Being a Futurist
Wild Cards, Weak Signals & Modulomes
No-one knows for sure whatÍs going to happen tomorrow,
unless your life is incredibly dull. Even so, a chunk of space
debris could churn up your backyard. Becoming a futurist does
not insulate you from surprise. It is not about picking the winner
of the Melbourne Cup. Nor is about getting the right stuff to
read, to remember and to repeat, and then to forget. Being a
futurist is a state of mind.
A state of mind open to everyone. To some extent, most of us
are futurists without even knowing it; our ripples lapping on far-
flung shores, touching the destinies of others in various ways,
trivial and profound. And thatÍs how itÍs been for about 150,000
years ? fine for Neanderthal Man, fine for your mum and dad.
Change itself; rushing at us faster than ever before, as fast as
the speed of light, perhaps faster. Several "laws" are powering
the future: 1) MooreÍs Law, not really a law but an "observed
regularity", still holding, which projects the continuing escalation
of computer grunt. 2) MetcalfÍs Law describes the exponential
growth of networks, whose tentacles become ever more
entwined with each new arrival. 3) MonsantoÍs Law states that
our ability to identify & utilise genetic information keeps
expanding, while costs keep shrinking. This is a lucky law for
Monsanto, if not for legless pigs. All the key areas of
scientific research keep accelerating and interacting with each
Innovation in technology changes human behaviour. Mobile
phones give toddlers power beyond precedent. The net has
prevented the extinction of free speech and is revolutionising
the political landscape and marital customs. Genetic
breakthroughs quiver on our doorstep, robots are waiting in the
wings. Other disruptions edge into view: nanotechnology,
quantum computing and our ability to transform complex data
into 3D images and manipulate it to our hearts content, so
anything we can imagine can now be made to look real. By
manipulating microscopic items called quantum dots, solid
state physicists from MIT & Sun Microsystems, say they can
program the building blocks of matter to provide any object we
While disruption, change and dislocation is nothing new, it has
historically been sporadic & localised. Equilibrium held sway.
Compared to the world since 9/11, the Thirty Years War was a
languid affair. Even the relentlessly bopping baby boomers,
trudging grudgingly to dotage, were dimly aware in their youth
of an ancient rhythm, a season for the ripening of tomatoes, a
time to clock off from the office, a time to turn on, to tune in, to
sell out, a time to invest in the fastest running shoes money can
In the journey from Fleetwood Mack to the Big Mac to the
Imac, from cyber-tech, robo-tech, bio-tech to nano-tech, weÍve
entered world where tomatoes are never out of season, twins
are for sale on the net, scientists are creating T-bone steak in
petri dishes ("suitable for vegetarians") and living to a hundred
will be a cakewalk. My daughter might even marry a skin
encapsulated robot which can alter its gender at will, like some
of my friends. Your grandchildren may travel to Mars. Or they
may not. Researchers recently created Polio from scratch, but
letÍs hope they havenÍt told the Pentagon. Nano tech allows the
development of a weapon such as the "grey cloud", a self
replicating airborne nano device that can catalyse carbon
dioxide into graphite, creating a solid wall to cover the earth,
block the sun and destroy all intelligent life on Earth. The only
thing left will be Texas.
People respond to this tumult and flux in a number ways:
- They fling themselves to the ground in the foetal position and
wait for the change-storm to pass. Unlikely.
- They pretend it isnÍt happening; often by faking an attitude of
- Some embrace change and try to profit from it.
- Others, intoxicated by the cornucopia of novelties become
- Many of us range through all of the above, depending on our
mood and circumstances, which is sooo 21st century.
Most peopleÍs focus on the future is so narrow, that they
squander the present in order to provide for a dreary old age.
By their late sixties, theyÍve got the waterview, the Mercedes
and a solid investment fund; and an existential vacuum the size
of a golf course. Prosperous dunderheads. Ill equipped to
relish the present, with a past not worth recalling, they have
actually betrayed their own future with a vision too narrow. I
meet them all the time on the conference circuit. Smartly
dressed CEOÍs on the brink of retirement who ask in a whisper
if itÍs too late to try pot.
Taking care of tomorrow could mean something more. An
unfolding role of the futurist is to foster democratic participation
in imagining, designing and creating alternative futures. To
coax the inner futurist into a higher state of alertness.
It doesnÍt take genius to get acquainted with the key issues
shaping tomorrowÍs business environment, both globally and
locally. The three driving trends are globalisation, the
information revolution, the quest for sustainability. (Keep in
mind that for every trend there is a counter trend).Ten years
ago, working with travel professionals, I forecast the rise of
adventure travel and eco tourism. On todayÍs horizon is 3D
virtual travel (a response to terrorism), the aggregation of
airlines, grey nomads, backpackers from Asia, the desire for
"non corporate" hotels and a quest for spiritual tourism. Also,
could there be a backlash against eco-travel? Vapour trails
and carbon emissions from jets add to global warming, so
perhaps flying off to a distant "eco resort" will be seen as a
In the 90s, financial advisors scoffed at suggestions that future
consumers would want investment funds screened for social
responsibility, sustainability and ethical probity. Today,
advisors often recommend this course. Future financial
products need to be tailored to trends such as the end of
retirement as a concept, the merging of the personal and the
professional and the desire of the middle class to make a
modest contribution to basket case economies. (Perhaps
though a people-to-people micro-credit fund.)
Even industries not normally regarded as cutting edge are
exploring what lies ahead. A recent Sydney conference on "the
future of roads" discussed hydrogen fuel cells, dual mode
automated highways, smart concrete and a vision of "elder
cars" fitted with big-print speedometers, automatic doors and
Hard nosed property developers are starting to sound like
Byron Bay space cadets, as they unfurl plans for fully
sustainable, off-the-grid eco dwellings, catering for a
communal lifestyle, with non stop wireless net access. A form
in San Francisco has created the Modulome, a ïprefabricated
modular houseÍ which can re-jiggled and furnished to taste,
then shipped anywhere.
