Want to be a futurologist? Key roles in the futures industry

joint blog with Tracey Follows

I spent most of my career as a futurologist and thoroughly enjoyed it. I simply can’t imagine not being interested in what lies ahead, or ever stop thinking about it, so I guess I’ll be a futurologist until the day I die. I’d strongly recommend it as a career, and it is becoming much more fashionable now, so I get lots of emails asking me how to get into it.

Thousands of people call themselves futurists or futurologists. One of the commonest questions I am asked is what is the difference? They are the same thing. I used the term ‘futurologist’, because I study the future, so futurology is simply the obvious and most appropriate term. ‘Futurist’ is unfortunately much more commonly used. Before it came into use for people who study the future, the term ‘futurist’ already referred to an artist who practices futurism, an artistic and social movement that originated in Italy in the early 20th century, emphasizing speed, technology, youth, violence, and objects such as the car, the airplane, and the industrial city. At a stretch today, it could also be interpreted as someone with a futuristic lifestyle, such as a gadget freak. I can think of no sensible derivation for it as a term for someone who studies or talks about the future, but we are where we are. A futurist is therefore just a futurologist with lower regard for English. However, since 90% or more of them use that term, I pragmatically concede defeat and use ‘futurist’ to avoid endless argument. Futurologist is correct, but futurist is used more frequently. I now use them interchangeably.

Everyone thinks about the future sometimes. Even animals do so. Sheep may gather under trees if they see rain coming; almost all animals take evasive actions if they see predators. Doing that often involves modelling – figuring out what the predator might do, the path it might follow, where you’ll land if you make that jump with a particular force and direction. Nature has equipped us already with many inbuilt modelling skills. You think what the weather might do when you decide what to wear. You plan your food shopping according to what you have and what you think you will need. You think further ahead when you consider your investments, your retirement or what to encourage your kids to study at university. Some people become sufficiently skilled at thinking about what the future might bring that they can make a career from doing so, or perhaps do so part time as one role among many. If you find that possibility attractive, you already have the main attribute needed to be a futurologist: an interest in the future. There are several different roles that you can aim to fill, depending on your various talents. In this blog, I’ll briefly outline the field, the many different types and roles and the talents, knowledge and skills needed for them.

I’ll avoid jargon, and that’s also my first futures lesson. Jargon can be a useful shortcut when referring to commonly held concepts among colleagues, but if you’re explaining anything to anyone outside a field, you should be able to do so in ordinary everyday language. Jargon is field-specific (and can even be team-specific) so it gets in the way of communication if people don’t interpret that same jargon in exactly the same way as you. Worse, jargon acts to compartmentalize ideas and knowledge in your own mind, creating translation barriers between the compartments, and so impedes futures thinking, even if it slightly speeds up thinking in its specific field. If you can easily and seamlessly make links in your mind without having to step over those barriers, your thinking will be more fluid and you’ll quickly see things that most other people won’t. You’ll also find it far easier to do the sort of system-wide thinking essential to any useful futurology. I have nothing but contempt for those who use jargon or ‘big words’ as a way to feign expertise. Paraphrasing Einstein, “if you can’t explain it to the man in the street, you don’t understand it well enough yourself”. I’d add that it’s always better to convey big ideas with small words than small ideas with big words.

There are several main roles in the futures space:

Amateur futurologists are abundant, visible in very pub chat discussing who might win a football game, or what the budget might hold. We all engage in that amateur futurology frequently. A large number of people read interesting articles about the latest tech or science developments and tweet or blog about them, and that is all part of amateur futurology too. This is a great way to test the water – if you get bored after a while, it isn’t the right career for you; if it is a great source of enjoyment, perhaps you could take it further. Many progress directly from this start-point to professional futurologists and beyond (see the section below on futurologist speakers, writers, film-makers, bloggers, journalists).

Professional futurologists should go beyond this amateur level enthusiasm for the future, adding some real expertise and credibility. To be professional rather than amateur, by definition it needs to account for a significant source of their income. Many roles in business have some futurology in them. Pretty much everyone in strategy or planning, R&D, or even on the board needs to think about the future and what it may bring as a significant part of their job – forewarned is forearmed. Larger companies can often afford to have a few people who do that all the time. As a full time role, they develop a well-stocked mindset of what the future holds and can identify the many forces at play and how they may play out, and thus draw key insights (valuable enough to justify the cost of their role) that they can offer others in their company. They can help other departments to be prepared for what is coming.

