Useful backgrounds for futurology: systems engineering

I wouldn’t swap futurology for any other career. It is superbly enjoyable, nigh on impossible to get bored, and you can make a decent living. I get emails sometimes asking how to become a futurologist. Actually there are lots of routes. A futurologist is just someone who studies the future. Some backgrounds may be more suited to that than others, but many work well. I know good futurologists with a wide variety of backgrounds. In this entry, I will argue the case for systems engineering as a background, because that’s what I know about from personal experience. I’d invite guest articles from other futurists on their experience and recommendations, what they think are the skills or experience that help them most.

So, my own background:

Under my futurologist wrapper lies an engineer. I did a maths and physics degree and then went into my first job in missile engineering, first doing simple mechanical engineering of aircraft brakes and tank turrets, then some mathematical modelling of heat shields, springs and all sorts of things, then aerodynamics, lethality, reliability, then onto guidance systems and finally systems engineering, which brings all of them together into thinking about the design of the overall system, bringing the many parts together into a working whole. Once a systems engineer, always a systems engineer, it isn’t reversible, it reprograms your core attitude to anything so that you automatically think about the rest of things will be affected by the thing you are messing with right now. It requires clear thinking and a heavy degree of scepticism. You learn to spot flaws quickly, how things might fail, but also how they could be fixed or made to work.

I later migrated to BT where I did systems engineering too, with computer protocols, network simulation, OS design, chip modelling, fibre optics, mobile, security, cybernetics and biomimetics, network design, and forays into just about every other IT field. Futurology is actually a natural progression but to me it is still systems engineering, just modelling a very big system with a lot of interactions. I started specialising in IT and gradually migrating into other fields as I learned how they interact. Connections among things in the real world are so numerous and complex that it is rarely possible to treat topics in isolation. Change anywhere eventually ripples through into change everywhere.

Everyone has had some experience of things that don’t work as planned. If a system is assembled and one or more bits of it don’t work as planned, the whole thing eventually can fail. It is easy and indeed quite common to design systems that will work initially but are doomed to fail. Bad design won’t necessarily stop a system being implemented, but it does mean failures are likely. Systems engineering includes a lot of spotting problems that arise when you combine different parts into a system. Systems engineers are also generally wary of claims by other people until they have analysed them at least a bit to spot obvious flaws in reasoning or basic science.

This all makes systems engineering a good starting point for futurology. Experience in lots of strands of engineering helps guess how something might be achieved, and how long it might take. Seeing potential systemic problems helps narrow down the solutions quickly, and also helps spot what might happen if a system is implemented poorly, and then helps think through potential solutions. I think it also helps with forming a decent world model that includes society and politics too. Altogether, it allows you to think a particular issue through, see how it may interact with everything else, and the consequent system-wide developments that might result.

Starting in a particular field and growing expertise from there into adjacent fields lets you eventually cover a broad area, but there is a future for everything and one person can’t know about everything  so some focus is inevitable. I stay within the field of technology and its  impacts on other aspects of life. I rely on others to cover other important issues and to some degree, if they look reasonably well thought through, I can build their conclusions into my own world view without having to understand them in detail. The penalty is that the further from my own areas of expertise I go, the less I truly understand the analyses, and the more likely I am to ignore some important aspect and to make errors. Your own predictions rely on your own world model, and the more dodgy equations there are in that, the less well it will work.

Still, I think systems engineering provides an excellent basket of core skills and knowledge from which to start futurology. I’d recommend it.

As I said, I would invite guest pieces from other futurists/futurologists to argue the case for other backgrounds, appropriate skill-sets, or even potential pitfalls.

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