Drumroll, please. It turns out that the career path of the future just might be … forecasting and analyzing the future. At least, that’s what professional futurists seem to think.
Their logic is tight: Things are changing fast, which unnerves corporate leaders, who are in turn willing to spend lots of money to learn about what’s coming. Some folks fret about melting ice caps, nuclear Armageddon or disruptive technologies that could kibosh our carefully laid plans. For futurists, these are business opportunities.
“I would be puerile to argue that the world has ever been static, but it’s reasonable to argue that the world has never been as uncertain as it is today,” says Eamonn Kelly, CEO of the Global Business Network, which practices a futurist sub-specialty known as scenario planning.
There are, indeed, signs that demand for futurists is growing. Tom Conger opened his doors for business in 1999. He worked solo for the first three years, but today his company, Washington-based Social Technologies, employs 37, including futurists in London and Shanghai. Sales have increased by a million dollars a year, each of the last three years, to close to $5 million for this year. Conger’s fellow member of the Association of Professional Futurists (APF), Lisa Bodell, changed the name of her 10-year-old New York-based consultancy to Futurethink four years ago, and says her revenue is doubling every year.
Practicing futurists formed the APF in 2001 in part to bring more legitimacy to a field that often conjures up images of snake oil salesmen. Peter Bishop, chair of the graduate program in future studies at the University of Houston, guesses that APF members account for only around a quarter of all futurists. Based on that assumption, he estimates that there are about 400 in the U.S. and 600 worldwide.
That figure accounts for futurists outside of big corporations. A corporate foresight network that brings together in-house futurists regularly draws representatives of 20 to 30 of the world’s biggest companies, according to Christian Crews, the former director of futures strategy at Pitney Bowes .
In fact, corporations seem to be taking a longer and longer view, says William Cockayne, director of the Stanford Center for Critical Foresight. Every year, he says, Stanford’s Mechanical Engineering 310 class matches students hungry for real-world projects with corporate sponsors like BMW, Boeing and Samsung. Typically, the companies have asked students to come up with a next-generation product.
Three years ago, though, companies started requesting something more forward-looking. Instead of asking students to come up with a product the company might produce six years down the line–about one product cycle for a car company–two of 10 companies asked students to imagine something two or three product cycles away. Last year, eight of 10 companies asked for such long-view projects and this year, 12 of 12 did.
Bob Johansen, a distinguished fellow at the Institute for the Future and the author of Get There Early: Sensing the Future to Compete in the Present, has also noticed something new from clients. His organization typically does 10-year forecasts. In the last year, for the first time, three clients–two governments and one corporation–asked for 50-year forecasts.
But if times are good for futurists, can a futurist really do your company any good?
After all, in a business world enamored of hard data, it should be noted that futurists don’t actually measure anything.
Some practice scenario planning, an organized system of research and brainstorming that results in a series of “what if” stories–scenarios–about the future. Others, in particular the Institute for the Future, produce colorful, complicated fold-out “maps,” detailing next-decade trends, suitable for tacking to an office wall. Projects tend to range from one-day seminars to six-month consulting contracts.
The profession has something of an ongoing identity crisis. While some embrace the term “futurists,” others squirm, preferring to say they practice “strategic foresight.”
“I am sometimes called a futurist when I’m being introduced. I always have a slight inner cringe,” Kelly says. Even Conger, whose business card says “futurist,” doesn’t always use the term when meeting airplane seatmates–because sometimes he just doesn’t feel up to explaining. For some, the word connotes quackery. Others think of the futurist art movement of the early 20th century, which was so enamored of machines and industry that it allied itself with that dedicated modernizer, Benito Mussolini.
“We don’t call ourselves futurists because we like to differentiate ourselves from pop futurists,” says Johansen. Pop futurists, perhaps, like the protagonist of James Othmer’s 2006 novel The Futurist, a celebrated prognosticator who suffers a crisis of conscience over his hucksterism. (See “In The Future Everyone Hates Me.”) Chapters begin with biographical nuggets such as, “A recent lecture circuit saw him speak on successive days to a leading pesticide manufacturer and the Organic Farmers of America, and receive standing ovations from both.”
Image problems aside, the business hasn’t been particularly good at measuring its own success or failure, and while corporations like Nokia , Siemens and Samsung are known for using various forms of strategic foresight, assessing impact is tricky.
“This is really difficult stuff to quantify,” says Thomas Chermack, an assistant professor at Colorado State University who is one of the few academics to study the impact of scenario planning. Pierre Wack, who introduced scenario planning to Royal Dutch Shell , wrote two influential articles for the Harvard Business Review back in 1985, arguing that scenario planning contributed enormously to Shell’s success. But that claim is difficult to verify.
Chermack’s No. 1 conclusion, after authoring some 50 papers on his research, is that companies that spend a lot of time–and money–on scenario planning find it more useful than companies that don’t.
In short, no one really knows whether scenario planning is more useful than traditional forecasting methods, or extensive research into an issue, or for that matter simply staying well-informed on current events.
Indeed, many futurists seem to be mainly in the business of pointing out the present. Garry Golden, a freelance futurist who advises the Texas Department of Transportation and speaks on college campuses, recently delivered a slide presentation at the McCombs School of Business entitled Futures Studies for Entrepreneurs: Anticipating Disruption. In it he covered a slew of emerging trends, from nanotechnology to smart cars to voluntary unplugging–but nothing that someone who reads a handful of business publications wouldn’t have heard of. And Kelly, the head of the Global Business Network, says he suggested to a recent audience that innovation is occurring not just in the West but also in India. If they didn’t know that by 2007, they’ve got bigger problems than he can probably solve.
Of course, just because a futurist’s value is hard to measure doesn’t mean he’s worthless. “What’s the value of a single strategic insight that allows you to avoid some catastrophic event?” Chermack asks rhetorically. Even barring mega-insights, there’s no harm in hiring someone to collect, analyze and deliver information to time-strapped staffers.
If your company gets blindsided anyway, you might want to consider a career as a futurist.
, Opinions expressed by Forbes Contributors are their own.