Seeing into the Future: A Practitioner's View

Whose Century Is It?
Institute for the Future grabs attention of passersby with slogans on its front windows in Palo Alto, CA.

Mary Kay Magistad

Seeing into the future doesn’t require a crystal ball, or tarot cards — though, in my neighborhood in San Francisco, there are quite a few “fortune teller” shingles hung. Don’t know why. 

There’s also something else here in the Bay Area — groups that look at what’s happening now, as a way of thinking of what might happen next. One of them is the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, which was founded almost half a century ago by the Rand Corporation, and has a pretty good track record of calling it right, of seeing important trends early.

It’s on a corner, in a neighborhood of boutique shops and sidewalk cafes. Glance into its display window, and you might do a double-take. You’ll see what the institute likes to call “artifacts from the future” — a playful take on what people might be using or wearing in a particular version of the future. When I visited, the artifacts on display were a little startling — a fashion show in the time of the apocalypse.  There were lots of gas masks and goggles, and hazard suits. There were perfumes, with scents of things that would, in this apocalyptic future, have disappeared as a result of climate change — honey (because of bee collapse), wine (lack of water), peanuts (same), ice (melting).  

Marina Gorbis, the executive director of the Institute for the Future, explains that the displays rotate, and they're not all apocalyptic. To the contrary, researchers at the institute think of multiple plausible futures, and discuss and debate to figure out which stories about them are most robust, most likely to hold up. In our conversation, she offered a practitioner's view of seeing into the future — or, actually, looking with a keen eye at the present, to see what kind of future it seems to be signalling.    

MG: What we’re really interested in is big transformational stories, given not just events in one area, but in many different areas. What’s the larger world we’re moving to? We oftentimes use this — what is the world we are moving from, and to? Asking ourselves a question, like, ‘how are we going to work?  What’s family life, what’s our daily routine going to be like? What’s happening with technologies, what’s happening with demographics, economics? All of these disparate disciplines together to think about larger patterns.”

MKM: And do you think of that as ways to forecast, or make predictions, or are you looking at parallel futures? Conceptually, how do you come at it?

MG: The kind of futures work we do, we always say that we don’t believe you can predict the future. You know, you can predict singular events, but these kind of big, transformational, complex kind of stories is really what we’re after. And the purpose of what we do is not to predict that future, but to help people make better decisions. So we use a lot of different methodologies. One is the scenarios approach, where we do look at different scenarios. And what we’ve learned is that it’s not that one scenario is going to come true, but probably there are pieces of all these scenarios that we’re going to see emerge.

“So one of the methodologies we use is something developed by Jim Dator, who is a futurist at the University of Hawaii, called Alternative Futures Methodologies, which basically says that there are these archetypal future stories that you can think about. One is the Growth Scenario, which doesn’t necessarily mean growth, but it means that things will continue as they’ve been. We’re on the same path. The other archetypal scenario is Collapse. So it could be a system collapse, or a subsystem collapse. Think about environmental collapse, or a bee colony collapse, and things like that.”

“Another one is Constraint. What does it mean to live in a constraint environment? And it could be environmental constraint. It could be constraint — we’re living in California — with water constraints. It could be energy constraints, other kinds of things. And the last scenario - oftentimes, it’s hardest to think about — is Transformation.  What if we’re moving onto a really different path. A lot of times, it’s about technologies. Technologies enable us to do things incompletely different ways. “

“And so, if we think about scenarios, like we think about today, and a lot of things we’re seeing, we’re seeing elements of collapse, and constraint, and transformation, and growth — all of this happening at the same time. But really, the purpose of what we do is for people to expand their thinking, and what’s in their toolkit of possibilities that they think about, to ultimately help them make better decisions.

“What we really want to do is connect different — like, when we look at a domain like work, we want to bring very different perspectives to how we look at it. So we have anthropologists doing ethnographic research on people who are working on demand in this economy, to understand those patterns here and now. We have economists, who are looking at the economics of labor, and how it works. We have technologists, who are looking at — what’s the next generation of technologies? And then we bring them all into the room, and we ask the question, ‘what do you see? Where is this going?  And then, it’s what’s called cross-impact analysis, less formal. But we want these conversations, and these signals that we’re seeing, with very different lenses, to come together and to create a larger story.”

