By Steve Outing
It does sound like an enviable job: traveling around the world, meeting with and talking to a wide variety of interesting people about technology, generational and societal trends, and trying to forecast the future. But there’s also a lot of pressure, since the recommendations and forecasts that a corporate futurist and his research team make must support decisions on multi-billion-dollar investments in future products.
That would be the situation of Brian David Johnson, one of (now) two futurists working for the giant chip-maker Intel, in its 100-person Interaction and Experience Research Lab in Portland, Oregon, part of Intel Labs. The “IXR” Lab, led by a cultural anthropologist, is focused on defining new user experiences and new computing platforms; contrary to a common misperception, Intel interacts with businesses and consumers well beyond the PC. The innovations that are coming out of the IXR Lab are about re-imagining how all of us will experience computing in the future (and, of course, how we experience news and media content and interaction on digital devices).
As a huge corporation that designs its computing chips 5 to 10 years ahead of time, Intel would be expected to employ futurists; it would be irresponsible not to. Johnson has worked for Intel as its futurist since 2002, and he’s been a futurist for two decades. (He also teaches future-casting and strategic foresight at two universities in Washington and California.) Only recently did Intel hire a second futurist, who also serves as the Lab’s chief evangelist.
A few words from Intel’s futurist
Corporate futurists aren’t exactly a dime a dozen. Other companies who have hired them include automakers like Ford and GM; tech companies Samsung, Cisco, Microsoft, and Google; and others including the Kaiser Institute, UNESCO, Accenture, and McGarryBrown (the latter an advertising agency). It’s a small but growing job title at corporations; many futurists are independent consultants who often contract with corporations.
In the news industry, futurists are difficult to find. CNN Worldwide employs news futurist Victor Hernandez. The New York Times Co. took on Michael Rogers as futurist-in-residence from 2006 to 2008. If there are other full-time futurists working for news organizations, I haven’t tracked them down. (Please leave a note in the comments, if you know of any!)
Wouldn’t it make sense for large news companies, or perhaps news-industry associations or media research institutions working on behalf of the entire news industry, to employ more dedicated futurists? (To be clear, we’re not talking about the CEO or publisher, director of business development, or online editor serving as futurist for the company as a small part of those jobs.)
Johnson says that corporate futurists tend to be found at companies that must make huge bets on future products: Intel, obviously; Ford and GM because they are working on cars that are 5 years out, so they must anticipate what the consumer of 5 years from now will want and will have changed from today, and what technologies currently in the labs will be ready for production then.
It’s tempting to look at the mediocre and often downright-bad adaptation of news companies during the Internet era and wonder if things might have turned out differently if more full-time futurists had inhabited the largest news organizations (which, of course, their smaller brethren tend to mimic on strategic direction — witness the wave of newspapers following the New York Times’ move from free online content to a metered paywall).
“One would hope that futurists (on staff) would have made people think more about building the future in the news industry,” says Johnson, especially in exploring new business models to replace obviously failing ones. Its great that newspapers, for example, succeeded in sustaining a business model for so many decades. But business models don’t and won’t last forever. Just look at IBM, says Johnson: It’s on its fourth or fifth business iteration by now.
Barring hiring a futurist, every business, small or large, should spend time thinking about their futures in the way that futurists do, he says. “It’s irresponsible not to. The thinking is hard, and it takes time. But you must have an opinion on what the future will be (for your industry), and what you will avoid.”
Not all futurists are like Johnson, in that he will not make “predictions.” Rather, his process is extensive research and interviews (with all sorts of people: technologists, researchers, social scientists, anthropologists, journalists, students, politicians, policy-makers, science-fiction writers, and more), followed by creating a future-cast based on a high level of rigor and full transparency. (For instance, we might project that flexible displays for phones and tablets will hit the market within a couple years, but unless we know from flexible-display researchers that a critical physics hurdle has been overcome, the timing is still a guess — or maybe the problem will never be solved.)
Also critical in the future-casting process is building a model of a desirable future — say, of a resurgence of quality watchdog journalism, being supported financially by news consumers willing to pay a modest fee — based on what people say that they want and what’s going on in relevant areas such as technology, personal spending and the state of the economy, etc. Once you’ve got that down, Johnson advises, then the goal becomes to “prove yourself wrong.”
Obviously, forecasting the future is hard, but just because you’ve created a model based on rigorous research of what you believe will happen (e.g., printed newspapers will be gone in the U.S. in 5 years, replaced by all-digital news enterprises), many events can occur that alter or outright destroy your forecast. (Perhaps cyber-hacking will become so severe that it slows down mass adoption of digital-media consumption.) Pretty much on a daily basis, Johnson says he reassesses his forecasts based on new developments and information, to see if they still hold.
“Futurists should not fall in love with their models,” says Johnson. “And they can’t be in love with being right” about their forecasts or predictions.
The other “Futurism 101” task is to take that desirable forecast model and work backward, says Johnson. In other words, when you know that you have a good model of a future based on solid groundwork and research, turn it around and figure out what you have to do to have achieved the envisioned future and avoided an unpleasant one (such as your industry losing half its customer base to newcomers).
Especially for the legacy news industry, I’m not sure that that exercise was used much. The wave of new, non-legacy news organizations are more apt to engage in future-casting, but even successful new news operations like ProPublica and its many smaller non-profit news copycats continue to struggle with finding new business models that eliminate the need for substantial funds from philanthropists and foundations.
For Johnson, this is a way of thinking that must be engaged every day. News companies destined to become the giants of the future will be those already heeding his advice. And hiring, or at least “renting,” futurists.
For more about Intel and Johnson’s approach to future-casting, this Intel video featuring Johnson is worth a viewing: