What is a futurist anyway?

I love speaking to anyone and everyone about the future, and I've given keynotes and talks to a wide range of audiences all over the world: fortune 500 companies, C-suite execs, hardcore engineers, tech geeks, and school kids. One of the most common questions I get asked is, "How does one become a futurist?" (Incidentally, the other two most popular questions are: "What do you think about the singularity?", and "What is technology (specifically robots and AI) going to do to jobs and the future of work?" I'll save responses to those for future posts). For now, let's talk about futurists.

To tell the story of how one becomes a futurist, it's probably important to explain first what a futurist is. Many people call themselves futurists (or futurologists if they are in the UK) but they come in several different flavors and the term has perhaps taken on different meanings for different people. 

From prediction to projecting possibility

To me, a futurist is not somebody that predicts the future. Prediction is not always a very productive exercise. Some people imagine that I sit in my office thinking lofty thoughts all day, perhaps with a crystal ball and some mind-altering substances for inspiration. Nope, it's not that. 

My role is hopefully a little more practical and relevant than that. My primary job is to help people understand the possibility the future holds and to do my best to inspire them to think more broadly and make bolder plans as a result. As an optimist I live in a world of possibility. But as a futurist its important not to go further and live in fantasy. Understanding real constraints and realities is part of the challenge.

This pic is largely for the Back to the Future fans out there... :)

This pic is largely for the Back to the Future fans out there... :)

The rate of technological change is accelerating. This acceleration will have a profound affect on the world we live in. More amazing things will happen more quickly. We should expect some sectors, for example retail and agriculture, to see more change in the next decade than in perhaps the last fifty years. Understanding what's possible is the starting point in the decision process as businesses, governments, and other organizations build strategic plans. Technology will enable us to do many, many wonderful things. In a world of possibility, focus is key. We will need to ask ourselves, what are we NOT going to do just as much as what we are going to do. To do that, we need to understand people's most pressing problems, challenges, and aspirations and then decide, "What shall we build?" Equally important is to ask the balancing question, "What do we want to avoid?" This insight comes from my former colleague and friend, Brian David Johnson. 

Projecting the future: three main components

So how does one understand future possibility? There are three main components that must be interpreted and stirred together to build a viable vision for the future: technology, people, and the business/regulatory ecosystem. Let me explain using an example, in this case autonomous vehicles, better known as self-driving cars.

Technological development will continue to be a profound driver of change. To understand the possibility of the future one has to have a broad understanding of tech trends across a range of disciplines. And not just when something will become technically feasible, but when it will be possible at a level of sophistication that is reliable, viable, and desirable, and at price points that mean it will have broad-based application and impact. For example, consider the prospect for autonomous vehicles (AVs). The technology needed to make AVs possible (GPS, machine vision systems, AI, robotics, mapping systems etc) is either here or being perfected in the next few years. The smart money is on 2017/2018 for the tech to be ready and available at price points that are accessible to people other than millionaires. Increased computing capability delivered by advances in Moore's Law are a big part of that. Expensive Lidar (laser radar) systems can be replaced by cheaper radar and camera subsystems that are fed into a powerful in-car computer that builds a detailed view of the world around the AV. As the compute power increases, algorithms improve, and volume economics drive component costs down, AVs will become viable and accessible to many. 

So, we should all be riding around in AVs in 2018, right? Well, no. Technological possibility is only a piece of the overall puzzle. AVs will be technically possible and safe in a few years, but first we have to resolve all the business and regulatory issues in the broader ecosystem. If you drive your shiny new Toyota into a wall, it's probably your fault. Case closed. But if your new Toyota AV is driving itself to Safeway and crashes into a wall on the way, is that still your fault? Or is it Toyota's? Or the company that wrote the software algorithm? How will insurance companies feel about AVs? Who will take on the risk? How will regulators handle AVs? And how will city planners make room for them in cities? Many, many specifics still need to be hammered out. Some cities and US states have taken a leadership position here but it will be years before this is all resolved. That could be more like five years of effort, so now we are looking at self-driving cars being more realistic in, say, 2020.

The technological and regulatory challenges of AVs has been broadly discussed in the press already. But what hasn't yet gained much focus is the third and most important element of understanding future possibility: people.

To understand what will be possible in the future, you also need to understand people: what they love, what they are scared of, what their ambitions are, what their challenges are, and how they live their lives. For example, it was a profound misunderstanding of people and their home habits that led to a number of failed TV-related innovations in the last couple of decades: WebTV, Google TV, and 3D TV come to mind. People love TV as a sit-back, often social experience, and they want their TV to be something they can have on while they do other things (which is primarily why 3D largely failed). 

With self-driving cars, adoption will be challenged by innate fears embedded in people's brains. Our brains have evolved to associate movement and self-locomotion as an indicator of life. If you spotted an object near you moving right now you would automatically assume that a creature of some sort--perhaps a little bug or rodent--was moving it. Deep in our reptilian brains, movement means life. And so, dear human, when you first sit in a self-driving car and it pulls out gracefully into traffic there will be a part of you that feels "it's alive". And humans are an untrusting bunch. To trust our lives to another 'creature' will take some major leaps of faith. Something only some car companies have fully understood. This will provide a significant headwind to the adoption of AVs, despite all their wonderful advantages. 

So it is only by understanding technology, business ecosystem, and people that you can truly build a helpful picture of an imagined future. And that, dear reader, is what futurists like me do.

As a futurist, my job is then to take this understanding of likely future possibility and inform and inspire others to make their plans for the future. Hopefully plans that are bold, improve the lives of many people, and leave the world better than we found it.