From Ray Kurzweil to Kanye West, everyone’s a futurist now

Prototype products and design experiments test the path forward.
Prototype products and design experiments test the path forward.
Image: AP Photo/Laurent Cipriani
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In 1963, in the depths of the Cold War, all of the futurists in the world could probably assemble in a largish conference room and still have space for an overhead projector. Half a century later, it would take a small stadium to hold all of the people who use the title in some form. The world of futures is a broad church today populated by everyone from author and inventor Ray Kurzweil and his obsessive focus on the singularity to Kanye West with his future-esque fashion fetishes. While it’s been a relatively quiet profession for a long time, suddenly it seems like futurists are all around, feeding a growing appetite for all things strange, metallic, and digital.

Why, and why now?

Full disclosure: I do this for a living, having been given the title of futurist by an employer a decade ago. My practice hasn’t been atypical of working futurists, formally using foresight and research to help big brand names, governments, and nonprofits navigate complexity. With a daily menu that can veer from the topics du jour (drones, algorithms gone wild, 3D printing, augmented reality, and smart cities) to long-running classics such as aging populations, green energy or food sustainability, futurists’ work is seldom boring and often puts them face-to-face with the unusual, the atemporal, and the downright weird. While the world of the futurist used to be much farther removed from the general public, perhaps only appearing through an interest in science fiction, it now jumps off the front page of the broadsheets.

There are different flavors of futurists. There is the professional, consulting kind, many of whom trained in a formal university or professional program, and use structured methods and tools to help large organizations make sense of trends and develop strategies. There are the self-proclaimed futurists who are enthusiasts of a specific area such as technology, food, health, culture and so on, who dedicate themselves to furthering a favored future (here I would place Kurzweil and kin). Then, there are the broader masses of folk who like the idea of the future, and speak about leading others there, or just surround themselves in the trappings of all that is shiny and future-esque.

Superdensity is now

One could argue, as I have before, that we are in a pretty future-dense moment, with a number of major global issues, from climate change to energy to health to media and communication all very obviously teetering on the edge of massive change. With major natural, social and economic systems facing perturbations, and with the global economy so closely intertwined, we feel the rattle from these shocks in ways we didn’t decades ago. Global systems, and real-time awareness, create effects on a worldwide scale. A nuclear accident in one country, can cause a rethink of energy policya continent away, even before the trace radiation spreads. Risks tracked by groups like the World Economic Forum appear to be multiplying; even Cambridge University has recently set up a center for the study of existential risks

Short of world wars and oil embargoes, we haven’t until recently sensed every shake or shudder in another part of the world. But when a new smartphone or piece of code released in one country this morning can be in the hands of another by tonight, or supply chains are disrupted quickly by unexpected events, or a biological innovation can be knocked off quickly by semi-pros working in a closet, not only do business and governments look for advice, but societies also seek some kind of orientation.

It’s possible that these volatile times have encouraged more people to identify as futurists, or as future-minded. The usual professional training grounds—a handful of universities, corporations with internal future research teams, and specialist agencies—aren’t producing markedly more futurists these days than they have in the past decade (though several new university programs have joined a few of the older graduate degree programs). There are probably fewer than 100 new graduates from these programs a year, and many don’t go on to punditry, but work within companies. However, the market is calling for expert opinions at a far higher rate as the velocity and intensity of the “new” increases. The boom in tech blogs and major media microsites focusing solely on “the future” has put more focus on finding people who are on the front lines of making these futures happen, or dealing with their consequences—engineers, social scientists, designers, coders, ethicists, etc., as well as generalist pundits.

From future to recent past, quickly

Science fiction writer Bruce Sterling determined that parts of future promised in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s has now reached a present state. For Sterling, this has meant spending more time chronicling that weird present, and counseling those fashioning the next phase as a design critic and mentor.

Big brands have also entered the fray, taking advantage of the lack of a coherent narrative about the future to do what I call “strategic bending.” These companies position themselves as creators of “The Future” in high-budget marketing of the kind we now see around cars, mobile phones, and defense systems. Because so much of their business is wrapped up in the sales of so-called ecosystems of complementary products and services (think “iEverything”), they need the average person to see their brand’s way as the path into to the future.

Make me a futurist

This leaves corporations and individuals grasping for assistance, and creates a vacuum in which the “predictions” game can flourish. It also leaves the opportunity to build interesting “what if?” products to tentatively test the path forward. In some ways, this is the story of recent Apple, or Dyson, boldly making a future and seeing who gets on board. Apple’s success in the last decade of reshaping our expectations about the future computing and communication may be running out of steam precisely because it’s become the accepted present. Soon, someone else will step in and pull our focus toward a separate vision of the future. Google looks poised to play that role next, though it could be an unknown from the world of big data or biotech.

Ironically, companies like these often lack their own internal futurist teams, which are more likely to be found inside traditional consumer brands such as Ford, Kellogg’s and Pepsi, or those with long engineering horizons, like Cisco or Intel. At such an uncertain time, corporate risk managers appear to be turning less often, not more often, to these resources. This leaves market buzz from occasional future-gazers to fill the gap.

In 1963, it seemed sufficient to have a small room full of wise men make a judgment for us. In 2013, the future is in our pockets, mouths and skies on a daily basis, which compels more people to try their hand at making sense of it, for better or worse.