The Curse of the Futurist (or, How You Can’t Escape the S-Curve)

Are Others Letting Me Down, Or is it Just Me?

In doing some very brief scanning this morning I came across a post by Klaus Schwab entitled, “How will the Fourth Industrial Revolution affect international security?”  A short post, Mr. Schwab calls the reader’s attention to what he identifies as the seldom-discussed international implications of the “fourth industrial revolution” (personally, I still prefer framing technology-driven economic shifts in terms of Perez’s waves of technological revolution, itself related to Schumpeter’s take on the issue).

But perhaps one of the most important impacts – largely because it cuts across each and every one of these issues – is how the technological changes under way will affect state relations and international security.

The broad issues Schwab points to are not terribly surprising, and include:

  • exacerbating economic inequalities (and the resulting rise in social conflict)
  • how conflicts in one part of the world now “can have repercussions far away”, what he somewhat erroneously labels “scale”
  • the “hybrid” nature of modern conflict (what others have pointed out is more like a return to pre-WWII/Cold War statecraft and conflict)
  • autonomous weapon systems

In a somewhat common experience for me, nothing here was surprising, though the conclusions are presented to the audience as new and critical issues that must be brought into mainstream debates.  I had my typical first reaction of, “well, this wasn’t very useful.” Then it occurred to me: this feeling of being let down, of seldom being surprised by the future-oriented ideas of many mainstream writers is really another example of what we will call for the time being, the futurist’s curse.  Not unlike the curse suffered by the mythical Cassandra, this curse attaches itself to any professional that spends their time straining to explore the dark spaces out beyond the short-to-mid-term future.

The Futurist’s Curse

What is the Futurist’s Curse?  The futurist who is doing their job well will forever be identifying and calling attention to emerging issues long before they actually become issues in the minds of anyone else.  So, they will always struggle with drawing attention to and building engagement with these issues.  Yet, in due time, as those issues mature and get closer to mainstream life, others will start to take notice and begin to engage the issue.  Eventually, there will be debates around the issue, perhaps even a movement that takes off, and soon everyone is talking about the issue or looking for experts to talk about the issue.  For examples of this, think of “sustainability,” digital fabrication (more commonly referred to as 3D printing), or the civil rights of robots*.

Where’s the sting in this curse?  It’s that the futurist will not always be the one associated with identifying and framing the issue.  It’s that others, individuals and groups who come along later in an issue’s life cycle, will come to be seen as the go-to people for talking about and addressing the issue.  Others are likely to be approached as the experts on the issue, now that it is hitting mainstream consciousness.  Again, 3D printing provides a good example.

Trained futurists have been talking about and forecasting the potential importance of 3D printing for decades (it was originally referenced as “rapid prototyping”).  I myself developed forecasts for a former employer back in 1999 that included a scenario in which your neighborhood Kinko’s became a 3D printing service.  Was it challenging for futurists to get leaders to take these concepts and forecasts seriously in the late 1990s?  Absolutely.

Yet today 3D printing is an almost mainstream topic of conversation, and there are recognized technical experts and established companies fully invested in the new applications.  Are the professional futurists who were identifying 3D printing as a future emerging issue years ago the standard-bearers for digital fabrication today?  Not so much.  Today, if people want information about what 3D printing is and how to get involved they can – and do – seek out the opinions and advice of a much wider range of technical and business experts.

Understanding One’s Place on the Curve

Lest any reader think that this post is simply the resentful ramblings of a futurist who’s been through this emerging issues cycle one too many times and doesn’t feel he’s gotten his due, let me clarify.  This is not about getting credit for identifying something first; it’s really about recognizing that the role trained futurists play is not as experts for mainstream, top-of-mind issues.  At least, not as experts in how to apply these things in your operations today.  It is about realizing that the purpose of good foresight work is in fact to identify things before they become mainstream issues.  If something now has enough established history and data for us to start calculating an experience curve, then we’ve reached a point where that issue – as a stand alone issue – is passing out of the sole purview of the trained futurist and into the broader environment of engineers, investors, and business people.  This is natural and good.


Figure 1: Knowing One’s Place on the Curve

The world has no end to the marketing, communications, and business consulting experts who stand ready to guide your organization through adopting the latest new technology or addressing the new mainstream issue.  These professionals occupy a certain stretch of the classic emerging issues s-curve (figure 1).  With regard to identifying emerging issues, futurists occupy a different stretch.  As a rule of thumb, you call on trained futurists to help you identify issues that are still emerging up out of the Foresight Zone (and some of the Innovation Zone), and to help you address the uncertainty of how the many issues coming up in both the Foresight and Innovation Zones will interact and collectively impact your world.

Life gives everyone a multitude of reasons for staying focused on what is right in front of us, yet futurists have accepted the challenging role of trying to lead others much further towards a distant and hazy horizon.  Our role is not to inhabit that lively and colorful space right in front us, filled as it is with people, voices, and advice.  The Futurist’s Curse should remind us that futurists should always be scanning the world for that next set of issues, that they should be rallying people to look out beyond that space right in front of us and to engage what is yet uncharted territory.  And while trained futurists may not inhabit the topical limelight very often, if they are doing their jobs well, we all will be moving towards better futures.

*I credit professor emeritus Jim Dator, founder of the futures studies program at the University of Hawaii at Manoa with introducing this as an emerging issue, decades ago.

How will the Fourth Industrial Revolution affect international security?


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