Your ability to plausibly forecast the future requires alternating between broad and narrow ways of thinking.
This article is adapted from The Signals Are Talking: Why Today’s Fringe Is Tomorrow’s Mainstream, by Amy Webb. Copyright 2016 by PublicAffairs, an imprint of Perseus Books Group, a division of Hachette Book Group, owned by Hachette Livre, a subsidiary of Lagardère SCA.
Futurists are skilled at listening to and interpreting signals, which are harbingers of what’s to come. They look for early patterns — pre-trends, if you will — as the scattered points on the fringe converge and begin moving toward the mainstream. The fringe is that place where hackers are experimenting, academics are testing their ideas, technologists are building new prototypes, and so on. Futurists know most patterns will come to nothing, so they watch and wait and test the patterns to find those few that will evolve into genuine trends. Each trend is a looking glass into the future, a way to see over time’s horizon. This is forecasting: simultaneously recognizing patterns in the present and thinking about how those changes will impact the future so that you can be actively engaged in building what happens next — or at least be less surprised by what others develop. Forecasting is a learnable skill, and a process any organization can master.
Joseph Voros, a theoretical physicist and professor at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, Australia, offers my favorite explanation of future forecasting, saying it informs strategy making by enriching the “context within which strategy is developed, planned, and executed.” The advantage of forecasting the future in this way is obvious. Organizations that can see trends early enough to act can gain a first-mover advantage. They can also help shape the broader context, keenly understanding how developments in seemingly unconnected industries will affect them. Most organizations that track emerging trends are adept at conversing and collaborating with those in other fields to plan ahead.
While futures forecasting is a professional and academic discipline going back more than 100 years, few companies employ futurists. That’s starting to change as more leaders become familiar with the work futurists do. Accenture, Ford, Google, IBM, Intel, Samsung, and UNESCO all have futurists on staff, whose work is quite different from what happens within the traditional R&D function.
The futurists at these organizations know that their tools are best used within a group — and that the group’s composition matters tremendously to the outcomes they produce.