MKM: What does it take to be a good futurist? 

MG: (Laughs) I actually think — to be a good futurist, you need to be in a community of people who are really great thinkers in their own right, who are great spotters of signals, and who are able to think together. In addition to our staff who are here, we’re about 40-some people, and we’ve been doing it for a long time, we have a vast community of people who are affiliates and fellows and people who just come by, and they think of themselves as part of our community.

“The other thing is, I think it’s almost like art. I think of future thinking as as much science as it is art. But, like an artist, artist has technique, and brushes, and all these tools, and the longer you do it, the better you get at it. Because you keep probing and asking, and you learn certain patterns that work. So having some longevity really helps.

 “And I think one important thing in being a futurist is to abandon whatever narrow discipline you’ve been trained in, and go beyond that discipline. And being able to look at the same phenomena from very different sets of eyes, and connecting them — ultimately, it’s the art of patterning. It’s the art of being able to say, ‘I see it here, this is how these people look at it, this is how this looks at it. And if you connect these two, you can create a much more robust framework.”

MKM: “I imagine you have very lively debates, maybe even heated debates, here, from people who come from different disciplines — even as they’re abandoning their discipline, they still have their perspective when they come in and look at an issue. How does that go, when you have people coming in, saying ‘that’s not going to be the future! This is what’s important! We should be looking at this signal!”

MG: “It’s interesting. So in our work discussion, looking at the future of work, we have very robust discussions. Everyone has, looking at, you know, does that mean we’re not going to work? Or, does that mean there’s going to be more jobs? And actually, the good thing is, we change our minds on this. It’s almost like, the process of thinking about some domain starts as, I call it, blob on the horizon, like, you see something that’s kind of interesting, but you don’t know what shape it’s going to take. It’s like carving a sculpture — it’s kind of like, ‘oh, the shape kind of emerges!’ And in the process, you may start to see things differently.

“It’s not that we have fights about this. It’s more, we’re a very collaborative group, and we kind of assume that everyone brings something valuable to the conversation. But we do have disagreements. And a lot of times, sometimes on the team, we may say, ok we’re seeing this in a very — like, when we talk about — whatever. Like, I might take work as an example. I might tell a different story than my colleague. Maybe we’ll come in from the same perspective, but he or she may see it slightly differently, or what’s interesting may look very differently. But, because we work so much in teams, we’re constantly learning from each other. And so, I may change how I see my thing. Or, I may see something that I want to focus on, and someone else may want to focus on something else.”

MKM: And you personally have been doing this for how long?

MG: “I’ve been at the Institute for about 18 years, now.”

MKM: So over that time, as you’ve been bringing together those larger stories, and then you look back, what’s your batting average? How are you doing, in terms of being able to look back and say, ‘yeah, we pretty much got that right. Or, at least, we were in the ballpark there.?

MG: “You know, when I first came to the Institute, everyone who comes here, the first six months, they just have to get immersed in the language, and concepts and ideas. So I was looking back through a lot of the Institute’s work, before then, and I was just really blown away by what I was seeing, in terms of — what’s happening with work? What’s happening with organizations? What’s happening with technologies?”

“My personal experience — just twelve years ago, we started looking at geolocation technologies, which is basically technologies that allow you to understand positioning of different things, and created kind of the first prototype, and based on that, created these artifacts from the future, about what we could be doing with these kinds of technologies, when you could sense locations of things, and created these things. Well. Five years later, a lot of the things that to us were artifacts from the future, became apps on iPhone, which to us was just pretty amazing.

“Actually, when Amazon announced it was thinking of drone delivery, someone brought out our artifact from the future, which actually had an Amazon drone in it, from five years before. So — we don’t try to do it, but it’s kind of amazing to me. What I think we find is that, when you have all these different perspectives in the room, you can create pretty robust future stories.”

MKM: And as the rate of the evolution of technology has sped up, is it more challenging to be able to keep up with what’s coming up over the horizon?