Others such as designers, politicians, artists or writers may have large elements of futurology embedded in their jobs, even if it isn’t their title discipline.

Futurologists do not necessarily need expertise across a very broad area. Many futurologists are focused on deriving valuable insights within a relatively small field, such as the future of energy, or food, or fashion, or construction or some other field, and they don’t need to have any great activity outside that field. They are nevertheless valuable employees who can help ensure their companies make good strategic and planning decisions. Over time, futurologists will generally broaden their expertise to account for forces and events further afield, and become skilled in thinking further ahead may eventually become expert futurologists.

I think the main core skills needed for professional futurology are clear thinking and analytical skills, systems thinking, imagination, and also the ability to explain results to others who may not share you in depth industry knowledge. If you have those, you can produce insights about the future that are sufficiently useful to others to justify them paying you for it. But I’d also add discernment as a skill that makes a huge difference in the quality of build of the futures mindset, and the insights produced. Many people, sadly even some futurologists, can be taken in by things that others with better discernment skills might dismiss. The difference in outcome is between a reliable prediction of what the future will hold versus a more popular one that might push the right social media buttons but will not stand the test of time. Poor discernment skill doesn’t stop you from becoming a futurologist – you might still be able to produce material that grabs media exposure, but it is likely to be of low predictive value. Discernment skill makes the difference between getting it right occasionally and getting it right most of the time, between being limited to offering scenario planning and futures facilitation workshops, or being able to offer reliable predictions.

Many corporate futurologists start off in a fairly narrow field and broaden their scope gradually over time. I started futurology after a decade in systems engineering, so I had a lot of relevant expertise and experience, but it was confined to technology, mostly IT. Over a decade, I expanded that to cover the whole of IT, and then most other technology fields, including biotech, construction, materials, space, defense, transport, energy, and environment and then in the next decade on to food, beauty, cosmetics, sports and leisure, entertainment, medicine and even pharmaceuticals. Over those two decades, I also monitored a broad range of externals such as society, government, human nature, psychology, marketing, economics, incorporating them into my futures world view as appropriate. It really does take many years to incorporate all of those fields into a futures mindset that extends to 2050, but you can start small and grow.

Others take different routes. In fact, every field has a future to be analysed, and futurologists may come from any of them. My co-author Tracey came to futures through marketing and advertising communications, trying to analyse and model the changing values of the consumer, the changing lifestyles and match any emergent needs with emergent solutions. As with science fiction, media and communications offers a way to understand a changing society and that can often lead into a deeper interest in the specific area of futures. Each corporate futurologist has their own unique background and skills, and each will consequently look at the future with a different angle, drawing out different insights.

Expert Futurologists should have a broad, well-stocked mind view of what the future is likely to look like across a broad field over a broad timeframe. They will have a great deal of knowledge about that field, and a lot of insight into the key forces acting in it. They should be able to map the futures landscape in their field, highlighting the main features in it, the main threats and opportunities, and thus determining some plausible futures scenarios that might be worth investigating or preparing for. They should, on demand and relying entirely on their mindset, i.e. without having to google anything new, be able to outline and explain those key trends, forces and interactions, what is likely to happen and how that will affect the many stakeholders (government, people, business, society, the environment). They should know not just about current trends, but have enough insight in their field to predict likely new developments even where there are yet no trends, by pulling together insights from across the field to essentially invent things that do not yet exist but which are likely to arrive in due course. An expert futurologist should be able to make inventions within their field. To be worthy of the term expert, they should be able to factor in influences across their broad field and process those against other external forces built up of their own life experience, such as human nature, likely political or social reaction, market responses, and by doing so, an expert futurologist should most certainly be able to make not just plausible scenarios, but reliable predictions, determining not just the map of the future terrain, but the most likely path to be taken (or paths where there really are some genuinely unpredictable events or decisions, though that should be the exception, not the norm).

