Student Joe Murphy: A Description of the Field

It is the task of the futurist is to inform decisions by critically studying the future, comparable to how historiographers examine and synthesize the past. Foresight is a science and an art but it is not clairvoyance.

I am a futurist finishing a Master’s of Science degree in Foresight through the University of Houston. In this description of strategic foresight practice, the field of professional futurists, I submit its value proposition of research and creative thinking about what lies ahead to the wider test of your input.

Strategic Foresight is not a grandiose appellation for futurists designing for the gap between the present state and the optimal future. Futurists do not make predictions (yes or no judgments on discrete occurrences) or see visions. Be wary of futurists claiming the future is declaratively X or Y. Seek out professional futurists who ask questions with you to co-create diverse paths. Like academics who offer the most value by helping refine and navigate the problem, futurists provide frameworks to guide through the investigation and the design of prospective futures.

I share common concerns about attention-seeking celebrity and “crackpot” futurists and I believe that the work of a futurist should be more gadfly than glittery. My philosophy of foresight is rooted in asking questions. “What if,” “why not,” and “how might” launch investigations, some may say interrogations, into future directions. We ask to challenge assumptions and seek unseen connections. The outcome of our futures work should be a mindset of questioning more than a set of predictions.

Futurists assist describing the futures which reflect our values, our destination myths. The work of futurists to understand the future could not happen without historians’ critical hindsight, theories and patterns of change. History is one-third of Foresight. The rest of the story is what futurists do.

What Futurists Do

Professional futurists stand apart from others plying quantitative and qualitative forecasts. We explore alternative futures springing from breaks in trends, design preferred futures, and adapt strategy. When chaos shocks statistical models, futurists divergently ask; “what could cause the trajectory to change and in what directions, “Whose actions could alter drivers in the web of implications?” With the power of narrative, professional futurists employ visioning and ideation alongside subject experts to craft stories of possible, plausible, and probable scenarios that get around our biases in and of the present.

The chaotic future is not predictable, but armed with systems thinking we do not shy away from investigating the structure and behavior of complex futures. We scientifically subject data points and theoretical frameworks to testing.

The major output of Foresight is creative thinking, overlapping academia in this sense of learning how to explore relevant pasts, fashion critical insight about surrounding environments, and providing new contributions. Other outputs include preparing for disruptions, filling the next user needs, decreasing uncertainty, efficiency in getting to failure faster, and effectiveness in projects’ long-term promise.

Healthy futures require skepticism. Futurists are required to explain how we increase confidence, contribute results, improve judgment, and how the strategies we inform are more closely aligned with emerging landscapes. Ask professional futurists why and how and expect analytical methods. If futurists can increase our ability to strategize creatively and systematically than a disregard for their work is an easy trap to avoid.

Foresight +

My path to Strategic Foresight included study of Physics and Business as well as experience in Librarianship and technology. Every professional futurist brings their own diverse experience to foresight training: I know futurists who hail from design, military, finance, energy, insurance. Before studying Foresight, I was a Science Librarian at Yale University. Much of my work involved serving the past and preparing for the future’s opportunities and complications so I now apply librarian expertise in “the ask” to craft critical questions about joint futures. Much of librarians’ value is in convergent synthesis of data, application of information, and translation of information into knowledge. I am a data-driven futurist by training and empathize with our future through literature as artifacts of our cultures.

I am also completing an Executive MBA program and am as grounded by day-to-day operational needs as I am stretched by long-term considerations. Yet rather than tempering, this MBA has multiplied my ability to prototype and frame constraints to bridge present states with goals. The foresight management confluence provides an economic basis of futurists’ contribution of closing gaps in organizational success and future readiness of projects.

A bachelor’s degree in Physics similarly grounds while expanding my competencies as a futurist. Science provides STEM frameworks for problem solving, studying change and deep causes, and the structure of reality alongside a creativity-extending sense of wonderment.

These anchors; scientist, manager, librarian, along with formal training ensure that my work as a futurist is accountable to evidence, that my divergent multiple futures are answered with convergent analysis. I use data to make projections and know when imagination needs to be inserted as well as systems dynamics, design thinking, and challenging our biases. With critical insight, I define limits and know when the past ceases to be a good indicator of the future. I apply my ethos to consider the stakeholders of the future and the future for all stakeholders in all contexts.