MG: “You know, what we found is actually in terms of technologies, technologies are fairly easy to forecast — the basic technologies, like a road map, because you know where the money is going. You know what people are developing in the labs. You know what some of the scientific breakthroughs are and what people are working on. So that’s fairly easy to forecast. What’s much more difficult to forecast is, once these technologies get into the wild, they get into people’s hands, they enter our lives, what are people going to be doing with them? Because, humans find all kinds of, as people say, street uses of technology, that engineers and technologists and scientists just can’t forecast.

“In fact, I think engineers and technologists are usually the worst people to forecast how these technologies are going to be used, because they think very rationally. They think, ‘of course, you will connect your home, because that’s how you get your smart home. But people don’t live like that. People are actually not rational, or not rational in the way that technologies think about rationality. So once it gets into people’s homes, it gets…”

“Marshall McLuhan  had this famous saying that we invent our technologies, and thereafter our technologies reinvent us. We’re in this constant co-evolution of, technologies change, and then we change them, and we adapt them to different uses, and we invent things. We create new needs, new challenges, and so we invent technologies for those needs and challenges. And it’s like t his constant process of co-evolution.

“But my point of view, and what I’ve seen, is that technologies are in many ways easier. You can roadmap technologies. But it’s the other side that’s much harder.”

MKM: Does something come to mind, in terms of a technology where those who invented it assumed it would be used in a certain way, and then people adopted it and actually used it very differently? 

MG: “When I first started working at the Institute, the big conversation was around connected home and networked home. So, all your devices, your video, your music, all your appliances, everything will be connected and you’ll have this sort of magic smart home, where everything talks to each other. We were actually doing ethnographic interviews in the homes at the time, and came out with the conclusion that it would never work like that. Because if you want that kind of system, you need a systems admin. People were bringing, basically, their understanding of how offices work. And in an office, you have a systems admin, or you have an IT department, that makes sure these systems talk to each other. You don’t have that in a home. So we basically said, ‘that’s not how people live. They need to connect on an ad hoc basis, when they need to, and they don’t want everything connected, because that means they have very little privacy, and all these other things that you find out just by talking to people, you find out that it’s not going to work like that. It’s going to be much more messy. It’s going to be much more ad hoc.

“And so, when we were working with companies around this concept, that’s what we brought to them, basically ‘don’t try to develop something that universally connects everything. Give people opportunities to connect on an ad hoc basis, when they need to and how they want to, at that particular time.”

MKM: So has the buzz around the Internet of Things kind of shifted, then? There are certainly concerns that, ‘if I totally automate my home and connect it to the internet, somebody can hack in and make my home very uncomfortable, or there can be surveillance, and people can know too much about what room I’m spending time in, and what I’m doing in it.”

MG: “Yeah. Well, I think the buzz — and obviously, everybody is talking about the Internet of Things, still, but I think people are talking about it in a different way. Like, not many people are talking about the smart fridge, which will order things for you and send those orders to the store. But you’ve got Nest and you’ve got all those smart utilities that are all connecting to your phone. But it’s not that kind of universal connectivity between everything, and your whole life, in the home.”

MKM: “Yeah. The thing with that kind of connectivity, and with your phone remembering your preferences. It sort of treats the individual person like they have no real agency, no ability to change, to have new preferences, or new ideas about what they’d like their life to be like. How do you see that playing out? Because there are a lot of apps now that say, ‘well, we know you like this, so we’re going to put this in front of your face. And we know you’ve ordered this in the past, so here are much more of these to look at.”

MG: “I think we’re still in the early stages of that, so the whole area of predictive analytics, where based on — even today, Amazon is pretty good about giving recommendations, sort of. But if you look at these ads that follow you everywhere, it’s kind of ridiculous Like ok, I was looking for shoes. And I got those shoes. And forever, now, you’re giving me ads for shoes. I’ve totally moved on, and I’m not interested in that.   

“What you need to be able to do to get more sophisticated predictive analytics is connect a lot of different data, and a lot of different databases. So it’s not just about your preferences for shoes, but maybe it’s where you’re going on vacation, and what plans you’re making for your vacation, and what’s in your calendar, in terms of what’s forthcoming for other kinds of things. And that is much harder, to achieve, right? And many other things need to connect to get the Matrix scenario, where you’re walking through the store, and ads talk to you, and really read your state. But, there are pieces of these technologies that are being developed. And I think we’re going to get better at it.”

