Futurism is NOT Dead!

November 20, 2003

in Strategic Foresight

I appreciated a ping I received from IFTF’s new blog “Future Now” today. It brought to my attention a challenging post “Futurism is Dead!” just published in Wired. It brought back Michael Marrion words at the WFS meeting in July. However Michael was constructive rather than dismissive and while I’ve included quotes from Hope’s article below it troubles me that Wired published it. So in a world of uncertainty Wiredshould one have a point of view? First some background:

Alex provides a thoughtful evolution of the field in response to Hope’s criticism. To make it a little more interesting the editor of “The Futurist” responds and of their response you may be the judge.

Alex’s response to Hope Cristol’s Wired Magazine article, “Futurism is Dead.” [Future Now] is a worthy read for background.

This was fueled by comments by Hope Cristol who writes in Wired

Futurism is doomed and not just because fools are endemic to the field. It’s doomed because the loosely informed, jack-of-all-trades, trend-watching pontificator (read: professional futurist) is obsolete.

For starters, we now have a plethora of niche consultants and a booming field called risk analysis, which uses proven actuarial methods. “Everybody’s more specialized, so there isn’t a market for someone who can speak about very large, holistic matters with any authority,” says Mike Marien, a recovering futurist and an outspoken critic of the field.

Further, we’ve wised up to the fact that futurism as a discipline is something of a con: Futurists don’t have a crystal ball. They examine trends and play out what-if scenarios. Any hausfrau with gumption and a dialup connection can do it. “Does intelligent thinking add up to a futurist field? I don’t think so,” Marien says.

Finally, futurism is obsolete because it now has a past: Forty years of failed predictions should be enough empirical evidence to turn even the true believer into a skeptic

Who would have predicted that futurists would evolve into a scrappy dialogue? In a field where differences are embraced, curiosity, concepts and ideas will be part of the social nature of futurism. While futures, scenarios and strategic foresight has received it share of criticism, it’s from those seeking answers rather than better questions. The future is inherently unpredictable. Insight drives the things we do differently. Instead of selling the future, the sale should be made on “curiosity” and “wonder”. Only a real pessimist takes the future too seriously. The optimists on the other hand perhaps make too light of the challenge and only speak of those that already seem obvious. Those in the middle are left to do the real work that can harness people, collective intelligence, collaborative methods, and emergent networks, or they can sit on the fence and be castigated.

While I liked Alex’s history and I understand the anger from WFS is it also possible everyone here is looking in the wrong place? Two lessons I learned during my time at GBN and prior to GBN included seeking out “Remarkable People”, and the importance of delivering on “Change”. Scenarios, future plans, dreams and concepts are nothing if they fail to enthuse the hearts and minds of participants. Organizations that are more adaptive, more in tune with their environment are more likely to live another day. For my two cents it is all about making better decisions today. That require “context”. Without context — the today– too many projects are just fishing expeditions.

The WFS response includes a reference to the Internet.

Membership is down vs. 10 years ago.
The editorial makes no attempt to provide an explanation. In the last 10 years we got new competition from something called the Internet. And also the economy has been troublesome of late.

Actually the Internet has accelerated and made even more important the role of Strategic Foresight. In a world of time compression, increasingly interconnected ideas, there are both systemic and intuitive possibilities. Access has never been easier. Ideas about tomorrow have never been more necessary. The difference is we no longer need expert futurists, we need individuals that help people accelerate the capability to make the right “COLLECTIVE” choices.

Blogging is just one example of the type of emerging knowledge exchange. One can reach more remarkable people though blogging than they could possibly meet though a constructed network. These Living Networks are far more likely to lead to contacts, introductions, conversations and insights, than prescriptions. Organizations that contract out inquiry rather than building the capability to ask better real-time questions remain beholden to a “core group” of thinkers and ideas are more likely to fail. Innovation must be built in. Future Studies won’t create innovative networks, people will. However the tools and processes are perhaps even more relevant.

Still using a blogging example is not enough without building into it the concepts of networks, connectivity and flows. As we move from a command and control hierarchies to peer centric, decentralized nodes and networks our perspective on “Future Studies” has to change. Like Richard Dawkins ideas memes we are seeking an ecology of ideas for COLLABORATIVE rather than Competitive ADVANTAGE. Blogging only begins to illustrate what this journey might be like. Future Studies seen as an “individual” pursuit it is doomed to failure. Future Studies defined in societal terms, collective intelligence, values and leadership remains inspiring, fulfilling and necessary.

While I grew up in the 60’s and we might argue today times are just as exciting perhaps even more so, few of us are really equipped to instill the wonder a moon shot brought, with stories about todays technologies. Rather than big futures, the future is now tiny, miniscule. Perhaps the failure is in the transition. From grand plans, to living systems and nanotech. Our children already are beginning to understand, are networked and connected. Lets hope they retain their sense of wonder. For if we ask ourselves truly why the future is important, it is not for forecasts, trends and ideas, rather it is about desire.

In closing I did attend the last WFS meeting. I’m not in my view a “futurist” and yet I’m constantly curious about what the future may bring. The “balance” above is one of the things I’ve learned to help teams implement. It’s more about helping to facilitate market changing ideas for businesses, rather than just watching trends. Don’t build “futures and trends departments in your companies. Instead build a “curiosity” competence. That requires safety, transparency and for the most part better approaches for sharing insights. So, I couldn’t believe the number of people that had been attending WFS conferences for twenty or more years in a forum and format which has hardly changed. This remains their “core group”. In a world where digital rights, file sharing, WiFi, VoIP, —- easy interconnectivity —I still can’t believe I couldn’t get a WiFi link at this conference! — are redefining life. The smartest people I met at WFS were in the audience. The audience was told and talked at. For me that is not the future! For me the challenge for the WFS is to be relevant 20/365/7/24/60/60.

Possibly some of Wired criticism is correct. If WFS wants to catalyze the future then it must get with the times and accelerate innvotive thinking about the future. That needs some new tools and approaches. Even an RSS feed might help!

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