Synthesis

The Master’s of Science degree in Foresight worth of techniques puts to ease fears of madness without methods. I worry that we professional futurists have not communicated well enough the value of researching the future. Futurists impute critical analysis yet are judged by outcomes of prediction fail rates instead of contributing ways of thinking.

As with history and science, the future is never a perfectly complete story. Futuring is iterative as we adjust our understanding. We can each think like futurists by challenging assumptions and our preconceptions of the future.

We cannot afford a lack of tactics for addressing the future. If you are less than fully convinced that this outlined practice of foresight provides value to your work be it as a futurist or other, please do share your critique and additions so that we may continue to refine and grow.

Joe Murphy, foresight student and former Librarian. Libraryfuture@gmail.com
EMBA, San Francisco State University, Summer 2017.
Master’s of Science in Foresight, University of Houston, Summer 2017.
Master’s of Library & Information Science, University of Hawaii 2006.

Reflecting on Futurists in Media 2016

As futurists, we learn to be patient and take the long view. So, when something catches our attention, we catch our breath and compose. Because…..the 4th quarter tracking results of Futurists in Media reported 106 relevant hits, compared to 24 in the 4th quarter of 2015, which is a 341% increase if my math is right. Again, let’s not get carried away with a single data point. But is there a potential uptick of coverage of futurists in the media? Not enough data to say yet, but we’ll keep our eye on it.

A few other observations from the last year.

  • In terms of who’s getting covered, most of the coverage is still related to press releases or articles about upcoming keynotes by futurists. Futurist speaker Jack Uldrich in particular continues to generate coverage, but there are many other keynotes being mentioned. Interestingly, organizational futurists continue to gain a lot of coverage. Ray Kurzweil of Google and Sheryl Connelly of Ford are by far the most prominently mentioned. (Of course, Kurzweil made his name well before Google.)
  • It is interesting, but perhaps not totally surprising that relatively few APF members were mentioned. Doing project work is not likely to generate news headlines. APF  member mentions were about the same as a category that we call “accidental” futurists, that is, when someone who does not identify as a futurist is called one by the writer/publisher of the story.
  • The most heartening news. The coverage is overwhelming neutral to positive, which anecdotally speaking is a nice improvement. A little dust-up with the passing of Toffler, triggering the predictable “futurism is dead” story that seems to accompany the passing of famous futurists. And we even had a story about fewer sightings of futurists in “square quotes.” Of the 282 relevant hits last year, fewer than eight were judged to be negative, and only half of those were deliberately hostile towards futurists. Historically, there were far, far more negative and hostile stories.

We’ll keep tracking. Not quite enough data yet to make substantial conclusions, but starting to see some interesting developments. – Andy Hines

Spring Gathering now April 21 and 22….and other news

A quick update on what’s happening as begin the Spring 2017 semester!

The Fall Newsletter  is out.

Spring Gathering now April 21 and 22. We just updated the dates for our  Annual Spring Gathering to April 21 and 22 (previous dates were on Easter Weekend, oops). The theme is “Good Futures Work.” We are very excited to have alums Christian Crews and Laura Schlehuber of Kalypso Foresight sharing their “Systemic Scenarios” methodology with us in the morning. In the afternoon, we’re going to do a bunch of smaller sessions (15–30 minutes). We have several student sessions lined up, and we’ll also have Dave Bengston, our sponsor at the US Forest Service, joining us for module. Still time for you to propose an idea and grab a slot!  As a largely virtual program, we deliberately choose one event each year that you must be physically present to attend. It’s a great chance to mix with alumni, students, faculty and friends of the program, and strengthen your ties to our foresight community.

