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What do futurists really know?

I recently had the opportunity to join more than a thousand fellow futurists at the World Future Society’s annual meeting in Toronto, Canada.

I’m an accidental futurist.  Five years ago, when I was trying to name this column, I found that all the clever technology titles involving bytes, bits and so forth had already been taken. So I thought: since I’m interested in how technology will affect us in years to come, why not “Practical Futurist?” 

It seemed humorous at the time: how many futurists are known for practicality? But within months, people were referring to me as a futurist. And thus I learned my first lesson about the profession: the way you become a futurist is simply to call yourself one.

So I couldn’t resist the opportunity recently to join more than a thousand fellow futurists at the World Future Society’s annual meeting in Toronto, Canada. While the attendees were a mixed bunch, there were some general characteristics: predominately white, tending toward middle age, a generally suburban dress code, with a solid sprinkling of gray hair (and beards) and a good percentage of women. 

The organizational affiliations included dozens of consulting firms with words in their names such as "future," "think," foresight," and "strategy," as well as some grand-sounding "Institutes" and "Foundations." There were also a number of major U.S. and European corporations, as well as the FBI and the Department of Defense. 

More than one hundred conference topics such as “Future Advanced Technology for Advancing Creativity in Virtual Teams,” “Earth, Water and Human Dignity,” “The Future of Libraries,” and “Sizing Up the Next Big Thing.”  Some presentations were quite speculative: one fellow described neural implants that would rewire our brains to let us perceive things like a fourth primary color. (“Why would we want to do that?” one audience member wanted to know.  The speaker explained: “Because it would be interesting.”)  

Other presentations were serious looks at corporate future-gazing by companies such as Johnson & Johnson, Philips and BASF. It’s clear that European firms tend to be more interested in futurism — which they often call foresight analysis — than are Americans. Philips, for example, tries to inspire thinking by creating very cool futuristic designs, such as a bedroom in which the entire ceiling is a video screen. 

“The walls become media,” the Philips futurist said. “The bed is the remote control and the room recognizes you.”  The vision, in fact, gave birth to the concept of “ambient intelligence,” which now informs much of Philips’ consumer strategy. 

The highest profile futurist was keynote speaker Ray Kurzweil, the prolific inventor who has become a best-selling author with visionary books such as The Singularity is Near.  In the category of here-and-now, Kurzweil showed off his latest invention, a remarkable portable reading device for the blind that verbally helps its owner photograph any piece of text — a clothing label, a menu, a sign on the wall — and then reads it aloud. Kurzweil also reviewed at breakneck pace his vision of the future, which involves both human-level artificial intelligence and stunning medical breakthroughs by 2020 — by which time, Kurzweil predicts, research will lengthen our lives by more than a year for every year we live.

Immortality?  Probably not, but Kurzweil does suggest that if baby boomers just hold on for another fifteen years or so, they’re looking at a lot more life span than previously supposed.  And Kurzweil marshals an impressive set of statistics about technologic acceleration to support his predictions, from the increasing number of transistors on a chip to the decreasing cost of sequencing a single unit of DNA. 

When Kurzweil is explaining it, a glorious future seems almost inevitable. “The entire design of the brain is in the genome,” he says casually. “And the genome isn’t that complicated.”  Unless, of course, biology or human consciousness turn out to have a few twists and turns as yet undiscovered.

And then of course there’s the human factor, which might well derail Kurzweil’s optimistic scenario: what if society decides they don’t want to pay the bills to make baby boomers a permanent fixture of the American landscape? Not all the attendees ignored this wild card quite as blithely as did Kurzweil. One sub-genre of futurist focuses on leadership — once you’ve figured out where to go, how do you convince the other kids to come along?

There was, however, relatively little focus on more negative aspects of human behavior, beyond a few sessions on the future of law enforcement and terror prevention. On balance, the futurists seemed to be an optimistic bunch, which may be self-selecting. If you’re going to spend your career thinking about the future, you might as well feel good about it. 

And what about the future of futurism itself? The World Future Society’s expanding membership — which includes both professionals and amateurs — seems to suggest that it’s bright. A number of U.S. colleges and universities now provide courses in futurism, several of them award degrees and one Australian university even plans to offer a doctorate.  And there are already several associations for professional futurists discussing whether there should be actual requirements for being a futurist. That, of course, may prove to be a little tricky — if accreditation is based on results, then that could be a lengthy licensing period indeed. 

But in the end, making lots of accurate predictions isn’t necessarily the job of the futurist. It’s more the act of stimulating creative thought about the future that, in turn, influences how we act today. At the Toronto conference, veteran futurist Joseph Coates put it this way: “Being right or wrong isn’t so much the point as being useful. The ultimate purpose is to change people’s minds.”

Or as Kenneth Boulding, an influential 20th century futurist, once said: “The future will always surprise us, but we must not let it dumbfound us.” 

If the futurists achieve only that, it will likely make for brighter tomorrows all around.