Think you’re all over the latest trends barely before they emerge and like the idea of being paid to ponder what’s coming up next?
Welcome to one of the technology industry’s most esoteric and ill-defined roles – the professional futurist. High-tech conferences are peppered with them, multinationals employ them – but what do they actually do all day? How do they get the gig and what distinguishes them from the rash of self-styled ‘thought leaders’ cluttering up the social media landscape?
It’s a title that creeps up, rather than a gig for young hopefuls to aspire to, says one of Australia’s most high-profile practitioners, The New Inventors’ panelist Mark Pesce, who’s spent 33 years in and around the technology industry.
“It’s not something I set out to be…when a national TV broadcaster calls you that, it does tend to stick,” Pesce says.
Aspirants need to be part obsessive reader, part evangelist and possess the ability to break cutting edge developments and trends into digestible chunks “that non-futurists can use”, Pesce says.
Think of us as “now-ists” not futurists, says fellow futurist John Naisbitt, who was a keynote speaker on the future of technology in business at this year’s CeBIT Australia trade show.
An IBM alumnus, former White House apparatchik and author of the best selling Megatrends, Naisbitt says he’s in the information collecting game – from newspapers, the internet, books, publications and on-the-ground.
“What we really do is monitor carefully what is going on right now,” Naisbitt says.
“The future does not drop out of the sky, it is the consequence of millions and millions of decisions that are made today. The better the understanding of what is going on right now, the better we can anticipate mainstream developments.”
While well known personalities like Pesce and Google’s engineering director Ray Kurzweil epitomise the role for many, others laying claim to the title have found lower profile niches in the corporate sphere.
Fujitsu’s man of the future is director of foresight for the international business division, David Gentle.
An economics graduate, author and 20-year IT project veteran, he says his role is split between doing the vision thing – “shaping the themes we want to engage with” – and internal planning of new products and services.
“I always have to disappoint people by pointing out I can’t predict the future – if I could, would I be working?” Gentle says.
“Nobody can. What you can do is look at changes that are going on around and apply judgment to tease out implications.
“Most importantly, question the assumptions you operate under – are they still relevant or are they holding you back?”
Many in the futurology game operate as freelancers and split their time between taking the pulse of society and helping others do the same, via speaking and consulting gigs, trends expert Michael McQueen adds.
In the latter role, they’re an objective pair of eyes fixed firmly on the horizon.
“A futurist can transcend the noise of internal politics and myopia and see things others may otherwise miss or be unwilling to see,” McQueen says.
Sometimes they’re roped in to bolster the position of an executive who’s having trouble persuading their troops to come along for the ride.
“This is the case when a leader can see what needs to be done but people won’t take heed ‘til an external expert comes in and says the same thing the leader has been saying for months,” McQueen says.
Self-styled ‘thought leaders’ who play the crowd have little in common with genuine futurists, Gentle adds.
“A lot of thought leadership is about exploiting hype and jumping on bandwagons or being deliberately provocative for effect,” he says.
“The key, I think is to be grounded, thoughtful but to have something of substance to say…Foresight from an IT company doesn’t need to shock or provoke for the sake of impact.”