Research Projects. One of the shifts that has been taking place in our program as we are now situated in a Tier 1 Research University is that we are expected to carry out research (and of course bring in some research dollars). So, if you’d like to work with a student team, and would like to help the program by helping us bring in some money, we would be super grateful. We just finished a project on “The Future of Residency and Foreigner Affairs in Dubai” with our partners the Future Foresight Foundation. I led a team with faculty member Alexandra Whittington as the project manager, and four students: Katie King, Eric Kingsbury, Maria Romero, and Mark Sackler. We are also pleased to continue working with our friends at the US Forest Service on horizon scanning and scenarios. We have a new project with certificate grad Clay Bunyard of Kimberly Clark, and we’ve just signed a training project with the ad agency Leo Burnett!

More students….and faculty appreciation. We’ve have 46 active students this Spring, making it 90 total this academic year (the most we’ve had since 1998 when we were still at Clear Lake).  It’s great to have these healthy numbers, but I want to shout out some appreciation for our faculty how have to deal with a greater workload: Jim Breaux, Cindy Frewen, Terry Grim, Kaipo Lum, Wendy Schultz. Alexandra Whittington. Y’all work so hard….and we know it’s for love and not the money! We all appreciate you so much! Andy Hines

Futurists in the Media: What it Means to be a Futurist

Futurist in the media logo

Futurist may not predict the future, but we can anticipate one question we will all get: What does a futurist do or What is a Futurist? In fact, we practice Elevator Speeches in our curriculum to have a ready response. It’s interesting to learn about how professionals respond. Marketplace.org asked that very question and similar others to futurist Amy Webb in “What it means to be a Futurist.” Amy is the author of “The Signals Are Talking: Why Today’s Fringe is Tomorrow’s Mainstream” a new book on tech trend prediction and she owns her own firm , the Future Today Institute, specializes in forecasting trends in technology.

When asked what futurists do, Amy replied “Futurists are people who specialize in lots of different disciplines and the focus is not to predict what might happen next, but instead to forecast given what we know to be true today and doing extensive modeling using evidence and data, what might be the possible scenarios tomorrow and what do we do about it?

Another interesting response was to: “do you ever look backwards?” She answered ” Of course I look backwards. That’s another really, really fascinating thing to me. Everybody has fetishizes the future and yet they forget the past. So we’re in a cycle of people freaking out about AI, but this exact same cycle goes all the way back to the invention of the light bulb and then again with cars. And then again with computers but none of these technologies happen over night. That’s the whole point of the book, and the clear message I think for anybody in business and that is you have to pay attention to what’s happening right now, you have to look back in time, to what has already happened, and you also have to be paying attention to what’s possible, what might happen in the future.”

More articles like this can really help raise awareness and about what futurists do and how we can help. — Waylon Edens

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Student Scanning: Futurecraft Biofabric

Shoe company, Adidas is going above and beyond to become a sustainable company. In November, they launched a prototype of a new shoe called Futurecraft Biofabric. The shoes’ material is made of a material called Biosteel, which is a replication of spider silk and is fully biodegradable. Adidas collaborated with a German biotech company, AMSilk which produces the biosteel fibers. The material is inspired by spider silk due to its lightweight composition. The company claims that it is the strongest fully natural material available today.

Photo Credit: Adidas.com

According to AMSilk, ” The unsolved dilemma of the textile industry is the existence of two mutually exclusive trends: On one side there is a need for ever more performance and light-weight products, while on the other hand the demand for environmentally sound solutions is constantly increasing. With the fibers available today this dilemma cannot be solved.”

Their aim is to mimic spider silk’s anti-allergen, skin-friendly, and biodegradable properties while having a low carbon footprint. The material is made by fermenting genetically modified bacteria, and the result is a powder substrate which is then spun into biosteel yarn. Biosteel is marketed as, “The first high performance bionic fiber with true environmental integrity. This technological advancement is not only useful for the future of footwear, but its implementation can influence the futures in technical textiles, automotive interiors, and furniture design.

Would you buy a pair of these vegan sneakers?

UPDATED: 2017 Spring Gathering: Good futures work!

When: Friday April 21 & Saturday April 22, 2017

Where: UH Campus (and other fun spots)

Why: Learn, network, and have fun!

The topic and dates are set for our 7th Annual Spring Gathering of students, alums, faculty, prospects, and friends (and do feel free to bring a guest). It’s a tradition that we do this weekend face-to-face, so that we can get to know one another better and also to provide our online colleagues a best time of year to visit.

