Recently, I’ve been listening to audiobooks by Jules Verne and H.G. Wells on my way to and from work, and they were the first thing that came to mind when I saw that there was a “How to Think Like a Futurist” session at ASAE Annual this year.
Sheryl Connelly was absolutely wonderful, and she gave me a view into how the great authors of the past must have predicted the things that they did, and how everyone can use the same theories to be a little better prepared for what may come in their own lives.
To begin, I will explain what is not involved in being a futurist. Psychic readings, though occasionally accurate, simply aren’t something that can be relied on, and thus have no real place in the futurist’s tool set. Similarly, the happenings of the past can teach us about the way that things sometimes unfold, but are not at all an indication of what will happen in the future enough to be held in high regard by the futurist.
Futurists do not predict the future at all, but rather make inferences about what will likely happen based on current knowledge and logic. They do not make any large guesses at the unknown, but rather paint the picture as best they can with what is actually known. I think this must have been how Verne, Wells, and other authors have been able to paint pictures of future life that are indeed very similar to the events following their time.
The primary areas of consideration for Sheryl when considering the future were Social, Technology, Economic, Environmental, and Political. In just reading those, I imagine that you can make some inferences of things that you know will happen in each field now. For instance, Socially, it seems like we will all be further connected to each other, in digital communities or in the enormous cities that are forming around the world. Environmentally, I think it is well known now that we as humans have affected the earth’s balance, and will likely continue to do so for at least the near future, and so on.
All of these spheres are actually inter-related to the point that she described them as a fabric. Any pull or influence on one of the areas or the other will result in the whole cloth being changed in some way. Sheryl’s method is to determine the direction those areas are headed, and then paint a picture of the larger cloth from that. One important distinction in evaluating those things is the difference between a trend and a fad. A fad, like acid washed jeans, is something that quickly goes into and out of style. A trend, like the fact that jeans have gone from being exclusively for workers, to something that is a huge part of modern dress for all classes, is something that takes place over a much longer time period, and is more stable and, to use an appropriate word, predictable.
So what does this all mean for you? Certainly, one of the lessons is that even “Futurists” can’t predict the future. What they can do is challenge common assumptions and perceptions of what the future will be, and look at all influences and possibilities to make the best educated guess possible. Association executives will never be able to predict everything in the future, but if they are thoughtful and prepared for the things that can be predicted in this way, they will be much better off when the unexpected things happen.