This interview was conducted by Venessa Posavec
V: What do you do, and how is that related to the future?
JM: I am a futurist and work as a consultant, speaker, and workshop leader with Jennifer Jarratt as Leading Futurists LLC. Our practice is six years old, but we’ve been colleagues in the futures business since the mid-1980s. All of my professional work and most of what I do outside of that, is future-oriented, I can’t help it.
V: Who are some clients that you’ve worked with in the past?
JM: We’ve worked with Siemens, DuPont, Nokia, AARP, The Kellogg Company, Coors, BP, the Smithsonian, The American Dietetic Association, Microsoft, GE, and lots of others.
V: What is foresight, and what are some related to the practice?
JM: Foresight is the act of anticipating change and drawing meaning from it. Though practices and purposes vary, there is a core set of tools in foresight, including environmental scanning and scenario building. Foresight is usually done at the front end of organization planning processes. I favor working towards becoming a “foresight culture” and devote a blog by that name to discussing how people can do that.
V: Please define, in your words, the term futurist.
JM: A futurist engages in foresight. Futurists use skills and techniques to explore the future and interpret it. Futurists believe in alternative futures—the future is a range of possibility, and we need to understand that range and build plans and strategies to thrive in multiple possible situations.
V: What are 5 reasons an organization would hire a futurist and not just rely on internal employees to conduct research?
JM: • Get an outside view—a more objective take on how the world
is changing, not biased by day-to-day work concerns, the company
history, and conventional wisdom in the organization.
• An additional knowledge base—a broad knowledge base on the future that can help organizations get past obstacles in their thinking and narrowness in their view.
• Internal expertise is most likely specialized—the internal expert is understandably focus on their profession, sector, product line, process, etc. and does not have the time and practice to effective open up the question.
• Futurists insist on actually exploring the future, rather than tinkering with the present. They help pull an organization’s thinking out beyond current planning horizons, which can be a little as three years or three months.
• Internal employees are too busy.
V: What are some common misconceptions people have about futurists?
JM: By far the biggest misconception is that we predict the future. People do not understand and may well be impatient with the idea of alternative futures. They also routinely assume that anyone making a prediction is a futurist. Therefore, futurists are often thought to be always wrong, the ones who told us we’d have flying cars by now, or paperless offices, for example.
V: Do you think the day will come when we all think as futurists do?
JM: No, I wish it, but don’t expect it. In any case, people have an understandable right to be consumed by the present and the past. It’s human nature.
V: What are some of the more interesting trends you see taking shape right now?
JM: • The rising primacy of the story behind nearly anything.
The story shapes our response to products, political movements,
initiatives, candidates, neighborhood activism, entertainment,
• Greenwashing and greenmailing. Both companies that claim green-ness (greenwashers) and those that haven’t will increasingly be subject to greenmail-they will be pressured and even forced to do things more sustainably.
• (Finally) acceptance of climate change, and the beginnings of social response.
V: What are some leading-edge technologies changing the way we do business?
JM: • Social networks
• Online virtual worlds for collaboration
• Rapid prototyping for product development, testing, etc.
V: Please list some powerful new technologies or disruptive events that you expect to see by Dec 31, 2008.
JM: Such short term forecasting would be at the level of the product launch, and is an area I don’t monitor carefully, nor have expertise in. However, someone new will be elected President of the United States. That has always tended to be a force of some significance in the world.
V: 5 years: Please list some powerful new technologies or disruptive events that you expect to see by 2013.
JM: • Capabilities in doing a personal environmental risk
assessment, involving exposure to toxins and other factors. This
will lead to people asserting rights to not be harmed, lawsuits,
new kinds of insurance, etc.
• Carbon accounting will have evolved (beyond just carbon) and we will see an emerging environmental economics, with accounting for impacts, resource depletion, and so on affecting more and more industries and individual lifestyles.
• Cuba will have opened much more to the global marketplace by 2013, with strong implications for the Caribbean region economy, the US and perhaps others.
• Rapid rise of in-home composting, with compact appliances performing the task.
V: 10 years: Please list some powerful new technologies or disruptive events that you expect to see by 2018.
JM: • Virtual classrooms, where students will be able to
collaborate and learn with students anywhere, in an immersive,
shared experience. This could offset the extreme and rising costs
• Genetic correction (not full-blown engineering as some have envisioned it). We will fix critical “errors” in people’s DNA, and stem the rise of chronic diseases, and certain cancers.
• Drive by wire, with cars entering certain freeways and “entraining” for efficient, automated driving until they return to local side roads.
V: Can you provide a brief scenario of what the world might look like in 2020?
JM: No, not without violating the precepts of my profession: clarity, context, a focus on alternative futures.
V: General: What makes you optimistic and/or pessimistic about the future?
JM: I think my optimism is innate, but also, I am by training an archaeologist and in my leisure time a historian. I can see that at any moment in history things can look dire, but human kind muddles through and even thrives. We are on a 1,000+ year cycle of progress, and I expect lots of disruptions but do not expect reversal.
V: Can you think of any future- or futurist-related news we should be covering?
JM: We need to get everyone to focus more clearly on societies, social change, and the social future. Too often, we look at the future through the lens of technology. Technology is cool, we get cool pictures of prototypes and concepts, and our mental templates of the future are usually textured by technology. The social future is slightly below the surface and not as striking. In truth, there’s no separation between the two, but since technology is often in front of us, I advocate for giving a bit boost to the social side.