At one level, every person and every organisation needs to pay attention to the future. Most often this is done in an ad hoc way, but since the situations we find ourselves in very rarely repeat themselves, it is hard to know whether a more formal approach would have led to a better result. We all make plans today for actions we will take in the future. Being a practising futurist involves helping others make these plans more coherently, more collaboratively and more effectively. Foresight chose me. I held a very senior position in a large corporation and became involved in a project requiring us to think about the future – and I was surprised to find out that so much of what I thought was important about the way the world was changing was considered irrelevant to our future planning. I resolved to find out more, bumped into some practising futurists and twenty-five years later strategic foresight is a full-time occupation. I initially became interested in one particular part of the future – the future of work, jobs and employment and my initial focus was on trying to understand the changes that were taking place in that space. Over time, I became more interested generally in how the future is created, and eventually completed a Master of Strategic Foresight through which I learned many tools and techniques. Apart from the Masters mentioned above, I have an MBA, a Science degree and various educational qualifications. I have worked as a small business proprietor, school teacher, corporate executive and now futurist.
Apart from getting the academic qualification (Master of Strategic Foresight), these are skills acquired through practice, so mentoring etc is crucial. Personally, I have had a couple of mentors both of whom had been practising for much longer than I had. There is also an international professional association (The Association of Professional Futurists) to which I (and we) belong and through which we interact professionally with peers. Personally, I regularly travel overseas to meet (and often work with) other foresight practitioners.
I like to say that a good futurist can get anyone interested in the future for five minutes. The futures foundation’s role is to sustain that interest long enough so that we, individually and collectively, better prepare for an inevitably uncertain future.
Hence, our services are most often utilised by organisations who know they need to be able to robustly approach the future (think of secondary schools providing career advice to students, or local governments creating visions for the future of their municipality or organisations embarking on strategic planning processes). We operate a website, and have a small social media presence. Our experience is that there are a variety of reasons why the future might suddenly seem to be important, and in the modern world, this invariably leads to an internet search. We try and be top of the search list. Referrals from existing members and previous clients are also crucial.
The futures foundation is an organisation in two parts:
- one half is a membership organisation – any Australian with an interest in the future is invited to join. We do all the things that membership organisations do, provide newsletters, run events, etc but more particularly we encourage them to connect more formally with the second part of the organisation. Many of our members are organisations that have an obvious interest in the future – schools and governments (particularly local government) for example. But we are always interested in talking with anyone for whom the future becomes more than just of passing interest.
- which is essentially the professional association for Australian futurists.So, when a member joins we have a futurist call them to talk through why they joined (why are they interested in the future) and try and help them operationalise that interest
Futurists face ethical dilemmas at a number of levels:
- often clients rely on our insights and predictions – how do we ensure these have some validity, and what do we do when we find out they don’t
- although clients engage us to help them, we are not ultimately deciding what they end up doing at the end of the process we work through with them. What is our responsibility to others affected by the actions of our clients? These others might include others in the organisation that hired us, as well as to the wider population (and possibly to the planet).
- most sincere futurists believe that there is no such thing as “the future”. Rather what is out there is a nest of alternative potential futures. What we do in the present, then, is taken action that effectively chooses between these options. We face ethical challenges in ensuring that our clients fully explore their alternatives before making decisions. What if we don’t do this effectively?
- clients typically want to control the timeframes over which they work. What are our ethical obligations to, for example, consider future generations?
There are a number of processes we put into place to overcome these ethical issues:
- buy effective insurance
- clearly set up expectations before we begin work
- preferably create longer term relationships with clients so these issues can be resolved with our participation as they arise
- encourage clients to be transparent in their processes, so they and others can reflect on their outcomes
What is the future for this type of organisation?
The only Masters degree available in Australia has just closed down, although courses are expanding at a great rate in other countries. So, if Australians want to learn these skills (either to practise themselves, or just to improve their ability to do their jobs) either have to learn them through experience or go overseas. This has happened at a time when most people think that preparing for the future has never been more critical, so it is somewhat disappointing – though it does perhaps expand interest in the futures foundation.