We’ll start Friday night at 5:00 pm at the Goode’s Taqueria (4902 Kirby Drive; 713.520.9153) We’ll enjoy a casual atmosphere for Mexican food and, in Dr. Bishop’s view, the margaritas in town. We’ll follow that up with drinks and maybe some hookah in the Mid-Town area.

On Saturday, we’ll have a light breakfast at the either the Cameron Building or another on-campus venue from 8:30 to 9:00, and then dive into the day’s festivities. Lunch will be at the venue. Around 5pm, we’ll journey over to Dr. Hines’ home at 714 E 9th St, Houston, TX 77007.

The main feature on Saturday will be to explore “good futures work.” We’ll explore frameworks, tools, and cases. We are still working on the agenda. We’d love to co-create the day, so please replay to me with your ideas and potential contributions to the day (ahines@uh.edu). Among the topics we might consider:

Frameworks

We use several frameworks in our program. Indeed, our core method of Framework Foresight evolved from integrating six key activities common to foresight projects. For instance, we might look at the new APF’s new Competency Model. We might also explore the Outcomes Framework I put together for my dissertation and was published in the Journal of Futures Studies last year. What are the frameworks that you find useful in your work that you can share with the larger group?

Tools

What new tools are you using? Or what new tools might you want to hear about? Last year, for instance Wendy Schultz took us through a demo of Sensemaker. We have a few options to consider, but we would like more ideas on this.

Cases

What interesting projects have you worked on in the last few years that you’d be willing to share? We can share some of the program’s recent client projects for the Foresight Service and Dubai’s General Directorate for Residency and Foreigners Affair. But I’m sure our alum and community also has some interesting cases to share.

The types of questions we might consider in reviewing the cases:

  • How did you sell the project/get the order?
  • What was the team and how did you put it together?
  • What is about learning/deciding/acting?
  • Choice of methodology
  • Adjustments/tweaks/innovations
  • Client participating and response
  • Results: how used

If you’re coming from out of town, it’s probably easiest to stay at the University Hilton on campus, but some guests used have used AirBnB. So save the date and stay tuned for more details. Andy Hines

Congrats to Fall 2016 Graduates

Congratulations to our Fall 2016 graduates: Gandhi Bhakthavachalam, Maria Romero, and  Johann Schutte. I am going to miss them, but happy to see them moving forward!

Gandhi has an amazing array of talents and interests beyond the future, including being a professional tennis player. Nonetheless, he went through the program full-time, did outstanding in all his classes – a true master of time management! His Master’s project mapped out an alternative economic system.

 

Maria also went through the program full-time, which made it seem far too quick. She jumped right in as my GA and was always an eager participant in extracurricular activities, working on projects for the Forest Service, Herman Trend Alert, Student Needs 2025+ and Aperio Insights. She also used her graphic skills to redesign our Framework Foresight cone and our scanning process, as well as updating our system for reaching out to prospects, students, and alums.

Johann started out the program from South Africa taking one class at a time. But he decided that was taking too long and moved to Houston to take courses full-time. He was also a GA and participated in the Forest Service and Student Needs 2025+, as well as doing internships with UNESCO and UCB, a global biopharma company.

We look forward to continuing our journey together, as professional colleagues now! We hope – no, make that expect! — that each will stay involved with the foresight community as they take their next steps! Andy Hines

Forest Futures: Increasing Resiliency

Forests have been around a lot longer than humans. Thick and mighty, they represent the powerful unknown while sheltering the wild and inspiring the stuff of fairy tales. Though resilient in some aspects, many forests are vulnerable to human and environmental stressors, and they are the subject of much research considering conservation and sustainable resource production. In an effort to conserve the green spaces of the world, increasing resiliency is a huge contributing factor in that it is less of a direct intervention and more of an effort to strengthen the natural mechanisms the forests use to heal themselves. Increasing forest resiliency for the future identifies five steps for increasing resiliency are below:

