If you're still confused about what futurists do, you're not the only one

Making sense of what awaits our world is no easy feat

Futurism often involves weighing the unlikely against the impossible. Antonie Robertson/The National
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Would it not be worth something if it were possible to predict the rate of inflation, the emergence of a new technology, the success or failure of a business or, say, a new digital currency?

Plenty of people try their hand at this, with a greater or lesser degree of success. Some are modellers, some are analysts, others are merely tea-leaf readers, and others still are futurists.

Modellers use data and observations on a specific issue from the past, isolate confounding factors, explain their assumptions and then crunch the numbers to make predictions into the future.

For example, the world’s population – which has just reached 8 billion – is expected to reach 9 billion by 2037. But it gets sticky when modellers make predictions about matters such as the temperature increase associated with human industrial activity and carbon emissions, the value of gold in six months' time, or a particular stock in a week.

I will not get into the trade and method of tea-leaf readers. Instead, consider the role of a futurist. Just last month we convened 400 futurists at Dubai Future Forum that brought the global community to Dubai and into the new Museum of the Future

From my vantage point at the Dubai Future Foundation, I need to address the question I am often asked: what a futurist is, what you do as a futurist, and whether as a futurist you have some sort of crystal ball. Let me provide some insight and dispel some myths.

We often look for information that adheres to what we expect to be true, to confirm our bias. That is why we read the newspapers we’re familiar with, watch influencers we admire or identify with, talk to the same people who we’re comfortable with. And yet, to gain a tiny glimpse of a possible future – that someone else has in mind, or is actively working towards – we need to engage with them and challenge our assumptions.

There is a saying, “great minds think alike” but in this also lies a problem. If we all thought alike, it can be argued that we might all be able to predict the future. But people don’t think alike. Nor do we all have the same objectives, desires, dreams or hopes. That is why we need to talk to as many different and diverse people as possible. It may be hard, but it is rewarding and everyone should try it.

Dubai has an entire museum dedicated to futurism. DTCM
We often look for information that adheres to what we expect to be true, to confirm our bias

Often people can have a grand, optimistic future in mind. Some also see a run-of-the-mill future, in which tomorrow is a bit like yesterday. Then there are some ideas about the future that we think are very low-probability, the kind that is once-in-a-lifetime event. Something really unlikely, although not impossible.

As an experiment, think about your own lifetime: have you experienced a low-probability but high-impact event? Chances are that you or someone in your community or extended circle has. And this is the insight: if you can think of a future that is plausible – which can happen, even though the chance of it occurring is very low – you need to entertain the thought and plan for it, whether in your personal life or in business. If you don’t plan, then you’re not prepared for when it happens. And if it does not happen, that's okay – you still planned for a future which was different to what the mainstream thought, making you future-ready and, in a way, making you a futurist.

There are myths associated with futurists too. Anyone who tells you they can predict the future needs to be taken with a pinch of salt. Predicting the future on topics that matter and are in the distant future is impossible. What can be predicted, to an extent, are matters like population growth and meteorological events. But those are often based on models or are about very near-term futures (in an hour’s time, tomorrow, or the day after). But even in those cases, there are assumptions which can and often do change: weather patterns change, fertility rates alter.

Another myth is that foresight is about the future. But thinking about the future is really an assessment of how we are thinking and acting today. It is about exploring how ready we are to face challenges or seize opportunities ahead. It is not merely about describing the future, but about understanding today's reality in relation to our direction towards the future.

If you grow up wanting to be an engineer, it is not enough to want it. You need to understand what is enabling or hindering your ability to reach that target. The message is that futurists help us make sense and form a richer understanding of the present.

Often, as I try to make sense of plausible futures and their implications on lives, I speak to many people. These folks know so much more about a particular topic than I or many others do. Frequently their knowledge is based on research, personal experience or experiments conducted in a laboratory. Their information about the past may not always be a great guide to the future. Here is where my futurist colleagues and I enter the picture. We aim to re-cast existing expert knowledge and information through a futures-lens.

The work of a futurist depends and builds on the insight of specialists, of common people with deep personal insights, of those quiet individuals who have witnessed the world taking a different turn. We have exposure to so many diverse voices who trust us. As futurists, one could say that we are midwives who help insights about different aspects of the future come to light. In that regard, one could say that in today's world, futurists are the lucky ones.

Published: November 22, 2022, 9:00 AM