In a bit of serendipity, there were three different articles published this week on futures and foresight work, detailing what a futures company concerns itself with and how these firms go about their work. Writing in Quartz, friend of Foresight Alliance Scott Smith detailed some of the reasons why the futures field has seen a surge of popular recognition in the business world. He states:

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.

Andrew Curry, of The Futures Company, blogging about an article on futures firms that ran in Fast Company, laid out his view of what makes  a good futures firm:

It Looks Outside Its Industry Firms that focus on only one industry may miss developments outside their purview that either could heavily impact your industry or provide new business approaches to follow.

It Can Work Both Fast & Slow “Culture operates at two speeds–fast and slow,” says Terry Young [of agency sparks & honey]. “Monitoring macro trends helps companies build an arsenal of content that is ready to adjust to emerging trends, memes, or breaking news.”

It Gets to the “So What” Make sure that whomever you are looking to for help can provide what you need to get to the “So Here’s What We Do Now.”

It Doesn’t Get Carried Away Remember how Segway was going to hit $1 billion in sales faster than any other company in history? As Walker Smith says, “While your head is in the clouds you need to keep your feet on the ground.” (From a Futures Company perspective, the way you do that is to look at the 360 degree picture of how change happens – some layers of change, such as infrastructure or social behaviour, are slower than others.)

Taken together, Smith and Curry lay out a succinct argument of why foresight is needed, and who you should look to for help. I can add that Curry’s four qualifications are met by Foresight Alliance.

A slightly different piece by tech writer Veronique Greenwood in Aeon Magazine comes from a more personal point of view, as she discusses what it was like growing up in the home of a futurist. Her final paragraph is an encomium to those in the futures field:

That said, I would never want to be too far away from those who live and work perpetually in the vanguard, who have chosen that risky, Schrödinger’s Cat-like existence. Even after growing up with my mother and the remains of a hundred half-baked ideas, such people’s willingness to ride the wave, their foolhardiness and their bravery, still provokes awe in me. It’s not a thing I can profess to understand beyond a basic respect for their guts and their kind of crazy hope that the future will be weird. But that’s something I can get behind.

 

Image: Don McCullough, Flickr.

Image: Herkie, Flickr

I’m pleased to report that an article I co-authored for The Futurist in 2012 has landed on the magazine’s list of its most popular stories of the year. Co-written with my longtime friend and colleague Chris Carbone, who serves as director of insights and research at Innovaro, “From Smart House to Networked Home” describes how cutting-edge technologies ranging from cloud intelligence to 3D printing to personal analytics could reshape mainstream home life in the next decade. While “smart homes” have been predicted for decades, new social drivers and the rapid penetration of networked devices into everyday life are making this forecast more plausible than ever.

You can find the full list of The Futurist’s most popular articles from 2012 here. Happy reading!

Image: TheGameWay (Flickr)

Fictions about the future and present realities engage in a perpetual exchange. Many scientists and inventors recount being inspired by a particular Star Trek gadget or science fiction movie.

Here’s an intriguing example that suggests how tight these loops can get: the designers of the computer game Call of Duty: Black Ops II wanted to add some futuristic elements. They wisely consulted Peter W. Singer, a defense expert and author of Wired for War.  One of the things he suggested was a small armed quadcopter drone, and this idea was incorporated into the game.

To promote the game, the company put up a simulated video showing what was supposed to be a real-life prototype of such an armed drone. Millions watched the video, including, Singer says, some people in the US Defense Department. According to Singer, the American officials

said “hold it; this crazy Russian guy has something better than what we have now – we want one”. Now the Pentagon is working on developing their own a fictional drone from a TV commercial. Essentially, in trying to be a projection of the future, the science fiction accelerated the future – we were saying this is what’s most likely to happen in the 2020s. Now it’s going to happen before then – largely because of the game.

 

Image: David Paul Ohmer (Flickr)

I spent more than 20 years in Research and Development at a major global food manufacturer. Our corporate leadership made it very clear that our primary obligation as an organization was to our shareholders. And the fundamental goal of the organization was to maximize shareholder value. (In fairness I should point out that our company always took responsibilities such as food safety very seriously.) But from early in my tenure I doubted that shareholder value should be the sole and central goal. It always seemed to me that the corporation had an obligation to its employees, its customers, and the communities in which it operated, and that eventually companies and society would come to recognize those broader obligations.