  1. The first step to increasing resiliency in forests is assessing the resilience of the forest in question by addressing a few key areas and identifying resilient and vulnerable aspects of the forest. Connectivity to other resilient forested areas is important, so we want to know if estate-planning in these area includes a plan that takes forest conservation into account.
  2. Second, we want to maintain connectivity to larger resilient bodies of the forest, that is to say we want to make sure we aren’t disrupting the natural spread of the ecosystem.
  3. Thirdly, we want to look at the prevalence of natural forest stressors such as soil compaction and erosion, invasive plants, insects, and deer population.
  4. Fourth, we want to look at diversity of native species (especially those well adapted to future conditions).
  5. Fifth, we want to look at whether there are areas of crowded tree stems, whether there are 5 or more large snags per acre, whether there are 5 or more large logs per acre, and finally whether water resources have forested buffers. And finally, we want to look at how accommodating the area is to threatened, endangered, or threatened species.(CITE)

Once the forest stressor evaluation is complete, interventions can be employed to decrease areas of low resilience and to increase future forest resilience based on vulnerability specific to the forest in question. Legal help will usually be the first step in establishing resilience. By establishing a legal document with clear distinctions about what should be done with the land in question in the future, you can protect it from vulnerability to development or intervention. Furthermore, by maintaining connectivity in the forests by backing conservation-based zoning which minimizes fragmentation, we can greatly increase resiliency by minimizing the impacts of segmentation (this will require cooperation between municipal offices and private land owners).

Cooperation is key here because of the sheer size of the forests, and it is likely going to be the most difficult aspect of increasing forest resiliency. Controlling invasive plants in your back yard isn’t going to do any good if they are thriving on the other side of the fence, so getting people to act together to implement good practices in forestry may well be an area worth focusing on. — Will Williamson

 

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Futurist in the Media Update: December 2016

Futurist in the media logo

In late November/early December we saw a good variety of activity involving futurists. An article by James Wallman suggested the gender pay gap will close by 2045 — which is almost 100 years earlier than the World Economic Forum estimation of 2133.

Pablos Holman’s article on “The Big Threat” suggested that it’s not the catastrophic all-at-once attack that we should worry about, but the potential of a hacker getting in your system and quietly gathering data to use and gather information that can harm us when they are ready.

On the political side of things, Ian Morrison sees swift changes to “Obamacare”,  but suggest any big changes will take some time and may be in the process until 2019. He also believes futurists may have there work cut out for them in  facing perhaps the most unpredictable president we have seen to date. A related article piece by Johann Galtung was more direct, suggests a decline in US power under the Trump administration.

3D printing continues to pick up traction. Ray Kruzweil sees 3d printer in every home and 3d printing to find its place in fashion as well. One will buy “print designs” for pennies on the dollar and print it instantly in your home.

Shifting gears, we have an  interesting and useful piece on careers — Reinvention is an essential career skill — from Houston Foresight alum Jim Lee. He talks about how he used his foresight degree to evolve his approach to investing in his investment advisory firm StratFi.

These and other interesting articles wind down the year of 2016 for Futurists in the Media. — Waylon Edens

From Christmas Tree to Coffee Table: Pine Needles are Full of Potential

Pine trees are the world’s main source of timber. When pine trees are cut down, the needles are often left behind as waste. With pine needles contributing to about 30 percent of the tree’s mass, that adds up to an enormous amount of material being left behind. That was until Tamara Orjola of the Design Academy Eindhoven, started a project called Forest Wool. The project is based on the experimentation of using pine needles as textiles, composites, and paper. She has produced a series of stools and carpets using pine needles alone, and was recently featured during Dutch Design Week 2016.

Tamara explains, “My material experimentation ends in tactile products like stools and mats that communicate about the potential of materials currently discarded by industrial production.” Pine needles are composed of cellulose and lignin, and essential oils and dyes can be extracted from them. By treating the needles, they can be transformed into paper, textiles, and composite materials. This makes them a good alternative material for cotton and coir. Proper consumption of the entire pine tree can decrease the demand of other natural resources and wood itself. Tamara’s discovery of new uses for pine needles raises the question of what other wood waste materials can be upcycled. Perhaps the billions of Christmas tree needles sprinkled across the floors of the world can be given another life after the holidays. — Liah Johnson