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Financial Times: Pathfinders to a distant future

By Graham Bowley
Published: January 31 2007 02:00 | Last updated: January 31 2007 02:00

The urge to predict the future goes back to the oracle in the temple at Delphi, to Nostradamus uttering his gnomic quatrains and to the Romans consulting the entrails of slaughtered bulls.

Today, those working in the “futurist” profession glean insights from more earthly sources, such as fringe newspapers, websites and newsletters; from human experts; and from the world around us – which in futurist parlance contains “memories of the future”.

Keen to distinguish themselves from palm readers, astrologers and tea-leaf gazers, futurists also emphasise that they are not simply management consultants, political pollsters or market researchers, who also peddle predictions. Whereas those more traditional analysts are usually concerned only with their own sector or political context, futurists turn unashamedly to what lies, broadly, ahead. And by carving out an increasingly valued role in the corporate world, the future of futurology has started looking decidedly brighter.

“I think the key distinctions in what futurists provide vis-à-vis more traditional consultancies is a longer time-frame, consideration of a greater range of alternatives, and a greater willingness to think out of the box,” says futurist Andy Hines. He completed a master’s degree in “futures studies” in Texas in 1987, started his first job in a Washington DC-based futures consultancy in 1990 and now works from his home in Houston.

The list of companies and organisations that use futurology to guide product development or strategy include Nokia, Procter & Gamble, Philips, Siemens and DaimlerChrysler. The European Commission has a couple of foresight units. In September, the New York Times appointed its own in-house futurist. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has a futures research programme, and the UK government has a Foresight programme, with a £2m annual budget, 30 full-time staff and a “horizon-scanning” centre.

The future is so complex, say futurists, that it cannot possibly be foreseen by a single expert who concentrates only on his or her field.

Futurists have three key strategies: careful examination, “scenario-building” and “visioning”. The first involves gazing more closely than most at what really goes on. The principle is that the future is already more or less here, if only we could see it. “Eventually you start to spot what is important,” says Alister Wilson, an Edinburgh-based futurist working with Foresight. “You can see things coming before the competition.”

Shell was one of the first companies to adopt futures thinking, incorporating it into planning in the 1970s. Pierre Wack, one of the fathers of futurism and a man who called it “the gentle art of re-perceiving”, got Shell to see that oil production was not just about economics and technology but also about politics.

Today, Cho Khong, Shell’s chief political analyst, explains how “re-perceiving” helps futurism’s broad approach. “You begin by going around asking all sorts of people, ‘What are the questions that we should be asking?’ Then you bring in experts to debate and discuss them further.” The rigour of storytelling makes you fill in the gaps and realise what you don’t know.

Another name for this story-telling is “scenario building”, developed in the 1950s by Herman Kahn, an influential cold-war analyst at the Rand Corporation. Scenario building begins with the observation on which futurists pride themselves. If you stare at a thing long enough, you eventually see the fundamental forces driving it, which you can count on being present in the future. These fundamental forces are like scaffolding, on which you build two or three contrasting stories (the scenarios) about what the future might hold.

For example, an ageing UK population is a given. But how does this interact with, say, oil prices and the future of tourism? One scenario might be low oil prices and a booming market for homes in France. In a second, high-oil-price scenario, on the other hand, you wouldn’t buy aim to become a landlord in the Languedoc.

Futurists and their clients identify warning signals in each scenario and then watch the world closely for these signals – hints that one of the foreseen futures is actually unfolding. A 2003 article by Leonard Fuld in the Harvard Business Review explains how Visa, in the late 1990s, fearing a threat from online payment systems, built four scenarios, including one in which a venture capital-backed start-up began a new web payment system and defeated Visa, and one where online rivals fizzled out and failed.

It began to track signals that might suggest scenario number one was beginning, such as the number of online businesses that signed up to the new web systems, the level of advertising by start-up rivals and the capital being raised by them. By 2001, all those measures were declining. As a result of its scenario planning, says Mr Fuld, Visa had not rushed in to invest in its own online system and had saved itself millions.

The final strategy, visioning, involves not only working out what could happen but what you want to happen. This emerged out of a strain of futures thinking in western Europe after the second world war. Nations that prospered were those, like the US, that had a clear vision of where they were heading.

Participation is an important part of visioning – whole companies or entire communities come together to consider the best future. Getting them all to agree often then ensures that that future gets carried out.

The futurists’ strategies – thinking of the future in idealistic terms, storytelling, and quiet but intense observation – set them apart from their mainstream peers. But those same tactics might also be the reason futurists struggle for respect: theirs is a creative view of the world – almost a novelist’s view – which can keep them on the periphery in the square-shouldered realms of business and politics.

Futurists argue that scanning their sources takes perseverance and a certain skill – “an innocent eye”, according to John Naisbitt, one of the gurus of futures thinkers, who says he reads newspapers for six hours each day and travels endlessly. Tim Mack, the president of the World Future Society, calls it a “gimlet eye”.

However, futurists also struggle against the obvious fact that they are not always right about the future. Looking back on the first 30 years of the World Future Society, Ed Cornish, its founder, found that of the 34 predictions it made in 1967, 23 came true but 11 did not – a moon landing but not a moon base, human organ transplants but not “most urbanites living in high-rise buildings by 1986” or “lab-created life by 1989”.

Futurism is sometimes frowned on by other professions and academic fields. According to the Oxford-based consultant in futures research Wendy Schultz, most suspicions stem from the fact that futurists are interdisciplinary, encroaching on others’ territory. But there have also been internal factions and rivalries in the profession. “We are not good at organising,” says Mr Hines. “The big problem we have is that people don’t know this still even exists.”

Just give them time.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007

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