MKM: So — the Institute for the Future looks 10 years into the future. Why just 10 years?

MG: “That’s a horizon we like to stay in. We also love to do 20, and 30 and probably more out. But there’s no data about the future. So one thing we like to do is look at signals, information about the future that is around us today. One thing that William Gibson, the science fiction writer, famously said is ‘the future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed.’ So we do ethnographic work. We look at, ‘what are people doing with these technologies?’ A lot of our work, it looks like they’re on the margin, or they’re weird, but to us they’re a signal of something bigger. And 10 years out is about the right horizon, because you can start seeing signals of something that will be big 10 years from now. And for us, that’s just about the right — it’s beyond the strategic horizon, for a lot of organizations. But what we’ve learned is, when you’re doing any kind of strategy work, or you’re thinking about or imagining work, although you need to plan for maybe two, three years out, having that 10-year perspective helps, because it makes clear where we’re going. Two or three years, you’re still kind of here and now.

MKM: So what do you think of the possibility of thinking about a century, like the 21st century, thinking about what might happen within it? 

MG: “I think it’s great! In fact, in one of our 10-year forecasts, probably about five years ago, we did do that look, 100 years, and 50 years, and 10 years, and tried to do that. I think it allows for a lot of creativity, to kind of imagine the unimaginable. So I like that idea.”

MKM: When you were growing up in the Ukraine, what did the century look like to you? What did the future look like to you?

MG: “What did it look like? Oh, gosh. That’s a good question. You know, I think to me, the century looked really hopeful, in many ways. When I was growing up, you know, my family survived World War II, or some of my family survived World War II. I would say that was a continuous presence in just daily lives, because so many people were affected by it. And the fear of a repeat of the war was very much on everybody’s mind. But it was also sort of — the Soviet Union experience a lot of post-war prosperity, relative prosperity, so life looked pretty good.”

MKM: And did it feel to you like the Soviet Union would just keep going, and would be a global leader? How did it feel from within?

MG: “Oh, I’ll be the first person to say that the fall of the Soviet Union was a huge surprise. There was actually a Russian dissident who predicted it, and wrote a book — I think in 1989. I was fairly content as a kid. We didn’t have a lot, but it was ok. I was a kid. It was all interesting and fun. I did music, and ballet, and all those normal things.”

MKM: And you left for college?

MG: “You know, I was 18 when I left, and one of the reasons was that life was beginning to feel like there was no more excitement. In Russia — you know, I’m Jewish, so there were a lot of limitations about what you could do as a Jew, and where you could go to school, and all of those things. The pathways were very, very limited. So, you go to a technical college, you become an engineer — which is probably what I would have become. Everyone in Russia becomes an engineer of some kind. Even if you’re an economist, you were called an economics engineer.”

“And life was very predictable. You couldn’t travel freely. Life felt closed at that point. And that was my experience by the time I was 18, and one of the reasons I left. And sure enough, here, when you’re 18, life is just opening up. Right? You have choices about where to go to college, or whether to go to college, and where to live. All of these things. Not everyone has those choices, but a lot of people do, and certainly a lot more than in Russia. So, it felt constricted. That’s what it felt like. It didn’t feel like that when I was a kid. When I was a kid, when you’re a kid, you’re doing all these great things. But it did feel very, very constricted, at that point.

“And when I came here, there were such open opportunities — which, for many people, is very, very hard. I look at my son’s experience, where he’s constantly struggling with choices, and that puts a different kind of pressure on you, and it creates a lot of stress. Life was kind of not that stressful, because the choices are made for you.” 

MKM: “I’ve heard more than one non-American friend who comes here and looks at a supermarket, and says, ‘why do you need 50 choices of breakfast cereal, or whatever? It’s too much. It takes too long to have to work through all of this.”

MG: Yeah, when my mother came here in the late ‘80s, I had to prepare her to go to the supermarket, so she wouldn’t be totally overwhelmed. And she really tried to contain herself. But I could see her eyes were just popping out, and it was a pretty overwhelming experience. Of course, now in Russia, it’s the same thing. You can go to the supermarket, and there’s the same variety, or almost the same.”

