Alexander Phillips was kind enough to interview me for the very cool “Back to the Futurist” series over at URBNFUTR. The series highlights some interesting ideas on the future of cities and those who think about them. Many thanks to @MelissaSterry and the entire URBNFUTR team for the recommendation.
PS – Their bio is a bit outdated and I’ve corrected a few links to people I mention in the article. The following interview differs slightly in this respect, but is otherwise exactly the same.
Which futurists past and present inspire you and why?
Some of the best futurists out there today are the oldest and the youngest. Guys like Napier Collyns and Kees van der Heijden are seminal. Their generation are the ones who introduced and popularized scenario studies over the last 30 years, and many of them are still around. Most have long since retired, so are far more free with their wisdom, insight and attitudes. They’re like the grand wizards and some groups like the International Futures Forum or the folks at Oxford have really been able to provide an amazing platform for them. Wherever you are, go find a grand wizard of futures work and prostate yourself before them, now. You won’t regret it.
Next, you have the mainstream commercial service firms; most of whom were brought up under the Shell / GBN regime (for better or worse). GBN dominated the futures field for the last 20 years, which produced some amazing results and positive steps forward. They did the hard work of making futures relevant and saleable to the mainstream world. While this brought legitimacy, it also locked out a lot of young players and kind of stifled innovation for an entire generation. There are notable exceptions, of course (Andrew Curry at The Futures Company, sole traders like Wendy Schultz, Hardin Tibbs or Barbara Heinzen, or firms like NormannPartners). But most of the commercial service firms are selling recycled pablum these days, especially the big management consultancies.
Finally, you’ve got all these amazing new, young thinkers pushing far beyond this restraint. They benefited from all the groundwork that GBN and others have laid, but are also able to incorporate new tools, new cultures and new attitudes in an amazingly sophisticated way. Folks like Aaron Maniam in the Government of Singapore, the Superflux crew in London, Stuart Candy at ARUP, Scott Smith at Changeist, the guys and gals at IFTF in Palo Alto (and their alums, like Alex Soojun-Kim Pang), etc. All of those guys are incredibly design savvy, doing incredible work, and have a remarkable sensitivity to the enthographics of power. It is just a joy to see them in action as well, since they’re all so eager and capable of pushing beyond mainstream design work in truly innovative ways.
What are the most challenging aspects of your work as a futurist?
The hardest part about working in future-facing policy or strategy is that, at the end of the day, no one really wants to hear what you have to say. D.H. Lawrence once wrote that Mankind uses belief to put “an umbrella between himself and the everlasting chaos [of the world].”
“Gradually,” he wrote, “[Man] goes bleached and stifled under his parasol. Then comes a poet, enemy of convention, and makes a slit in the umbrella; and lo! the glimpse of chaos is a vision, a window to the sun.”
Clients invite us in to breach their umbrella, yet work assiduously and unconsciously against us doing so. And even when they do want to hear what you have to say (that their industry is doomed, etc.), they rarely listen. It isn’t because people are cowardly or stupid, it is because almost anyone in a hiring position is themselves severely constrained by what is discussable within the cultural confines of their organization. Organizational inertia and the pull towards short-term political acceptability is so powerful that even a perfectly reliable crystal ball would be held dubious. Put another way, most clients only want to hear what they want to hear, but what they are willing to hear is often not what they hired you to discuss. And thus, the futurists dilemma (a.k.a. the Cassandra Complex).
In the end, futures work is rarely about accurate prediction. It is almost always about staging a useful intervention which encourages discussion of the most challenging aspects of the present. Skilful futurists know this, and that is why the best experiential techniques and design-based approaches can be so useful. The best futures projects take on difficult subjects of today, cast them forward, then reflect them back upon the present in order to make them discussable, now. Done well, this can play a powerful educational role. Done very well, it can be transformational.
Which recent developments in science, engineering and design do you consider the most significant to the future?
In his essay, “The Future Isn’t What it Used to Be“, Jamais Cascio argues that most futures practitioners focus too much on technological trends and changes. I totally agree, a point well illustrated by Andrew Curry’s wonderful thought experiment, “The 1910 Time Traveller”. So aside from a few major possible techno-industrial or ecosystemic shifts, the most significant developments will be social. This includes who is in power, how we distribute resources, how we govern ourselves and organize our economies, and what we consider normal, profitable and desirable. Lessons from complexity science, social phase transitions, and history give us some idea about the mechanics of these transitions, but shed relatively light onto their content.
What expertise and tools are critical to your trade?
People, people, people. In so far as this work is almost entirely about understanding and working with human perception, basic human intelligence collection is the single most important tool of the trade. This includes a powerful emotional and social component. You need to know who are the actors, how they feel, what they think and how they might respond in concert to various events and situations. Good futures work is far more emotional and social than it is analytical, although of course social analysis is by far the most difficult kind.
Of your present and past futurology works, which do you consider the most significant?
Most of my work is not public domain, so unfortunately there isn’t much I can share. I am proud of the Oxford Future of Cities Scenarios, because the knit together so many social, political and ecological strands into, what I think, are a fairly compelling set of issues for urban centers in the future. What I like most about these is, contrary to the majority of “urban futures” projects you see, technology plays a relatively small role. The real seismic shifts occur in the social and economic dimensions, which as we all know are rarely so cut and dry as many scenario axes suggest. The other great think about them is that all three scenarios already exist around the world, now (sometimes even in the same city!). So the future of cities is going to be more about what mixture and mash-up of these archetypes you are likely to find; another fact which I think makes them more useful for designers and policy-makers.
I am also proud of my PhD research on crowdsourced scenario platforms. Adding scalable, web-based social intelligence to the scenario planning process is one of the major the next steps in futures methods. How that will look is still an open game, so my research on what I call “large scale participatory futures systems” is among the first steps to document and make sense of these innovations.
The future – dystopian or utopian?
Both. It’s passe, but Gibson was right; “The future is already here, its just unevenly distributed.” There will be no eschatology, not totality (and most likely, no Singularity). It will be as it has always been; a messy, muddy mix of ecstasy and agony. That said, the next decade or two will likely offer far more extreme examples of both than we have seen in our lifetimes. Maintaining the emotional and psychological ability to function in these extremes is becoming an increasingly important skill (see Graham Leicester and the work of the International Futures Forum for some of the best work on this).
Of the futurists using Twitter, which do you recommend following?Justin Pickard @justinpickard
Jamais Cascio @cascio
Bruce Sterling @bruces
Anab Jain @superflux
Andrew Curry @nextwavefutures
Wendy Schultz @wendyinfutures
Stuart Candy @futuryst
Zhan Li @thezhanly
Chris Nelder @nelderini
Nils Gilman @nils_gilmanScott Smith @changeist
Deviant Global @deviantglobal
Vinay Gupta @hexayurtAnthony Townsend @anthonyiftfJake Dunagan @dunagan23Emile Hooge @ehooge