As much as it pains me to say it, “the future” doesn’t belong to futurists.
A colleague recently had an unfortunately bad reaction to a comment I posted about an article they shared. My comment was short and based more in my long-lived frustration with how “futures” gets conveyed on most media. Overall, the piece wasn’t bad, and my emotional reaction pivoted on the assertion – painfully prevalent in the general news media and across the business world – that futurists “predict.” The subsequent exchange between my colleague and myself, which centered on the issue of futures needing a better “brand” (not my framing), caused me to remember something that originally occurred to me several years ago: trained futurists will always have an uphill battle in “owning” the future as a topic because, well, everyone has a legitimate claim to speaking about the future.
As a field, futures studies is centrally concerned with understanding and anticipating change in society, and then applying that foresight to helping other reframe their expectations and preferences for the future. The field’s practitioners – futurists, for lack of a better and more tightly controlled title – help their clients engage in what we often call “futures thinking,” which is critical thinking about the future, both in terms of what could be as well as what they want it to be. I daresay that trained futurists are some of the best systematically critical thinkers about the future in the world today.
So why don’t trained futurists and the field of futures studies dominate the mindshare of leaders and decision makers when they start questing for expert assistance with thinking critically about the future? When they want to build things these same leaders will immediately think of architects and engineers. When they have legal issues they call a lawyer. When sick they see a physician. So why, then, when they find themselves confronting a turbulent, uncertain, and unfamiliar future don’t they immediately think to call on someone trained in futures studies?
For starters, the reasons include:
- Futures is a relatively small and relatively young academic discipline; there simply are not enough of its practitioners out in the world to cement its place in people’s mental maps
- As a young field, it has a few distinct lines of tradition, which mix and overlap but don’t completely align with each other, and the field hasn’t formally sorted out those differences yet
- Conceptually, there are a great many ways to think about – and forecast – the “future”; there’s no such thing as a single best practice that lay people can become familiar with and absorb as common sense
- The “future” encompasses everything, and so one of the theoretical challenges for the field is to be able to help others think critical about change no matter what the specific topic
- Just about every other professional field tries to use its knowledge and methods to help people anticipate and shape the future, even if only in very narrow pursuits
- There are an ever-increasing number of individuals out in the world claiming to be able to say something insightful and predictive about the future
- “The future” is where all of the new possibilities – and future profits – are; it’s the space over which advisors and consultants of every stripe will always fight over defining
- There is no accrediting body for the title of futurist, and so anyone – and I do mean anyone – can wake up tomorrow and append “futurist” to their title with no practical consequences; the result is that a great many of the individuals that people meet who call themselves futurists have no training in futures studies and many have little in the way of formal or rigorous training in foresight methods whatsoever
Yet for all of these very obvious and understandable reasons, the most basic reason still hasn’t been listed: every human being (and soon, potentially AI) has an instinctive interest in the future and an inalienable right to think about and talk about the future. Thus, every individual and every professional field has a legitimate claim to trying to speak intelligently about the future. Futurists, despite being centrally concerned with change in society and with the future writ large, simply do not have – and will never have – a monopoly on the future as a topic.
For this reason, the field of future studies and trained futurists will always have an uphill battle in the “brand wars” for being recognized as the preeminent experts on thinking critically about the future.