Parts of the military in Australia and the US have long been
fans of futurism, all too aware that planning for the wrong type
of war is expensive and dangerous. In 1999 I wandered into a
seminar room at the Washington Hilton, where Dr Steven Metz
of the Strategic Studies Institute at the US Army War College
was presenting a slick PowerPoint on Alternative Visions of
Future War. One projection was Net War, defined as "coercive
violence used by complex networks against states,
corporations, non-state organizations or each other". In this
scenario, state-versus-state war "declines in effectiveness and
significance". Few battles erupt between organized militaries.
In Net War, the dominant form of combat is infrastructure
attacks, where "state militaries will be hard pressed to
understand and counter networked enemies". Three years later
this is no longer sounds fanciful.
Germany is a hotbed of futurism. Seventy five per cent of
revenues at Siemens, one of the worldÍs top ten electro
engineering firms, flow from products that are less than 5 years
old. WhatÍs more, this percentage is rising. The Siemens
approach to the future is rigorous, with Innovation Fields
installed in its five major business units. Each one is a creative
hot-house peopled with bright young graduates, who are
charged to push a promising idea to business plan or
Thomas Schwair, from the Transportation Field, refers to his
fellow futurists as "creative wizards, entrepreneurs and
technology freaks". One of their roles is to hasten evolution by
designing "holistic trend scenarios" ranging from five to twenty
years into the future. One cash cow that emerged from this
incubator fails to light my fire, though it is bound to be popular
in Canberra. The Finger Tip Sensor links swiftly from a mouse
or an ATM to a fingerprint data base in order to identify,
accept, or reject.
Most companies rely on in-house specialists, who are flat out
staying on top of their subject. IBM was still pinning its hopes
on the mainframe when CasioÍs hand held calculator stormed
the market. Sensing this as a "weak signal", a smart futurist
would have suggested IBM put portability into its product,
rather than wait for Bill Gates to come along and steal their
At its simplest level, futurism involves scanning the environment
for signals of change in five key areas: society, technology,
economics, ecology and politics. The next step is to focus on
the trends relevant to your business and to play around with
their implications, step by step. A single trend can have a
multitude of repercussions. The extension of the human life
span, for instance, will re-shape government policies, incite
inter generational irritation, put pressure on the environment
and turn hearing aids into fashion items.
Wild cards, weak signals and alternative scenarios are among
an array of techniques designed to widen horizons. That Nike
has spent a fortune creating its first yoga shoe, is a weak
signal that one day we will all stop running around in circles.
WhatÍs missing from corporate futurism is an appreciation of
the personal. An accelerating age requires a mind-shift.
TodayÍs management skills need to transcend the industrial
dualities of us/them, leader/follower, good/evil, with us/against
us The need to collaborate creatively requires deep
listening, group empathy, adaptability, acceptance of criticism,
ease with paradox and much more.
As new futures approach, it is time to ask, what lies beyond the
age of information? Terrorism muted by true global
democracy, poverty diminished, cheap renewable energy,
global governance, one nation under Planet Earth? Or an age
of machines smarter than us, the Matrix unbounded? Perhaps
a Post Material economy which caters to intangible desires,
such as nostalgia, meaning, stories, self esteem, adventure,
philosophy and spirituality? Anything is possible. Which makes
it a good time to raise high the beam of your foresight.
Basically, anyone who wants can be a futurist.
Partial List of RichardÍs Conference Topics:
How to Harness the Future
Highly paid experts often describe the kind of future their
clients desire, while research reveals that the "holistic
views" of non specialists are usually much more on the mark.
This presentation offers tips and tools for people to scan the
environment on their own, to get a feel for the trends and
driving forces which are shaping tomorrow, even to read the
footprints of the future in the sand.
Nothing about the future scares me. You just have to be
aware of whatÍs coming and get yourself prepared for it.
The Next Fifty Years
Brave New World or Byron Bay? What happens when
machines outsmart humans? (Sooner than you think).. Are you
ready for neuro-marketing, Brain Fingerprinting and the
Asexual Revolution that Goes Beyond Cloning? "At the
beginning of the 21st Century", writes Peter Atkins, an Oxford
professor, "chemists are in complete command of matter". But
have they lost their senses?
The Future of Food, Transport, Sex, Sport,
Schools, Cities, Lifestyle, Energy You Name It
The grand overview. Everything you need to know about
escaping the prison of the past.
New Management Skills for the 21st Century
The pace of innovation, the democratisation of creativity, the
workplace rise of the human potential movement .These are some
of the factors helping to spark todayÍs Mind-Shift. What the
future holds for you depends on what you hold for the future,
which is why we need to cultivate an array of adaptive skills. A
seminar which lays the groundwork for building a psychological
bridge to the future.
The Project for the New American Century verus the
Coming Age of Global Governance
The deeper meaning of the Terror Wars. The paradox of
globalisation. Re-inventing economics. The new roles for
cities, the world of work, eco warriors and the United Nations.
The brilliant images on this page are taken from the Queensland Art GalleryÍs
1999 Show, Beyond the Future: The Third Asia Pacific Triennial of
Contemporary Art. In order of appearance: 1. Cosmic Mythology, 1998, Oil
on Canvas, Surendran Nair. 2. Journey of a Yellow Man, No.11:
Multiculturalism. Performance at the Substation, Singapore 1997: Lee Wen.
3. Pisupo Mk 11 1996 Corned Beef Cans: Michel Tuffery.