Strategies & Tactics

Why You Need to Develop the Mindset of a Futurist

January 5, 2018

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When we think of the future, it’s usually in terms of our work activities: weekly updates, monthly metrics, quarterly benchmarks, annual plans and five-year goals. We tie the future to achieving stated performance metrics.

But underneath our “planned, exceeds and stretch” goals are the undercurrents of change occurring all around us. Over time, the small changes build momentum and may affect the way we communicate, market or operate on behalf of our organizations.

Nicholas Negroponte, the founder of Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab, described in a 2013 presentation to the World Future Society how he felt when he predicted the future 10 years out, and then found himself 10 years later, actually living out some of his predictions.

Negroponte says there are four ways we look at the future. There are the changes we know are going to come, the changes we see on the periphery, metaphorical changes (for example, moving our desktop to the Cloud), and contrarian changes (ones that we think won’t happen, but actually do happen).

On any given day, many of us involved in the communications profession talk about future changes to come in terms similar to those outlined by Negroponte, but rarely do we intentionally consider the future in proactive terms.

That’s why communications professionals need to start thinking like futurists. As the people to which organizations look to manage and enhance relationships with key stakeholders, we need to have a firm understanding of not only what’s next, but also how what’s next may impact our work, culture and planet.

The way futurists think

Thinking like a futurist isn’t necessarily imagining seemingly impossible, fanciful or downright crazy things or events that may happen 10, 20 or 50 years from now. Rather, it starts with observing what’s happening today, and imagining how those trends could evolve into any number of possibilities over time.

According to Julie Friedman Steele, social entrepreneur and board chair and CEO of the World Future Society, most futurists begin to look at the future starting at about five years out from today.

What futurists are often called upon to do is to help organizations “future-proof” their businesses from possible threats, from the impact of rising sea levels or medical technology that allows humans to live to 150, to a time when humans are colonizing Mars.

However, cautions Friedman Steele, as much as a futurist can help an organization’s leaders open their minds to numerous possibilities, even futurists must be aware of their blind spots, such as assuming the world’s economy will always be based on capitalism.

The pathway to a futurist mindset, she says, typically begins with a person feeling a personal sense of comfort with ambiguity.

“Futurists understand that change will happen,” she says, “and when it does, they are able to roll with it versus becoming handcuffed by it.”

The future we may not be ready for

Thinking like a futurist means not only preparing the organization you represent to communicate outwardly with key stakeholders, but also providing counsel inward to top management on how upcoming scenarios may impact the relationship between an organization and its stakeholders.

This may mean providing counsel that is not rosy, or suggesting that some future trends may offer ethical dilemmas for an organization and its business leaders.

One such trend that is already impacting how we live is behavioral analytics (powered by artificial intelligence). In a nutshell, says futurist Gray Scott, also a member of the World Future Society, businesses and government are using behavioral analytics to better understand the decision-making of people, such as current and potential customers.

“It’s getting so good that some companies are able to predict what a person may want or need before that person even knows they want it,” says Scott. “Through the use of artificial intelligence, this will only accelerate as we move forward.”

“I don’t know if our species is ready for artificial intelligence (AI),” Scott adds, “or many of the other changes that are occurring right before our eyes. We have crossed into an invisible new paradigm that many experts are having a difficult time defining.”

Focusing specifically on artificial intelligence, Scott says AI is going to change nearly every aspect of our lives, from how we clean our homes to how we work.

“We are looking at a world of ultra efficiency,” says Scott, “where new technology will continue to speed up everything we do, eventually outpacing our own abilities to adapt and change.”

The backbone of change

Communications professionals must be careful not to hype the promise of new technology, especially if it’s difficult to see what the impact of that technology will be in five or 10 years from now. Instead, they must always remember that their role is to consider, interpret and address how change will not only affect people (employees, consumers, investors, etc.), but also how change will affect the trust upon which relationships are built.

When Cristina Dolan, an engineer, computer scientist, and co-founder and COO of iXledger, an alternative blockchain marketplace for insurance, considers the future, trust is at the very core of many of the changes yet to come.

“It’s very expensive not to have global trust,” Dolan says. “Customers make decisions based on trust. People transact based on trust in a system. When there is trust, transactions and payments occur at a higher velocity, which stimulates the economy.”

For example, Dolan points to the dramatic rise in cryptocurrencies (Bitcoin, Litecoin, etc.) that emerged based on an underlying technology, blockchain, which allows all transactions within a chain of transactions to be publicly transparent. It is through this transparency that parties can exchange goods or services more quickly because they don’t have to go through a third party.

When the theft of consumer data held by a credit reporting bureau or a government agency erodes trust, people will, says Dolan, take responsibility for their data, but at the expense of trust in traditional institutions.

“Communicators and business leaders must become used to the idea that people don’t trust one another anymore,” says Dolan. “The future belongs to the people and companies that understand how to build trust.”

The need for trust

What’s clear is that people who have the mindset of a futurist and understand how to build a trusted narrative for a brand will be sorely needed in the years ahead.

“Futurists need professional communicators, not just academics, to shape the narrative of what’s to come,” says Friedman Steele.

“We need communicators to help people adapt to what is coming,” adds Scott. “There are people who are petrified by change. They’re afraid of everything, and that’s a big danger. In the future, empathy for others will be the key to our safety and survival. As life becomes more complex, we will need communicators to create the narrative relationships that help people embrace the future.”

Stephen Dupont, APR

Stephen Dupont, APR, is vice president of public relations and branded content for Pocket Hercules (www.pockethercules.com), a brand-marketing firm based in Minneapolis. Contact him at stephen.dupont@pockethercules.com or visit his blog at www.stephendupont.co.

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