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Posted: May 31, 2012

The value of a futurist

Is it all about accurate predictions?

Thomas Frey

As a futurist, people often ask me how many of my predictions have come true. I find this to be a rather uncomfortable question. It’s uncomfortable, not because my track record hasn’t been up to par (actually, a high percentage have come true), but because accuracy of predictions is a poor way of measuring the value of a futurist.

In a world filled with MBAs and number crunchers, there is a constant push to reduce our analog world to digital analytics so we can accurately measure our return on investment.

But not everything is measurable in this way.

As an example, for several years I have been tracking when my best insights occur, and they happen with far greater frequency when I’m riding bike. Therefore, it’s easy to conclude that if I spent 8-10 hours a day riding bike, I could somehow unlock the secrets of the universe.

However, the world is far more complicated than the simple surface details we can measure. What’s the value of a new idea, a new strategy, or adding awareness to a previous blindspot?

Too often, our ability to focus on one all-consuming detail blinds us to the oncoming train that is about to destroy an entire industry.

For this reason I’ve put together a list of the Eight Critical Points of Value that a futurist brings to the table.

The Power of an Epiphany

The future is never a destination, it is always a journey. An idea that holds great value today, may be of little value two weeks from now.

Many of our best ideas appear in the form of an epiphany. An epiphany is an ‘AHA’ moment; a sudden insight or revelation into the world around us. An off-the-charts idea would be considered a Category 5 epiphany if we were measuring insights with an earthquake scale.

Creating an environment that cultivates great epiphanies can be hugely valuable. Every new business that gets launched happens as a result of an epiphany. Every new product idea happens as a result of an epiphany. It’s in our best interest to create new epiphanies and often.

Critical Points of Value

Thinking about the future is like a muscle that rarely gets used. Over time, our brains will atrophy and we lose our ability to think productively about what the future may bring. At the same time, the world is shifting faster than ever. Our “need to know” about the future is no longer a luxury; it’s a functional imperative. With this in mind, here are some of the values a futurist has to offer:

1.) Altered Thinking – The future is constantly being formed in the minds of people around us. Each person’s understanding of what the future holds will influence the decisions they make today. As we alter someone’s vision of the future, we alter the way they make decisions today. Our goal is to help individuals and organizations make better, more informed decisions about the future.

2.) Unique Perspective – The future is unknowable, and this is a good thing. Our involvement in the game of life is based on our notion that we as individuals can make a difference. If we somehow remove the mystery of what results our actions will have, we also dismantle our individual drives and motivations for moving forward. That said, the future can be forecast in degrees of probability. By improving our understanding of what the future holds, we dramatically improve the probability with which we can predict the future.

3.) Evidence of Change – Empirically speaking, forecasting the future is not done by staring at tealeaves of reading tarot cards (that is the realm of psychics). Rather, futurists take an inter-disciplinary approach and employ a wide range of methods, from the study of cycles, to trend analysis, to scenario planning, to simulations, to strategic planning and visioning. Futurists use data from the past and present, as well as other concepts and methodologies to understand how the present will evolve into probable futures. We also borrow freely from other fields, such as forecasting, chaos theory, complexity science, organization development, systems analysis, and sociology.

4.) Connecting the Dots – Futurists come from a wide range of backgrounds and perspectives. What we have in common is well-researched big picture thinking, strong pattern recognition, and innate curiosity. Ideas that are routine in one industry can be revolutionary when they migrate to another industry, especially when they challenge the prevailing assumptions that have infiltrated rank and file thinking.

Thomas Frey is the executive director and senior futurist at the DaVinci Institute and currently Google’s top-rated futurist speaker.  At the Institute, he has developed original research studies, enabling him to speak on unusual topics, translating trends into unique opportunities. Tom continually pushes the envelope of understanding, creating fascinating images of the world to come.  His talks on futurist topics have captivated people ranging from high level of government officials to executives in Fortune 500 companies including NASA, IBM, AT&T, Hewlett-Packard, Unilever, GE, Blackmont Capital, Lucent Technologies, First Data, Boeing, Ford Motor Company, Qwest, Allied Signal, Hunter Douglas, Direct TV, Capital One, National Association of Federal Credit Unions, STAMATS, Bell Canada, American Chemical Society, Times of India, Leaders in Dubai, and many more. Before launching the DaVinci Institute, Tom spent 15 years at IBM as an engineer and designer where he received over 270 awards, more than any other IBM engineer.

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Readers Respond

If there is a way to measure who has "futurist" wiring and who does not, would that be of any interest to you? Probably not since you have so much experience with the topic that you already know how to measure it either scientifically or by intuition. By Jan M Sather (Mr) on 2012 06 03
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