Demystifying the futurist: What are they and why do you need them?

With Americans facing so much change, futurists play an increasingly vital role as navigators — identifying the forces that impact organizations.

Glen Justice

Glen Justice is a content strategist and contributor ...

Whether you work in business, government or the nonprofit world, part of management’s mission is to present a vision of what’s ahead. From trends in technology to social and cultural change, understanding the terrain is vital to staying competitive.

With Americans facing so much change, futurists play an increasingly important role as navigators — identifying and explaining the forces that impact organizations.

As Daniel Pink, a futurist and best-selling author, observes, “There is a mismatch between what science knows and what business does.”

So, What is a Futurist (Really)?

A futurist is a person who studies the future and makes predictions about it based on current trends. They carefully consider data to suggest how certain trends might have impact on a global scale.

A common misconception is that futurists are simply glorified fortune tellers. But, in actuality, these high-level forecasters make predictions based on stone cold facts. And their point of view can even impact how companies design products and make strategic decisions. 

Large companies like Ford and Hewlett-Packard have created staff positions for futurists. Many more companies have brought in these experts to speak. Futurists can explain the world ahead of us in ways that no book, article, or video ever could. They can simplify concepts, frame converging trends in practical ways, and render even the most complex ideas relatable. They also take questions.

Innovative Futurists on Technology

The last three decades have arguably been one of the greatest periods of technological change in American history. It started with the rise of the personal computer and the internet. It continued as social media connected people globally, and reached an important milestone in the mobile revolution — which put access to vast stores of knowledge in a pocket-sized machine.

The years ahead will be no different, as artificial intelligence, voice interface, robotics, automation, and disruptive technologies (like cryptocurrency and blockchain) continue to mature. The futurists who study these changes — whether they are scientists, regulators, or entrepreneurs -- play a vital role in explaining it to the rest of us. And each comes at it from a different angle.

Best-selling author Walter Isaacson, for example, is well-positioned to discuss innovation and its impact, after writing biographies of Leonardo da Vinci and Steve Jobs. “I like the intersection of different disciplines, particularly where the humanities intersect with the sciences,” he says. “What interests me is how genius is a function not of intelligence but of creativity.”

Aneesh Chopra, author and former Chief Technology Officer in the Obama administration, writes and speaks about the role technology plays in shaping government. He cites examples from his time at the White House. “What gives me hope is this talent in our country that is just ready to go,” he says.

Some, like Vivek Wadhwa, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University and Washington Post columnist, look at technological capability. “Every technology I look at seems to be entering an exponential curve,” he says. “Technologies advancing on exponential curves do amazing things. When exponential technologies converge, that’s when you get industry disruption.”

Trailblazing Futurists on Social Change

Of course, technology is not the only force shaping American life and work. The United States went through massive social change with the suffrage movement in the early 1900s and the civil rights movement in the 1960s. Evolution continues today in the nationwide conversations about immigration, gender equality, diversity, and inclusion.

Here too, futurists can play an important role as guides and interpreters. For example, Frances Frei, a professor at Harvard Business School, teaches managers how to increase diversity and inclusion effectively.

“In the magnificently increasing diverse environments in which we lead, it’s up to us to make sure that that diversity leads to unprecedented excellence -- and it doesn’t happen casually,” she says. “It happens by making sure that we surface and celebrate our distinctions, not what’s in common.”

Reshma Saujani, founder of Girls Who Code, speaks often about gender roles in the workplace and the factors that lead to inequality. “I’ve been obsessed about trying to understand what this female leadership gap is about,” Saujani says. “One of the things that I’ve really seen is what I call the bravery deficit. It seems as though boys are socialized to be brave and girls are socialized to be perfect.”

Whether experts call themselves a futurist or not matters little. Nor does prediction have much to do with it. What is important is their capability to bring educated, experienced, and measured insight to complex topics that managers must understand. As author William Gibson put it, “the future is already here — it's just not evenly distributed.”


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