Futurists and Foresighters
There are two common types of foresight practitioners. The first, the futurist, is more commonly known in public, but a rarity in the workplace. The second, the foresight professional, or foresighter, to use a shorthand phrase coined by Andy Hines and John Smart in 2014, is less known by the public but is the main type of practitioner we find in the workplace.
A futurist is anyone who speaks in public about the future. The term typically connotes a qualitative, story-driven approach to the future, and the approach of a generalist. But this stereotype isn’t always true. A minority of futurists are quantitative, evidence-based, and predictive in their storytelling as well, and we will introduce several in this Guide. Futurists enjoy thinking about the future and consuming, producing, critiquing, and communicating futures content. In personality most futurists are like foxes, seeking to know a little about a lot of different things. A few are like hedgehogs, knowing a lot about a few things (for more on the fox and hedgehog personality types, see Chapter 4). Many futurists rely heavily on personal insights, intuition, narrative, and anectodal experience to guide their practice, and they differ widely in their use of analysis, evidence, and quantitative methods.
A foresight professional (foresighter) is anyone who does foresight work for others, typically in a specialty context. Foresighters are a much larger group of practitioners, perhaps fifty times larger than futurists, if we are to venture a guess ahead of a formal study. The term foresighter connotes a more balanced use of both qualitative and quantitative approaches, and the perspective of a specialist. In contrast to futurists, foresighters tend to prefer reason and evidence first and story second, and formal methods first and argument second to guide their practice. They are more apt to practice in just one or a few industries, to use a more restricted set of methods, and some even subspecialize on gathering industry intelligence in various topics to the neglect of foresight methods, or vice versa, focusing on foresight methods like forecasting or risk management, to the neglect of producing foresight content.
Whether you are a futurist or a foresighter, we recommend you become a “T-shaped” foresight practitioner, to use a term coined by journalist David Guest. The horizontal bar of the T represents your “fox-like” qualities, how broadly you understand futures issues and foresight methods in different disciplines, and how well you can collaborate in disciplines outside your own. The vertical bar of the T represents your “hedgehog-like” specialist abilities and credentials in at least one specific well-recognized professional discipline, like the twenty foresight specialties we introduce later in this chapter, which does not include words like “futurist” or “foresight” in its name.
Being skilled at any one of these twenty specialties is usually enough for anyone to do good foresight work in an organization. Once one has become T-Shaped, the next goal to aspire to is to to become a “star-shaped” professionals, building expertise and credentials across multiple specialties. This will further improve your effectiveness, and make your work more unique, particularly in interdisciplinary areas between your specialties. A few foresight practitioners, with time and experience, even become polymaths (“Renaissance people”) gaining deep expertise in several specialties. As Robert Heinlein famously said, “specialization is for insects.” We must all specialize in something, but good foresight thrives on generalism too, and having a diverse community of critical colleagues.
At a minimum, all foresight practitioners will shift perennially between these two roles, that of futurist (storytelling, provocateur) and foresighter (specialist, researcher, strategist, consultant) as context dictates. But as we will see, the much larger numbers, narrower and more evidence-based focus, and less grandiose titles of foresight professionals tend to make them both more trusted and more successful in business environments.
Being effective in either role requires developing insight into and empathy with client problems, learning their worldview and languages, gaining trust, and showing value. Both groups are quite capable of this, but futurists have handicaps to overcome that foresighters lack in client engagements, making it harder for futurists to easily achieve these outcomes. Let’s take a look at a few of those handicaps now.
Because the term futurist is publicly used to describe anyone who tells stories about the future, it is sometimes snickered over in boardrooms and business communities, where practicality dominates. The futurist community includes imaginative futurists, whose future tales are entertaining but not always evidence-based, utopian and dystopian futurists, who offer visions that can inspire or scare us but have little to no probability of occurring, and preconventional futurists, dreamers and eccentrics who cheerfully pursue their personal visions outside the typical norms and conventions of society.
Stories can have great value, particularly in influencing others, but they are just one tool in the leader’s toolkit. Sometimes, one clarifying bit of critical data, one good model, or one new key causal inference can be worth a thousand stories for a leader who needs to create strategy. That is why, if you speak as a futurist to organizational audiences, you must strive to be evidence-based, both quantitative and qualitative, and to always tie your stories to strategic implications and choices.
If you are a public speaker, author, or other public personality, the word “futurist” will commonly be used by others to describe the public part of what you do, making it a title that is hard to avoid for those individuals. But beyond your public speaking and media, the term futurist is usually best minimized in organizational environments, and in your formal titles.
Instead, as a foresight professional you are usually best served to use a more specific and well-recognized title, like strategist, forecaster, designer, analyst, trend researcher, technology scout, risk manager, planner, intelligence analyst, innovation manager, risk manager, investment manager, evangelist, community manager, etc. to describe your professional work. Most foresighters generate foresight without the aid of a self-description that makes it too obvious they are doing so. In practice, a lower profile can even be an advantage, particularly in change-averse, high-stakes, or troubled firms, where the future can be a very politicized topic.
If you want to be adventurous, use the word “foresight” somewhere in your title, or simply “foresighter”. Because the term is less known, you can position your work and value contribution in an uncontested way within your organization. For tips on that, see Kim and Mauborgne, Blue Ocean Strategy, 2015.
Foresight can be practiced at any systems level, including personal, organizational, urban, social, economic, technological, and global systems. The three domains of personal, organizational, and global (everything above organizational) foresight are the three most common categories of practice. Its forward view can be over any time horizon, from the next few seconds in equity futures trading, to the next century in urban planning or climate modeling. It is both the shared methods used across each of these foresight problems, and the unique methods developed in each application that define our fertile field. In coming decades, as foresight methods become more quantified and validated, and as our computing, communication, and collaboration systems gain new capabilities, significant parts of our practice will incorporated in future social and economic sciences.
A working definition of a foresight career then might be any position, occupation, appointment, or role that intentionally and methodically engages and analyzes the future in a strategic way, and results in changed intentions, plans or actions, as a part of its function. Foresight professionals strive to bring diverse, future-relevant inputs, forecasts, and possible alternative futures to strategy discussions, decisionmaking and planning, and ensure that when plans are communicated and actions taken, after-action review occurs, to validate and improve the quality of future foresight. For a good survey of our emerging field, and arguments and recommendations for professionalizing it, see Andy Hines and Jeff Gold’s article “Professionalizing Foresight” (PDF), J. Futures Studies, 2013.