Skill-wise, the same skills mostly apply as for professional futurologist, but obviously significantly better developed, with a broader remit and longer time-frame. However, the best futurists are plugged into many different fields of interest and are good at spotting weak as well as strong signals. Especially if they start to notice a weak signal among people across different communities, they will gain a good sense of that trend as well as where it might be going. They don’t need to be expert across all those areas to notice signals in them, but it is certainly useful to at least have antennae facing numerous interesting and cross-disciplinary areas. 

The list of areas I cover is still growing but there are still enormous gaps in my knowledge, and that’s fine. I only have one brain, and it can only do so much, like anyone else’s. I know relatively little about global politics, the future of China or India or South America, or Indonesia, or Brazil…, I still don’t cover individual companies or brands, or law, or most regulation, and I could go on. There is a future for everything, but thankfully there are also many futurologists, and someone somewhere knows lots about those fields where I know nothing. That’s how it should be, but that does mean you also need to have futures contacts you respect who know about the other stuff.

Futures facilitators

Many companies engage in strategy or planning workshops, where they think about the future and its various threats and opportunities. There are many ways of doing so, but one of the most common is a scenario planning workshop, where a group identifies some potential ways the future might unfold, and how these might impact on them. Some go further and work out how they might influence the future to their own advantage. There are a variety of ways of running these workshops and various charts and tools that help guide participants through the processes – many readers will be familiar with two-axis charts dividing the future into four nice neat scenarios. The people who run such workshops are futures facilitators. Sometimes a senior manager or strategy consultant might take that role (not least because it can be a valuable team building event and can be excellent at getting personal commitment to a strategy) but really it is a straightforward administrative task that can easily be done by a junior manager or admin staff. That doesn’t mean it isn’t valuable. Futures facilitators can become skilled at running such workshops, developing interpersonal, motivational and leadership skills that help get the most out of the valuable time of the attendees, making sure everyone gets a chance to talk, that loudmouths don’t monopolize the whole time, that ideas aren’t immediately dismissed and creativity squashed before they can be explored further. Some offer very valuable personal skills, but facilitators don’t need (although they might have all the same) any particular futures knowledge themselves, and they don’t even need (though again, might have) any interest in the futures discussion. The key expertise at the workshop lies in the attendees, who should be chosen carefully. They provide the knowledge, the analytical skills, the insights and often the managerial clout to implement what needs done as a result. The role of the facilitator is to guide them through the process of extracting and harnessing their expertise.

Some facilitators may also be professional futurologists in their own right; indeed many are, and as well as helping attendees to think about their future, they might add their own futures knowledge and insights to help them do their analysis. As with many jobs, being a futurologist is often one part time role the employee fills among several. But facilitating discussion, helping or guiding others to think about the future is facilitation, not futurology per se. A skilled individual can and sometimes does fill both roles, but there is no value in conflating them.

This is an important distinction that needs to be stressed because it aligns well with the chasm between academia and industry. I often see it written by academics in the futures field that “one of the myths about futurologists is that they predict the future”, often going on to explain that “nobody can predict the future”, that “the future isn’t predictable”. That’s simply nonsense. Many people, in industry at least, can and do predict the future reliably. Their company may depend on them doing so. Their job may depend on them doing so. I made thousands of predictions of the future for my employer and its customers over 17 years, scoring over 85% accuracy ten years ahead (yes, I counted, and that is an honest figure, not some exaggerated sales claim). 85% isn’t perfect by any means but it is still very valuable. So, why do people make these comments that futurists don’t predict the future? Is it just ‘Those that can do. Those that can’t, teach. Those that can’t teach administrate?’ Perhaps.

