves gathering research, looking for explicit and implicit patterns in that data, applying those patterns to the consumer, determining whether consumer and the marketplace is also ready for change, and then pressure-testing the trends to determine what will stick.

A great futurist sees probabilities. Not prophecies.

Many of us use a methodology that we either created from whole cloth or adapted from someone else. I’m influenced by Hayashi, Jantsch, Gordon and Helmer, with Clarke and Toffler providing a hefty backdrop of inspiration. I use a six-part forecasting framework that I’ve spent the last decade developing and refining. (Recently, I wrote a little bit about what it looks like in the Harvard Business Review.) Identifying new trends isn’t as simple as reading few tech blogs and looking to see which startups are getting investment. Understanding the future means carefully observing, from unusual places, the changing nature of the present.

Some of today’s futurists have sub-specialties. Ray Kurzweil focuses on the far-future, looking 30+ years ahead at computing and biotech. Michio Kaku is a theoretical physicist, researching the future of the cosmos. Aubrey de Grey works on the future of aging.

As for me, my research is focused primarily on digital media and emerging technology as it relates to information and society. However, the future I research is one to which many other disciplines are inextricably tied: education, law, government, finance, advertising, marketing, security, gaming.

In practice, this means that I research the Future of X, where X = the intersection of digital media, emerging technology, information and people, and I do this for clients all over the world. How will we communicate our thoughts, ideas, breakthroughs, emotions, needs, desires? How will we delight and inspire each other? How best can we inform society? How can we trust what we’re seeing? How can we feel safe sharing information? Our own personal data?

Great futurists don’t just tell folks what’s coming—they develop strategies and explain what to do about it. Which really comes back to data, pattern recognition and rigorously testing emerging trends and scenarios.

Futurists are not ninjas. But when we’re doing our jobs right, it might seem like we practice by a secret code. Like we’re living on the edge, quietly anticipating what’s about to happen next.

Amy Webb is a digital media futurist and the founder of Webbmedia Group. She’s currently researching the future of news and journalism education as a Visiting Nieman Fellow at Harvard University. She’s a contributing editor at Inc. Magazine, where she writes a tech column about emerging technology and business, and she’s a columnist at Slate.com where she writes about the future of data and society.