Futurist Amy Webb explains what a futurist is and does professionally.
What, Exactly, Is A Futurist?
For those of us who work at the edge of information and technology, professional titles suddenly mean everything and nothing. There are Editors for Editorial Innovation. Rockstar Engineers. Tech Monkeys. Curators of Awesome. Directors of Chat Marketing. Chief Ninjas.
I’m one of those people with a silly, made-up-sounding title. I’m a Futurist.
The term “futurology” comes from the Latin (futurum, or future) and the Greek suffix –logia (the science of), and it was coined by a German professor named Ossip Flechtheim in 1943, who, along with author H. G. Wells several decades earlier, proposed “futurism” as a new academic discipline. It’s an interdisciplinary field combining mathematics, engineering, art, technology, economics, design, history, geography, biology, theology, physics, and philosophy. As a futurist, my job is not to spread prophecies, but rather to collect data, identify emerging trends, develop strategies, and calculate the probabilities of various scenarios occurring in the future. Forecasts are used to help leaders, teams, and individuals make better, more informed decisions, even as their organizations face great disruption.
It wasn’t until the 1960s that the second wave of futurists began their work, developing statistical models and using computers to determine how society might look in the future. Back then, futurists were primarily concerned with the far-future ramifications of what was then quite novel: space travel, the Pill, desalinating the oceans, artificial intelligence, personality-affecting drugs, overpopulation and geopolitical instability. Arthur C. Clarke, Herman Kahn, Anthony J. Weiner, Theo Gordon, M.S. Iyengar, Eric Jantsch all imagined what was scientifically probable, while Yujiro Hayashi, Daniel Bell, Bertrand de Jouvenel and Alvin Toffler wondered what those ideas might mean for government policy, journalism, democracy, academic independence and our collective economic welfare.
We’re now in a third wave of futurists, but the work done in the 1960s provides a good backdrop to what’s being done today. I’ve studied the works of those earlier futurists, learning from their models and analysis. Like them, I’ve developed my own system for forecasting.
Many of us use a methodology that we either created from whole cloth or adapted from someone else. I’m influenced by Hayashi, Jantsch, Gordon and Helmer, with Clarke and Toffler providing a hefty backdrop of inspiration. I use a six-part forecasting framework that I’ve spent the last decade developing and refining. (I wrote a little bit about what it looks like in the Harvard Business Review.) Identifying new trends isn’t as simple as reading few tech blogs and looking to see which startups are getting investment. Understanding the future means carefully observing, from unusual places, the changing nature of the present.
Great futurists don’t just tell folks what’s coming—they develop strategies and explain what to do about it. Which really comes back to data, pattern recognition and rigorously testing emerging trends and scenarios.
Futurists are not ninjas. But when we’re doing our jobs right, it might seem like we practice by a secret code. Like we’re living on the edge, quietly anticipating what’s about to happen next.