When you look at what they do, the services they offer are mostly teaching and futures facilitation. As I explained, a facilitator runs a workshop, and tells attendees what they’re doing next and guides the general process of thinking about the future, e.g. making scenarios and thinking them through. The primary knowledge, thinking, predicting and insight lies with the workshop attendees. Futurologists worthy of the title offer either prediction skills or insights about what is driving the future, i.e. what will drive the various options you might have to deal with. They should really be able to do both. If you are neither offering the attendees key insights nor making useful predictions, you are not acting as a futurologist but as a facilitator, typically a junior manager of administrator role. If you can’t make grounded predictions or at least offer genuine useful insight about what, where, who, when, or why the future will do x, y or z, you are not a ‘futurologist’ or futurist, whatever other roles you can reasonably claim. Please don’t say futurologists can’t predict the future. I’ve been a professional futurologist for 30 years, making thousands of reliable predictions. Maybe you can’t, but I certainly can, and so can many others. It really is nonsense to say otherwise.

Futures Teachers

A growing number of institutions offer courses that teach about the future, the skills and tools that are useful in studying it or using the outcomes, and even some of the basic knowledge about the various factors that will influence the future. Many other futures courses have come and gone. It is certainly useful to teach students what the future is likely to hold in broad terms, an assortment of useful futures skills, and also to teach them discernment and research skills so that they can build and maintain their own mindsets, as well as thinking skills, especially those that help them to think in whole systems terms, and teaching some basic work-shopping techniques etc. Futures teachers who teach such things may also be established futurologists in their own right.

Many futurologists take such courses, but many others develop their futures knowledge, thinking and analytical skills via on-the-job learning. I’d argue that both are valuable. If the desired role is to be a futures facilitator, or futures teacher, a futures course might suffice in itself (though basic facilitation skills can be learned in an hour or two). Being a professional futurologist requires serious in-depth knowledge of a field so a futures course can be a good springboard, but is really only valuable if accompanied by real experience in a field. By contrast, in-depth real-life experience is a good teacher in itself, since most futurology comes down to clear thinking, system-wide and sector-specific knowledge, and mature experience of everyday life, while many futures techniques are also widely embedded in many fields (modelling, trend analysis, data and stats know-how, basic planning and strategy techniques for example). Industry knowledge and skills can take many years to master, and futures techniques applied without that skill-set might be low value, so ideally, futurologists would have several years of real-life experience working in their chosen field as well as experience of using assorted futures techniques, which may be learned either from courses or on-job. Many corporate futurologists (like the authors) came that route. Teaching works both ways too. I’ve been involved in futures courses both in course development and teaching, and I’ve had enough exposure to various content and tools to know what works in practice and what doesn’t. As with any area, there is good and bad teaching, and good and bad techniques, so discernment is an important skill here too.

Futures speakers, writers, film makers, bloggers, journalists

Many futurologists give talks at conferences or workshops, or appear on TV and radio. It’s to be expected. The products of futurology are both interesting and useful, a rich source of food for thought, strategic input or even entertainment. Some excellent futurology has come from science fiction writers. H G Wells, Aldous Huxley, Arthur C Clarke, Isaac Asimov, George Orwell and even Terry Pratchett and many others too many to list have given us rich visions about what the future might hold, and often their visions have been well thought through, so are self-consistent and plausible within their own frames, even if some of the sci-fi technology would never work for real. Futurology requires some of the same skills needed to write good sci-fi, so it’s not surprising. Sci-fi also has a rich two-way interaction with technology fact, and writers may be good scientists or engineers as well as writers. Futures writing often becomes film-making too (or TV series such as Black Mirror), so this part of the futures industry is one of its most glamorous lucrative sectors. In more mundane use, futures writing also costs in in PR and marketing, where it can grab abundant media coverage and clicks for a campaign by adding interesting materials about the future, however tangentially related to that campaign it might be.

Many futurists have blogs or video channels. Some interview researchers or receive press releases about future products and write about them. If they add insight on the likely impacts of these things, or predict what future versions might bring, then they are properly fulfilling the requirements of being a professional or expert futurologist in their own right. I have come across some excellent futurologists in this space, who make great interviewers because they have thought the issues through themselves so know the most interesting areas to focus on and ask about, where to challenge and where to let flow. I guess the key difference here is between an amateur futurologist who just reports things, and the professional journalist futurologist who thinks about the implications and adds insight.

Futurologists may often be asked to speak at conferences, with a wide mix of briefs that range from entertainment, opening people’s minds with stimulating ideas, outlining threats and opportunities, providing thought leadership, and sometimes are there to give complacent employees a much-needed kick in the pants.

