radical Insights.

Weekly Research and Commentary on the Future of Business and Technology.

Thinking like Which Futurist Exactly?.

Jul 2, 2024

Another signal that many of us are feeling like the future has arrived in a hurry—and that we’re not prepared for things that have already happened: I’m being invited to more industry events and learning and development programs where a stated objective of the gathering is to equip attendees to “think like futurists.”

Not so long ago, this was something we had to pitch to organizers. Now there’s an ambient thirst for solutions that might aid in anticipating and making sense of change and discontinuity. That’s an opportunity—make no mistake, but it’s one we should approach carefully and with real attention given to which solutions we’re spotlighting and exactly which futurists we’re suggesting as models.

Recently, I opened a short, tools-focused session by first asking the attendees on the program to each take a moment to picture in their mind a futurist—like, an actual distinct individual—and to stand up when they had someone in mind.

After a moment, the hundred or so attendees were all standing. I told them they could sit back down if their futurist was Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, or Sam Altman. A few dozen sat.

Then, I told them they could sit down if their futurist was any other visionary from the tech world—a Steve Jobs, Jensen Huang, Marc Andreessen, Mark Zuckerberg, or the like. Still more sat down.

I told them to sit if their futurist was a fictional character—a Doc Brown, Tony Stark, or Professor X. Another group sat, and now, most of the attendees were sitting.

I told them to sit down if they didn’t actually have a futurist in mind and hadn’t really been able to conjure up a good example on the spot. This, too, was worth noting! Another several—some laughing knowingly—sat.

Before going any further, I offered a few observations. When asked to identify a futurist, most of us think of a very small, very homogeneous, and very highly unrepresentative handful of people (real ones) who seem to have a tremendous influence on how we as a society envision and talk about futures, and as a result, those futures seem to be very significantly focused on—if not straight-up determined—by technology.

I shared with them a poignant and probably relatable quote featured in a recent essay on the importance of social foresight where a Director of Community Engagement at United Way (a US-based nonprofit network focused on alleviating poverty) told the author:

“At times, it feels like we are walking around in futures that other people created for us… We deserve the power to shape our own future.”

I asked the room of attendees to consider whether we had perhaps allowed a cultural and economic monopoly on the exercise of the profoundly human capability to envision, work with, and learn from the future. Then, I returned to the handful of attendees who were still standing and invited them to tell me about the futurists they had pictured when initially prompted.

One was thinking of a child who loved to imagine (and play as) the adult she might one day become. Another had in mind an uncommonly far-sighted leader in his organization—one who was always connecting things back to a long-term vision and purpose. Others had thought of sci-fi authors, artists, or community organizers.

With each additional example, they were building toward the point I’d hoped to make: That the future is too important to be left to “the futurists”—unless we radically expand the ranks of that category to render it richer, more inclusive, and more empathic in its imagining. If—and only if—we can do that, then we’ll really have a model that’s worth promoting and emulating, and then, I suspect, we’ll also find ourselves with a much richer and more varied set of futures that we can draw upon to inform our leadership, partnership, and stewardship today.