Pushing Boundaries

In an interview just published in Urban Times, friend and colleague Noah Raford lays out his view of the role of futurist—a professional pursuit or skill that is a double-edged sword. Because the role of foresight is often to step outside a current reality long enough to contemplate alternatives, it puts practitioners in a highly vulnerable position, stepping outside the realm of the comfortable to conceptualize something between the impossible and the inobvious. In his discussion of inspiration, Noah generously included me among a shortlist of younger futurists he sees as expanding this role even further than the two generations of writers, teachers and practitioners we’ve learned from:

“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 ethnographics 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.”

It’s a great compliment to be in this company. More importantly, though, it’s good to recognize that a defining element of the work younger futurists are doing today is that it is increasingly multidisciplinary, experimental and open to innovations in method and application. Everyone Noah lists, and many more great people not on this list, have are actively fusing foresight into other fields and practices, and hopefully giving it continued momentum by creating something new with it—creating a third culture between foresight and other fields, and comfortably standing at that point of balance.

In their excellent guide published last year, “Recipes for Systemic Change,” Brian Boyer, Justin Cook and Marco Steinberg at Sitra’s Helsinki Design Lab talk about the importance of third culture. In the context of so-called design thinking, one may not have a design degree, but:

“…it’s also possible to find individuals without any background or training in design who are very creative in solving problems and therefore might be said to operate like a designer. Likewise, many who hold a degree in design are not particularly suited for systemic or strategic design pursuits.”

Similar things can be said of futures thinking. There are some great talents coming into the field from outside who have a facility to fuse a foresight mindset with other interests and abilities, and some who are able to take foresight into new arenas as a way of looking afresh at issues of strategy and innovation. By doing this, hopefully we can diminish the vulnerability Noah talks about: foresight being dismissed because it brings to the table issues that many organizations aren’t structured to deal with. By becoming more multidisciplinary and better connected to other fields and practices, foresight becomes better positioned for the interventions it should be delivering.