Richard Worzel - Futurist - Speaker - Consultant
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Futurist FAQ
Futurist FAQ

What's a futurist?
Let's start by saying what a futurist is not. A futurist is not someone who "tells the future." We don't read tea leaves, tarot cards, crystal balls, or tell fortunes. Those who confuse us with soothsayers have never had any dealings with a futurist.

Instead, a futurist is someone who spends time thinking about what might happen in the future, and especially what are the forces at work that will shape and affect our futures. This is not magic, it merely takes time and effort. A professional futurist is someone who takes time to research, study, and think about the future, just as a biologist is someone who takes time to research, study, and think about biology. The end result of a futurist's efforts is, or should be, a better understanding of the future so that it is easier to make intelligent plans about the future.

In short, then, a futurist is a planner, not a prophet.

Are there any futurists I might have heard of?
The earliest futurists I became aware of when I was in university in the late 60's were Buckminster Fuller and Herman Kahn. Shortly thereafter Alvin Toffler hit the best-seller list with Future Shock (1970). More recently, John Naisbett and Patricia Aburdene came to international prominance with their best-seller, Megatrends.

There are lots of other futurists, including Richard Lamm, former governor of the state of Colorado; science (and science fiction) writer Arthur C. Clarke; American Vice-President Al Gore; and the Grand High Pooh-Bah of management science fiction, Peter Drucker. These are not necessarily the best futurists, but they are probably the best known futurists. Within the futurist community, there are a large number of people who are experts in a wide range of fields. In all, I understand that there are something like 30,000 members of the World Future Society. Of these, perhaps 1,000 are professional futurists who make their living this way.

So, while futurists may not be common, neither are we an endangered species.

How do you predict the future?
I don't. It's not my job to predict the future. Indeed, I don't think that anybody can accurately and consistently predict the future. Instead, it's my job to help people plan intelligently for the future. I do this by trying to anticipate what might happen, what early warning signs to look for, and then help people create contingency plans to deal with these possibilities.

All right, how do you anticipate the future?
There are several specific future studies techniques, which will only be touched on here. An environmental scan is just that: watching what is happening elsewhere to see if it has relevance to you and what you do. Hence, for instance, social trends often start in northern Europe before reaching North America. Within North America, they often start on the west coast, frequently in the San Francisco area.

Scenario planners dissect the future into major forces, then try to decide how each force might change the status quo. Their ultimate objective is to produce from two to five different scenarioes that they feel portray the major possibilities for the future, along with the "tell-tales" or early warning indicators, that will help you decide which future is likely to come to pass.

There are other tools as well that are less widely used, from complexity theory to Delphi techniques. However, at the end, all of these have one central shared feature: those who use any of these techniques must be well-informed about what is happening now, and they must be able to think clearly and coherently about what the next logical consequences might be. Therefore, the simple answer to "How do you do it?" is: learn widely, and think well.

It must be pretty easy talking about things that might
happen 20 years from now. Who's going to remember?
Since I'm not trying to predict the future, I don't worry about whether people remember what I said 20 years ago (although I've done pretty well, looking back). Instead, I hold myself to a higher standard: when I'm finished speaking with you, have I changed the way you perceive the future, think about the future, and prepare for the future? If so, then I've done my job, whether it turns out 20 years from now that I was right. You should be able to tell when I walk out of the room whether I did my job. It's a subjective measure, and it's your call.

In the 1970's, futurists were predicting that by the 1990's we'd all be working 20 hour weeks, taking 8 weeks vacation a year, flying personal helicopters, vacationing on the moon, and having our housework done by robots. What happened?
Actually, it was the popular press that predicted these things, not the then fledgling futurist community. However, dealing with the predictions themselves, several things were overlooked.

First, concerning the amount of time we'd spend working, we forgot one crucial thing. The future described in this question is the one I describe as the "George Jetson" future. George Jetson worked at Spacely Sprockets, arriving at his office around 10:30, sitting with his feet up on his desk until lunch, then pushing a button and going home.

Nobody thought to ask the question that if pushing a button once a day was all that George Jetson did for a living, then why would Spacely Sprockets need George Jetson in the first place? The implications of that overlooked question go a long way towards describing why we aren't working a 20 hour week - and why those of us who are working feel like we're working more hours, not less. The combination of automation and competition of the Rapidly Developing Countries is changing the face and nature of work - as described in my 1994 book, Facing the Future.

Robots are here, but they're used mostly in very restricted industrial applications, not for doing household chores. It turns out that human beings are far more flexible (adaptable) and far smarter than we ever imagined - as we found out when we started serious work on robots.

There are several major issues in robotics that are going to have to be solved before we can have Jetson-like robot servants, and the solution to these problems is not especially close at hand, as far as I know. Chief among these issues are vision (the ability to distinguish what is being seen in a camera lens); movement (the ability to discriminate between objects within the field of view, and to avoid obstacles in the real world); and durability (the ability to survive in hot or cold, dry or damp, and dusty and dirty environments). There are several other problems as well.

Helicopters replacing cars was more of a MAD magazine fantasy than a realistic expectation. People forgot just how complex a task it is to fly even a fixed wing airplane, and helicopters are probably the most difficult of all flying machines to master. It takes a lot more work than learning to drive a car, and most people don't see the value in doing so.

As for vacationing on the moon, I'm just as disappointed as you are - maybe moreso as I've always wanted to visit the moon (or "Luna" as we science fiction fans typically call it). The reasons for the disappointment are NASA, the U.S. Congress, and public opinion. NASA wasted billions of dollars on what amounted to public relations gimmicks, and did it in typical bungling, bureaucratic fashion ("An elephant is a mouse built to government specifications.")

Worse, when they did get results, they threw them away as soon as public interest (and hence Congressional funding) started to wane. Just as the Apollo missions, for example, were starting to produce significant scientific information on selenology (the lunar counterpart to geology), Congress cut funding for the space program, and NASA stopped sending missions to the moon. My view about a manned (personed?) mission to Mars are along these lines: it's a public relations stunt, and little more. There are more valuable objectives in space exploitation closer to home.

How do you make your living as a futurist?
As a futurist, I make my living by consulting, writing, and speaking. I consult to organizations and associations that want someone to help them plan for the future. For more information about my activities, see Professional Services.

Hence, for the major telecommunications companies in Canada, through the Stentor Resource Centre, I worked with a group of other professionals in trying to identify how the communications industry was going to change over the next two decades. For the same group, I also worked with a grade eight class of children, helping them learn brainstorming techniques, and facilitating their thoughts and ideas about the future. The whole process took more than six months.

At the other end of the spectrum, I do keynote speeches for companies and industry associations. The shortest of these has been 10 minutes in length for the Soap & Detergent Association of the United States. This presentation was tightly scripted, video-taped using special effects,and kicked off a half-day satellite broadcast to about 5,000 people across North America. A more normal speech might be from an hour to an hour and a half. I also do seminars and workshops that last from half a day to a full weekend retreat, and will tailor such events to the organization and their objectives.

Over the course of a year, I speak to something on the order of 20,000 people in the United States and Canada at between 60 and 70 events.

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Richard Worzel
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