Is this forecast coming to pass? Turns out that while I was possibly ahead of the times I was certainly also behind them. In a recent op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times, Cornell corporate and business law professor Lynn Stout points out that maximizing shareholder value became the corporate imperative only in the last three decades. “But for most of the 20th century, professional managers of public corporations … viewed themselves as stewards or trustees responsible for steering great social institutions — public corporations — for the benefit not only of shareholders but also employees, customers and the nation.”

Stout, who has written a book on the subject, argues not only that a focus on shareholder value is bad for other important stakeholders but also that it’s bad for the shareholders themselves, because it incentivizes short-term thinking. Managers tend to make decisions that maximize quarterly results at the expense of the long-term health of the corporation. As a staff member of the “R” part of R&D I was very familiar with this issue. My colleagues and I were constantly seeking to justify investment in long-term projects with high potential benefit but uncertain outcomes, while confronting the imperative to generate short-term business results.

What does all of this have to do with foresight? When organizations return to a stewardship point of view and seek to benefit customers, communities, employees, and shareholders, foresight can help in three important ways.

  • Longer-term thinking. Stewardship of a corporation for the public good requires a longer-term approach. Foresight processes are designed for time horizons beyond the usual corporate strategic planning frame of one to three years.
  • Broader thinking. Addressing the interests of a breadth of stakeholders makes it necessary to consider a wider range of driving forces shaping the future. Foresight explicitly considers a broad range of trends and drivers.
  • Systems thinking. When organizations begin to consider the interests of a broad set of stakeholders they must be concerned with the way those interests interact in a complex, interconnected system. Systems thinking is an important element of foresight methods.

Of course there are a number of signs that corporations are taking a broader view of their responsibilities, including the corporate social responsibility and social entrepreneurship movements. I’m just glad I’ve been able to stick around long enough to see the tide begin to turn.

(Thanks to Shaping Tomorrow for calling the LA Times article to my attention.)

Futurists often talk about values and their impact on the way the future unfolds.

Earlier this year, as my wife and I were planning a trip to New Zealand, my Foresight Alliance colleague Josh Calder made me aware of the thesis of David Hackett Fischer’s book, Fairness and Freedom: A History of Two Open Societies: New Zealand and the United States. According to the Amazon summary of the book, the two nations share many common political, economic, social, and cultural elements, “but all of these elements take different forms, because constellations of value are far apart. The dream of living free is America’s Polaris; fairness and natural justice are New Zealand’s Southern Cross.”

During our visit we saw and heard many ways in which the values of fairness and natural justice play out in New Zealand life.

Waitangi Treaty Ground (Image: Croasmun)

The Treaty of Waitangi between the Maori (the Polynesian settlers of New Zealand who arrived at least 700 years ago) and the British settlers was signed in 1840. The two cultures still coexist and there is active discussion even today about the treaty’s meaning and its practical implications for relations between the two cultures.

Image: Croasmun

The Polynesian settlers of New Zealand weren’t just the first human inhabitants of the islands, they were the first mammals to arrive (other than bats). The Polynesians and the Europeans introduced a number of other invasive mammal species—rats, opossums, pigs, and so forth. Now there is an active effort to create and expand preserves where these invasive species have been eliminated so that remaining native species like the kiwi can again flourish.

Image: Croasmun

Native kauri trees were prized for their timber, which was widely used for shipbuilding. Kauri grow slowly and it is now illegal to cut them down. Kauri products are still produced and sold, using trees that fell that have been preserved for thousands of years underground.

Image: Croasmun

A small example—New Zealander’s apparently have the option to refuse delivery of junk mail.

New Zealand recognized women’s right to vote in 1893, the earliest of any current nation in modern times.

Values matter!

reef by Chris Bartnik Photography (Flickr)

reef by Chris Bartnik Photography (Flickr)

In the late 1990s, I wrote a series of articles covering scenarios for the future of tourism. They included the idea of underwater hotels, projected for 2010. “Nights are beautiful.  Pale, shimmering shafts of moonlight filter down through the waves, revealing ghostlike fish.  The piped-in sounds of the sea lull you to sleep,” I wrote.