Trend watchers

Many futurologists specialize in spotting existing trends and extrapolating them for a few years. Some call themselves trend spotters, trend trackers, trend analysts; some call themselves data scientists and some of them might even laugh at titles like futurist or futurologist, and that’s fine – a rose by any other name smells as sweet – they are still part of the futures family. Data science is a broad field in itself, often with a highly specific insight as the goal. Extrapolation is only useful for existing trends and usually only works for short term, but it is still highly valuable within those constraints. Data analysis tools, especially latest AI tools, can also produce insights on trends that are not easily noticed. Many other techniques are important here too, such as watching M&A activity, interviewing key people in industry or regulation, watching what people are talking about on social media. So trend spotting or analysis is a very different field from longer term futurology in terms of skillset, but every bit as valuable. This trend spotting and tracking often results in very pricey reports that are eagerly bought by companies wanting to develop particular markets or products. It saves those companies doing the work themselves and can help reduce risk enormously. Other companies do their own analysis internally, often at great expense, to extract the valuable insights that feed into their short-term planning. So although this is a very different field, looking at the short-term future with very different skills from the longer term futurology that I do, it is still certainly futurology and very important part of the field.

Futures Activists

Some groups even call themselves futures activists, but that term grates harshly against the core futurology skill of clear thinking. Obviously, people who are professional futurologists or even expert futurologists can also be activists in any field they choose. In fact, most of us are also engaged in various hobbies, special interest or political activities, but futurology is to do with mapping the future landscape, highlighting the important features and predicting the paths most likely to be followed. Activism seeks to force society down paths favored by the activist, quite separate and quite different. Lobbying, campaigning, distributing propaganda, demonstrating, or using social media to pressurize or attack or silence people are all the stuff of everyday 2021 politics, but activism is nothing to do with futurology per se. To be clear, futurologists may also simultaneously be parents, environmentalists, democrats or conservatives, gardeners, and activists in any number of areas, but those other things are not futurology and there is no value in conflating roles. As for activist groups who differentiate by race, futurologists should be judged by the quality of their insight or the accuracy of their predictions, not by the color of their skin.

Also into this activism role should be placed the frequent conflation of aspiration and prediction. Mapping out the field of potential futures is futurology; aspiration may be interpreted as looking at the futures landscape and picking and planning the path you wish to take, which may or may not involve also applying some futurology, but aspiration itself is neither a skill nor a useful qualifier, since everyone has aspirations. Again, the two activities are really quite distinct and there is no value in conflation. There is nothing wrong with working with organisations or clients to identify and steer towards a preferred future, but one has to more objectively investigate what the possible or probable default futures might be first.

So, there are numerous distinct roles in the futures industry, and it’s commonplace to blend them with other roles or with each other. The field is very rich in enjoyable, challenging and rewarding activity, and we would recommend it as a career.

Tracey is a futurist and author of The Future of You: Can Your Identity Survive 21st-Century Technology? She is the founder CEO of Futuremade, a futures consultancy advising global brands and specialising in the application of foresight to boost business. She helps clients spot trends, develop foresight and fully prepare for what comes next. A regular keynote speaker all around the world she has covered topics as diverse as the future of luxury, retail, media, cities, gender, work, defense, justice, entertainment, and AI ethics, decoding the future for businesses, brands and organisations. She is a member of the Association of Professional Futurists and World Futures Studies Federation, and a Fellow of the RSA. 

Dr Pearson has been a futurologist for 30 years, tracking and predicting developments across a wide range of technology, business, society, politics and the environment. Graduated in Maths and Physics and a Doctor of Science. Worked in numerous branches of engineering from aeronautics to cybernetics, sustainable transport to electronic cosmetics. 1900+ inventions including text messaging and the active contact lens, more recently a number of inventions in transport technology, including driverless transport and space travel. BT’s full-time futurologist from 1991 to 2007 and now runs Futurizon, a small futures institute. Writes, lectures and consults globally on all aspects of the technology-driven future. Eight books and over 850 TV and radio appearances. Chartered Member of the British Computer Society and a Fellow of the World Academy of Art and Science.

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