What the F**k is a Futurist?!
“What do you do” is the definitive ‘go to” question when meeting people.
There are many reasons for this, from social nerves to quickfire “status assessment”, right through to people wanting to talk about themselves and their chosen path in life, be it out of ego or enthusiasm.
Unless you are an accountant, it’s a question that invariably leads to easily had (and hopefully enjoyable) conversation, be that intellectual, entertaining or personal. However, when I say I’m a Futurist, more often than not, the next line is “what is that”, with a tone that often indicates an expletive has been politely avoided!
As such, I thought I would kick off my regular writing with a personal insight on what being a Futurist means to me. This is an enthusiastic explanation, rather than an ego session, and celebration on how rewarding it can be to ‘live to work’, rather than ‘work to live’!
“What it means to me” to be a Futurist is an important first step, as it is a unique career that is not something you get a degree in.
Futurism is a “calling” or a belief system, similar in many ways to a religion, sport, or life goal such as climbing Mount Everest. It’s an holistic lifestyle and self-actualisation that comes with a great many challenges and lots of wonderful opportunities if you are fortunate enough to earn the respect of clients and in turn earn a living thinking and educating people about the eternal “tomorrow”.
Wikipedia, in all its hive mind wisdom, defines a Futurist as “people who attempt to predict the future by engaging in interdisciplinary thinking”, however I think that misses the mark. Unless dealing with a closed system where all factors are known and rules can be applied, predicting the future is simply not possible and fraught with dead ends. There are too many complex local and global elements, not to mention an almost infinite array of unknown factors, that make it rife with unprofessional and unpredictable guess work, let alone pure imagination and fictitious storytelling.
The notion of interdisciplinary thinking is on point, coupled with the concept of “understanding how the future works”.
This subtle difference means embracing that it is not only impossible to predict the future, but far more important to create public ownership of the future by enabling people with the right the skills and knowledge to be the change they want to see.
What Wikipedia does nail is that Futurists “advise private and public organisations on such matters as diverse global trends, possible scenarios, emerging market opportunities and risk management.” However again, I like the idea of opportunity creation, rather than risk management, based on understanding an array of options loosely categorised into “probable, possible, potential and preferred futures”.
Like my first profession, Urban Planning, Futurism is about knowing a little about a lot, not a lot about a little.
It is a demanding intellectual discipline with a constantly moving playing field and a never-ending list of interesting things to know and assimilate into a rather big conceptual framework. A framework that then needs to be easily and entertainingly articulated to those interested in the topic to empower and inspire positive change both individually and collectively.
But like any good expert, it is important to first acknowledge what you do not know before you start to sprout what you do know! As such, there are many different types of Futurists who come from many different vocational backgrounds. I know of Accounting Futurists, Technological Futurists, Economic Futurists, Environmental Futurists and many more. No single Futurist would claim be the all-knowing tome of wisdom and enlightenment, so a shrewd operator will hint at his or her chosen focus before engaging you in their seemingly endless enthusiasm for innovation, ideas, information and opportunities.
My background is in “cities”; urban planning and governance to be more precise. Hence the title Urban Futurist.
This field encompasses understanding and implementing urban systems to supporting cities, states, businesses and communities in realising the best outcomes for people and the planet.
In short, I love cities, care about the citizens of today and tomorrow and want to make the world a more liveable, sustainable and productive place. However, being a Futurist means moving beyond good governance, strategic planning, policy writing, public consultation and urban design to explore externalities that will affect how the citizens of tomorrow will live their lives. I consider myself a city “hacker” interested in the code of the street and how that can and should be rewritten to achieve better places for people.
Much of how I think comes from science as a belief system.
I love logic and am obsessed by patterns. In turn I am always thinking about what they mean for change over the coming years, decades and indeed centuries. Just as humanity has evolved from hunter gatherer, to agriculture, then cities and the industrial revolution, I fundamentally believe there is a role for thinking about a big picture “what’s next” for the 4th age of cities and how are we going to get there.
There are fascinating patterns everywhere…
Ideas such as symmetry, chaos and even fractal geometry (or fractal geography!) are all things that inform what I see and how I help people. In this approach, one-dimensional or single-discipline thinking is replaced with a massively trans-disciplinary mindset that takes complexity seriously. The trick as a Futurist is to assimilate and simplify it so that decision makers and communities van make sense of it and create the best path forward.
A passion for demographics, technology, urban and environmental systems, the transport revolution, innovation in buildings, homes and infrastructure, coupled with a deep concern for climate change, resource scarcity and the health and well-being of all people and the planet are drivers that get me fired up. The rise of the machines, pollution, obesity, poverty, gender and equity are things we should all care about, but these things wake me up at 4am most mornings!
The term ”the long now” is a good example of the way I approach my work.
I perceive “now” as a 100 year period that subsequently embraces the implications of artificial intelligence, autonomous everything, global warming and massive worldwide population growth. It means I inevitably perceive change on a far faster, and bigger, scale than people who are thinking about their day or week ahead or even planning for the next 5–10 years. It is fun but can also give you a headache in you don’t then take the time to mediate, exercise, sleep well and have your friends and family keep you in check.
I think this stuff is cool and, if you are still with me, chances are you are the same. But…
Being a science nerd passionate about the metaphysical, rather than what I’d consider the mundane (i.e. watching sport or reality TV), definitely limits your social network and make you a target of those with vested interests in the status quo, both in boardrooms and the media. Truth is I get myself into trouble all the time, both personally and professionally. Add to that a natural penchant for questioning the rules (and breaking the unnecessary ones) and I find myself often unpopular in professional or social circles!
When you embrace your calling as a Futurist, you make the decision to not fit in and be both ridiculed and misjudged at times by those that fear change.
If you do not sometimes say the absurd as a Futurist, you’re not doing your job the right way anyway. It can be fun done just the right way but often offends people or makes them think I’m stupid…go figure!
As we go about our daily lives, I am genuinely concerned that the “end of limitless” is not only inevitable, but getting closer at an accelerating rate. There is no question we are in the midst of a historical transformation and more than ever we need people to offer unconventional thinking, coupled with rational and thought-provoking alternatives, to behaviours that are not really helping us get where we need to go.
I see many elephants in the room and have both a big mouth and moral obligation to point them out.
One day flushing our shit with drinkable water will be seen as a really stupid idea and not acting on climate change in the 20th Century will be ridiculed as mind numbingly foolish.
I’ve been called “ahead of my time” more times than I care to remember, often sadly laced with a tone of genuine pity.
That is OK by me though, as we desperately need leaders to challenge the philosophy of “that’s just how we do things”. If it means cracking a few eggs along the way, hopefully the omelette I help people make will taste better than the one being currently cooked up by the prevailing world paradigm we have today!