So I was pleased to see this item in The Economist, about a hotel in which “guests in the 21 submerged rooms get to look out of their windows onto the local marine life.”

Futurists say — loudly and often — that we are not here to make predictions, but it is still nice to see it demonstrated that one has thought the possibilities through clearly. (More here on “prediction accuracy.”)

Of course, maybe this is all due to my reading You Will Live Under the Sea as a child.

Image: @boetter (Flickr)

In a previous post (Brainstorming for Introverts, Part 1) I talked about the limitations of traditional group brainstorming, which has been shown to be less efficient in gathering ideas than having participants work individually. According to Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Won’t Stop Talking, there are at least three problems with traditional brainstorming: “social loafing” (participants can let someone else carry the load), “production blocking” (only one participant talks at a time), and “evaluation apprehension” (participants don’t want to look dumb). In the earlier post I described a couple of processes that can be used with groups meeting face-to-face to allow all participants to generate ideas simultaneously and share them anonymously.

Now I’d like to propose two more process improvements that move beyond the face-to-face brainstorming session.

First, try online brainstorming. There are software tools that can be used for synchronous (everyone online at the same time) or asynchronous (work when it’s convenient for you) online idea generation, clustering, and prioritizing. In fact, there are online tools for pretty much anything you could do with a group in a room using flipcharts and sticky notes. At Foresight Alliance we’ve done online brainstorming both internally and with clients. Online brainstorming allows simultaneous generation and recording of ideas by all participants and it can provide complete anonymity to participants.

Second, consider processes that combine asynchronous and synchronous work—whether face-to-face or online. We often use such processes among the partners at Foresight Alliance. (We have the “advantage” that we are located in several cities on two continents, so face-to-face brainstorming is seldom an option.) For example, suppose we’ve gathered important trends for a client and we want to generate implications for the client’s organization. We might share the trend inventory with all of the partners and ask each person to come up with three to five key implications. One of us merges everyone’s implications into a single list that is circulated back to the partners (asynchronous process). Then we meet online using conference calling and screen sharing software. We review the merged list, combine similar items, add new implications that occur to us, and create a final list (synchronous process). Then one of us drops the list into a spreadsheet and distributes it for rating and ranking. The person who created the spreadsheet collates and summarizes the results (asynchronous). We may meet again online to discuss the top-rated items and reach final agreement (synchronous). This process allows us to work independently to generate and evaluate ideas, but also provides time for us to discuss them together, build off one another’s work, and reach consensus, while building team collaboration skills.

At Foresight Alliance we’re always looking for ways to work more effectively, both internally and with our clients. We recognize that client teams, like our own team, include both introverts and extroverts. When you want to gather ideas from a group of people, the extrovert’s instinct will be to have a team meeting. The introvert’s instinct will be for each team member to find a quiet place to think. It appears that a combination of both approaches may be the way to go.

Image: Fortune Live Media (Flickr)

I recently finished reading Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. (As an introvert myself, I found it refreshing and full of hope. We introverts have a lot to offer!) One of the topics that Cain deals with at some length is a question we’ve been pondering at Foresight Alliance. What’s the most effective way to gather ideas from a group of people, group them, prioritize them, and consider their implications? We face this need both internally and in processes we design and execute for our clients. Cain is concerned about this question because she observes that many highly creative introverts seem to prefer to work alone, and do their best work when they have the option of choosing a workplace free of interruptions.

Over the years I’ve done a lot of traditional brainstorming—the sort where you gather a group in a room, throw out a challenge (the “problem statement”) and then start collecting ideas from the group. The difficulty, as Susan Cain and many others point out, is that “group brainstorming doesn’t actually work.” That is, while group brainstorming can generate a lot of ideas, many studies have demonstrated that when people work individually they generate more ideas than they do when working as a group, ideas of equal or better quality. The exception is that online brainstorming, when well-managed, produces better results than individual ideation. (It should also be mentioned that face-to-face group brainstorming does yield a side benefit—it can help to build teamwork.)

According to Cain there are three primary reasons for the relative ineffectiveness of group brainstorming: “social loafing” (participants can let someone else carry the load), “production blocking” (only one participant talks at a time), and “evaluation apprehension” (participants don’t want to look dumb). Evaluation apprehension may be the most important of the three.

