On the Rarity of Uncommon Futurism


All business is practical futurism, but not all futurism is practical for business.

The former of these points should be self-evident enough. In order to do business successfully, it’s not enough to just execute perfectly in the present. You also need to have some idea regarding the future, the manner in which it will bring about changes in the market, in your consumers, in your competitors. Some things will change rapidly, others far less so, some might not change at all, but in order to stay in business you need some appreciation of these changes, and to be able to adapt to the same.

In this respect, you’d expect professional futurists to be something akin to the CEOs BFF, yet this is very rarely the case. This mismatch is not entirely easy to understand, and is particularly galling to many futurists, who wouldn’t mind in the least being besties with a CEO. For them, the explanation is simple – corporate executives just don’t “get it”. Personally, I have another theory.

The key reason for the decline of business futurism is not that executives do not get it, nor that futurism is just too “out there” for the staid cultures of the contemporary corporation. In fact, the opposite is true.

Futurism today is too common, too bland and too non-challenging to be taken seriously by executives who see the future unfolding in front of them at speeds unmatched by even the most frantically keynote-happy futurist.

Once upon a time, futurism was truly uncommon thinking. It reveled in the outré, in the taboo, in the unthinkable. During the 1950’s and the 1960’s, even some way into the 1970’s, futurists were proposing daring, counterintuitive and at times positively mind-shattering visions. The futurism of this era was gleefully uncommon, challenging and anti-establishment. And then something happened.

Futurism, at least a great deal of it, became less interested in pushing the boundaries of knowledge and more interested in commodifying specific images of the future – call it the keynotification of futurism. It became less interested in shocking and challenging, and more interested in being seen as legitimate, proper, palatable. In a word, it became less and less uncommon and through this duller and duller.

Listen to a contemporary futurist or read a modern magazine on the same, and you’ll come away with a distinct feeling of having heard it all before. The futurists of today are busy speaking of things such as drones, big data, sustainability, robots and 3D-printing (Always with the 3D-printing!), making them almost indistinguishable from the journalists covering modern technology, who write of things such as drones, big data, sustainability, robots and 3D-printing.

So futurism has become common. It has become a way to feed back to us things we’ve already seen, already read, in some cases already experienced – I’ve been treated to a futurist who excitedly explained to me about the coming age of home manufacturing, and who deflated only slightly at the mention that I’d already played around with a MakerBot several years back.

This is also why most corporate executives couldn’t care less for most of what goes for futurism these days – they already see far more extreme things happening all around them. They see it in the corporate labs, among their competitors, in their market space. It’s not that executives “don’t get it”, it’s that they’ve already gotten it, sometimes long before the self-proclaimed professionals of the future.

What we need, then, is more uncommon futurism. A futurism that cares not a whit about what’s hot right now, who remain stoically unimpressed by drones and wearable IT, and who instead take it as their job to shock and awe CEOs with visions as radical as those of the futurists of yore. We need futurism that is less interested in agreeing with contemporary futurists and their ongoing circle-jerk, and who takes pride in offending and disgusting those futurists who would like to protect the status quo.

It is not easy to be an uncommon futurist. The future seems to unfold so clearly and so rapidly in front of our eyes that it’s easy to be bewitched by it. It’s easy to just follow the trends of today and extrapolate from this, although the very notion of futurism was supposed to be a bulwark against such simplifications. Nor should we discount the group-think of futurism. Speak of the same thing as the other futurists, and your sure to be met with nods and friendly smiles – “that’s what I think, too!” Question the scenarios of clean-tech and nano-tech so routinely trotted out, and you’ll find yourself a pariah.

But maybe that’s what you should be. Maybe that’s who the CEO wants as a BFF. The uncommon thinker, the pariah who sees the futures other people do not.

So regardless of whether you’re a futurist, want to be a futurist, or simply are in business and therefore a practical futurist whether you’d like to be or not, consider your futures thinking. Are the futures you foresee those others can easily agree with, commonly shared visions repeated in the pages of Wired and Fast Company, or could you push yourself further?

Put somewhat differently: When you’re presenting your ideas of the future, are people nodding or shaking their heads? If they’re nodding, your futures are common and easy to agree with. This also means that they’re unlikely to matter, even that they’re unlikely to come true – as the future has a nasty habit of always surprising us and going against that which is seen as “common sense”. If they’re shaking their heads, you have in all likelihood come up with something just a little more uncommon, a little more challenging, something with just that much more power to change thinking and thereby the world. In other words, you might just have stumbled into serious futurism.

Originally appeared here: http://bulldogdrummond.com/blog/6005