The rise of corporate futurism

The long, long view

A growing number of corporations are putting their faith in futurists. But what do these 21st century soothsayers actually do and what value do they add to a business? David Waller investigates

Innovation

Source: Illustraion but Edward Tuckwell

Humans have always enjoyed aiming their imaginations at the future –whether that's Nostradamus apparently predicting 9/11, or the writers of The Jetsons (the futuristic Hanna-Barbera cartoon) giving the eponymous family a food replicator, pre-empting 3D-printed food by about 50 years. But a skill that was once the domain of soothsayers and science-fiction writers is now becoming mainstream: a growing number of companies and organisations turn to futurists to help them identify the risks and opportunities that come with a rapidly changing world.

And when we say rapidly-changing, we mean it. In 1999, futurist Ray Kurzweil, now director of engineering at Google, came up with The Law of Accelerating Returns. This suggested that, if progress had moved at the pace it did in the year 2000, the advancements of the entire 20th century would have taken only 20 years, not 100. Kurzweil believes another 20th century's worth of progress happened between 2000 and 2014, and that another will happen again by 2021. After that, things will move even quicker – we'll soon see that amount of change within a month. And later? Within the same day.

The point is not necessarily to be right about the future – it's about raising ideas to push those within organisations to think differently

You may wonder how, against that backdrop, any globally-dispersed organisation can hope to function. The answer? By getting help. Everyone from Volkswagen and Accenture to Unilever and UNESCO has joined Google in acquiring the service of futurists. Chocolate maker Hershey's recently advertised a role for a 'senior manager in foresight activation'. Dancing around the disciplines of sci-fi and anthropology, the futurist will examine everything from the adoption of artificial intelligence to the impact of climate change and the future of democracy, and use it to help shape a sustainable strategy for the organisation as that distant future fast becomes a pressing reality.

A wider perspective

Innovation

Mark Stevenson is a futurist with advisory roles at Virgin, the National Theatre of Scotland and the GSMA, the global industry body for mobile communications. He says even the changes that are easy to predict will only spur further change that is impossible to spot. "You just can't predict third- or fourth-order effects of any technology," he says. "The internet logically suggested emails would follow – of course networked computers would make it easier to communicate. But nobody predicted the echo chamber of social media, its role in spreading fake news, and the knock-on effect on the democratic process."

He adds that companies often don't want to acknowledge the most pressing issues, as they contradict the narrative they need to survive in the short-term. "Corporations tend to be busy predicting their own growth," he says, "but they don't see that they're about to be eaten by something else. And they fail to predict that because they don't want to see it. When companies do look at the future, they usually do so from the silo of their industry, essentially just propagating the past."

It was at companies like RAND Corporation and Shell that this began to change, back in the 1960s, as the Hanna-Barbera writers were busy dreaming up flying cars, flatscreen TVs and robot home help. Futurists at these organisations began devising rigorous methods of looking at the future, measuring expert opinions and examining emerging social, economic and political trends. Today's futurists will interview technologists, researchers, social scientists, journalists, students and policymakers – even science-fiction writers – to explore all the potential eventualities of technology trends and geopolitical and environmental change, and the impact they're likely to have on a given organisation. It's imaginative and creative work. The point is not necessarily to be right about the future – it's often about raising ideas to push those within organisations to think differently.

Challenging the status quo

"When people show me their strategy I'm often like: 'Are you kidding me?'" says Stevenson, who describes much of his work not as consultancy, but 'insultancy'. "This is the effect of the erosion of soils, the acidification of seas and inequality in society – and you've come up with a WiFi-enabled hairbrush?' Right now is an extraordinary moment in history where everything's breaking and has to be remade. My job is getting people to look at all this and question their strategy: given what's happening now, what are you going to make the world look like in the future?"

There are plenty of organisations now making strides in that direction. One is Unilever, which has famously invested heavily in social causes. Another is Volkswagen, which is using its pioneering transparent factory in Dresden, designed to reflect an openness in its approach to design, where visitors can learn about electric vehicles on a 10km test drive of its e-Golf. It's also an incubator for start-ups.

Science-fiction writer Vernor Vinge once said: "We are on the edge of change comparable to the rise of human life on Earth." Kurzweil understood this – and how hard it is for people to see what's around the corner, because we're used to basing our expectation of the future on our experience of the past.

Buzz phrase: SINGULARITY

Futurists predict that the world is approaching a tipping point where artificial intelligence will outstrip human capabilities (the singularity). But there's a small hitch. Developing the software that would allow this to happen requires a detailed understanding of how the billions of neurons in the brain interract to create original thought and consciousness. So it's not happening any time soon. Phew.

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