While I’m not ready to suggest a “killer process” that avoids all of these issues and is the one best way to gather and filter ideas, I have four suggestions for processes that improve on traditional brainstorming.

The first is a tweak. If you plan to do traditional group brainstorming, start with what my colleagues in the innovation group at Kraft Foods R&D used to call the “cranium drainium”—the brain dump. Give each participant a pad of sticky notes, present the problem statement, then ask participants to write down all of the ideas they can come up with, one idea per sticky note. Only after the writing slows or stops do you begin collecting ideas and sharing them with the group. You can organize the ideas as you collect them. (“Who’d like to share an idea?” [A volunteer reads an idea; facilitator places the corresponding sticky note on the wall.] “Okay, who has something similar to that idea or something related to it?” [Read and gather all related ideas.] “If we’re done with that topic, who would like to give us an idea that will start a new topic?” [Continue until the group has read all sticky notes.])

The second suggestion is another brainstorming method that I like a lot, called brainwriting. In the version I know, each participant receives a blank sheet of paper divided into, for example, 6 squares. After the facilitator presents the problem statement, participants are asked to write an idea in one of the squares on their paper, working individually. After everyone has written one idea, each participant passes his/her paper to another participant. Participants are asked to read the idea on they paper they’ve just received, then write a second idea in another square. The second idea may be related to the first one or build on it, or it may be a separate thought. Participants continue exchanging papers and adding ideas until all squares are filled or energy lags. This method is highly efficient—everyone is generating ideas simultaneously. (In fact, brainwriting can generate so many ideas that it takes quite a while to gather them all.) It guarantees equal “air time” for all participants–the loudest voice doesn’t dominate. Most or all of the ideas can be anonymous—participants need not know who produced the other ideas on the sheet in their hand.

My next two suggestions move away from traditional brainstorming with everyone in the same room at the same time. I’ll save those for a second post.

Just after the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001, my colleagues and I sat down and considered their likely impacts, in the short and long terms.

The short-term list was based mostly on observation: what was happening around us.  The long-term list was provoked by people’s assertions that everything would be changed for a very long time, even “forever.”  For instance, irony itself was said to be dead.

We knew that many things would change, some for a very long time, but, as futurists, we knew also how resistant to change people are, as individuals and as a society. So we set out to make some forecasts of what would be affected, and for how long.

Our Forecasts from 2001

Sphere Effects as of 2001 Forecast for 5-10 Years
Architecture
  • Concern about building security
  • Questions about future of tall buildings
  • Unease among landmark building tenants
  • Attention to escape methods from tall buildings
  • Attention to building security
  • Attention to safety in and escape from tall buildings
  • Fire-resistant structures
Business practices
  • Economic downturn
  • Heightened attention to security of personnel and facilities
  • Disruptions to logistics and shipping
  • More attention to vulnerability of international operations
  • Restrictions on flying
  • Suspicion of mail and packages
  • More interest in telecommuting
  • Heightened attention to security of personnel and facilities
  • More attention to vulnerability of international operations
  • Logistics and transport changes.
Cities
  • Concern about being in target cities
  • Questions about future of tall buildings
  • Attention to infrastructure protection
  • Concern about impact of insurance costs
  • Attention to infrastructure protection
Economy
  • Downturn
  • Airlines and tourism hard-hit
Environment
  • Other issues get priority, and activism is muted
Foreign policy
  • Focus on terrorism
  • Shifting of alliances and priorities
  • New sense of utility of allies
  • Strengthened ties to rest of the West
  • Heightened American nationalism
  • Heightened awareness of cost of Palestinian impasse
  • More sympathy for US in many places
  • More tension with Islamic world
  • More discussion of root causes of terrorism
  • Concern about lack of awareness of rest of world and lack of reporting
  • Focus on terrorism
  • Sense of utility of allies
  • Likely discontinuity in Mideast
  • Possible discontinuity with Pakistan
  • Possible discontinuity in Southeast Asia
Futurism
  • Heightened attention to the future, “what comes next”
  • “That will never happen” events dismissed less readily
Government
  • Police powers are being expanded
  • Higher public approval of and trust in government
  • Closer partnerships between intelligence and law enforcement
  • Heightened costs and disrupted operations for Postal Service
Medicine and health
  • Attention to health system as bio attack early warning
  • Do-it-yourself biochemical defense
  • More interest in rapid detection and diagnosis
  • Increased use of anti-anxiety drugs
  • Attention to health system as bio attack early warning
  • More interest in rapid detection and diagnosis
Military
  • Increased attention to homeland defense
  • Increased attention to asymmetrical threats
  • Increased attention to weapons of mass destruction
  • Increased popular support for ballistic missile defense
  • Increased attention to homeland defense
  • Efforts at mobility and deployability
  • Increased attention to asymmetrical threats
  • Efforts to counter WMD
Politics
  • National security has highest priority
  • Less tolerance of dissent
  • Tensions within Republican party
  • Heightened sense of the relevance of politics
  • Sept. 11th being used to promote other issues
Risk and safety
  • Heightened sense of risk
  • More people preparing for disaster
  • Attention to wills and life insurance
  • Acquisition of cell phones for safety
  • Attention to how technologies can be misused
  • More attention to infrastructure security
  • Concern about safety of food supply
  • Attention to how technologies and systems can be misused
  • More attention to infrastructure security
Security
  • Heightened sense of vulnerability
  • National security has greater weight judged against other matters
  • Concern about porous borders
  • More security for facilities and transportation
  • More monitoring and surveillance
  • Heightened sense of vulnerability
  • National security has greater weight judged against other matters
  • Tightened border controls
  • More security for facilities and transportation
  • More monitoring and surveillance
Society
  • Heightened sense of national unity and patriotism
  • Higher approval of government and its effectiveness
  • Shift in weight of freedom vs. security issues
  • More positive sense about direction of country
  • Less tolerance of dissent
  • Decreased support for immigration
  • More desire for information
  • Concern about flimsy immigration regime
  • Fewer foreigners coming to US
  • Heightened awareness of Islam in US
  • Shift away from certain content in media
  • Heightened interpersonal trust
  • Shift in weight of freedom vs. security issues
  • Tighter immigration regime
  • Heightened awareness of Islam in US
Technology
  • Attention to how technologies can be misused
  • Concern about infrastructure vulnerability
  • More monitoring and surveillance
  • Shift in privacy vs. law enforcement debate
  • Heightened concern about Internet security
  • New attention to security technologies
  • Heightened attention to videoconferencing
  • Interest in security-related database management
  • Attention to how technologies can be misused
  • Attention to infrastructure vulnerability
  • More monitoring, sensing, and surveillance
  • Shift in privacy vs. security debate
  • Attention to security technologies
Travel
  • Decreased air travel convenience and usage
  • Increase in train use and driving

 

Most of the effects we thought would diminish did in fact do so, so we can count many accurate forecasts.

There were also misses in our ten-year forecast:

  • Foreign policy — We missed how the unilateral inclinations of the Bush administration would result in alienating allies, not valuing them, despite our noting heightened American nationalism. We also missed increased tensions with the Islamic world, though that was heavily driven by the invasion of Iraq.
  • Government — We did not forecast that expanded police powers would persist, though we did foresee a long-term shift in the privacy vs. security debate. We also didn’t state that  improvements in intelligence-law enforcement would be ongoing, and that has happened, at least in part.
  • Society — We did not state that hostility to Islam in the US would spread, and be openly embraced by some politicians.

Some of these misses are due to the fact that we ended up in a scenario that was intermediate between a one-off attack and an ongoing crisis. We also wrote this in 2001:

“If conflict becomes prolonged and marked by recurring events:

  • All the changed drivers are strengthened, and more of them push things past tipping points.
  • The possibility of discontinuity-level attack rises.
  • Higher probability of tension with and discontinuities in Muslim world.
  • National security trumps other matters in attention and budget.
  • Tourism and airline industries suffer badly.
  • People subjected to long-term heightened stress.
  • Lower confidence in affected systems, possibly including food, air, water.
  • Heightened suspicion of Arab and Muslim Americans.
  • More personal attention to security and survivalist-style autonomy”

On the whole, I would count this a solid forecast.

In case you may have missed it in our Twitter feed, Foresight Alliance’s Christopher Kent was interviewed for a story in the Washington Post on what it means to be a futurist.  As Kent says, the critical role of the futurist is that  “We don’t predict the future. We help clients understand: What are the range of futures they face? What can they do to achieve the most beneficial and successful future?”

You can read the full story here.

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