MKM: Within the United States, there are people who are anxious that America’s best times are over. There have always been people who have felt that way. You can go to each century, and find people saying, ‘oh, that’s it.”  At the moment in the United States, what signals do you think are important for Americans to be paying attention to? We’ve talked about the future of work, but beyond that, in terms of what would create or maintain resilience, and to the extent that people care about the role that America as an entity plays in the world, to have America continue to play a constructive one?

MG: “Basically, to me, it’s transformation from a world in which everything was done through formal institutions of some kind, whether it’s a corporation, or your college or university, where all your education was contained in that, and those periods of time. It’s about central governments, where all the decisions are being made at that level. So I think we’re moving from that world of institutional production or creation, where everything was done through formal institutions, into the world where a lot more things are done through this kind of emergent networked way. Platforms are just one manifestation of that. I think increasingly, people are working on, what does the governance system look like in that world, where — you know, if you think about how we vote today, it’s fairly ridiculous that we have to go someplace and register, when you can do it online, and we can have much more robust conversations about what we’re voting for, in different ways.

“So, it’s the same I can say about colleges and universities. And I’m not saying that face-to-face learning is not important. But the idea that you get a degree after four years, and that you have to be in one place, and all your learning happens there, it’s just no longer true. We thought these online courses were going to replace face-to-face education. There are a lot of ways people can learn. We have Wikipedia, and Khan Academy, and you could be learning continuously. It’s just an amazing opportunity.

“So all of these institutions really need to be changing. And it’s beginning to happen. But we’re kind of in the world right now where new things are popping up, new ways of doing things, and it’s very, very exciting. But we also have established institutions, and old ways of doing things, ways of thinking and regulating, that are not really compatible with this new world.

MKM: There have always been new technologies. There have always been revolutions in the way people do things, the way they organize together. How do you think this era compares, if you look back on the past century?”

MG: “Yeah. “It’s very hard to look back and really say “is this faster, or is it the same?” Because I’m sure for the people who first had electricity, it must have been completely revolutionary, right? Or, you’re finding somebody wrote this great book about the telegraph, and said even the language we used about describing the telegraph at first was the same language we use now to talk about the internet — totally transformational impact, and all of that.

“If I look at my own life, almost 60 years, right now feels different. Right now feels like a lot of things are changing at the same time. It’s a combination of all these technologies, having a combinatorial impact. So it’s not just the internet. It’s the internet, plus nanotech, plus what we’re finding about biology and computation and data and analytics and sensors, and all of these things coming together.”

It’s almost like, when we look at these technologies, so, the technology infrastructure that we’ve been creating, we’ve been doing it for probably the last 50 years. Uber didn’t just appear out of nowhere. Uber is based on a whole kind of continuing evolution of technologies, which is the internet, packet switching, as a first layer. Then we added sensor technologies to that. We added geolocation technologies. Now it’s data analytics, and all these cumulative things. And so, it’s like, for the last 40 or 50 years, we’ve been building this technology, and now this technology is really changing our organizational, social, and economic landscape.”

“You know, one of the former presidents of the Institute, Ian Morrison, wrote this book, ‘The Second Curve,” in which he said in any period of large transformation, which I believe we’re in, now, and I think we’re early in this transformation, we’re kind of living along two curves at the same time. One is the incumbent curve. We have established, we’ve lived like this for a long time. We have regulations, we have practices. We know how to live on this curve. But that way of doing things is kind of on the decline.

“And at the same time, we have this nascent or emergent curve, new way of doing things, on the one hand, and they’re very, very very exciting. . You see signals of it. There are new things popping up. It’s not completely clear which way it’s going to go. But it’s kind of the struggle between these two curves. I think that’s exactly where we’re finding ourselves right now.” 

MKM: And are you finding that this new curve is having an energizing effect, or that people are reacting to it with anxiety? Or both at the same time?

MG: “Both. I think it’s energizing — a lot of new things and capabilities, new affordances that we’re creating. But at the same time, it’s scary. And we probably will see resistance to that. The fact is, you can’t put technologies and the things we have today, back in the box. So you can’t be nostalgic and say, ‘we just want things to be the way they’ve always been. But I will say, we have a lot of agency. The future doesn’t just happen to us. We have a lot of agency, in terms of the kind of future we want to shape. That’s why paying attention to the platforms, and how we structure them, and what elements we put into them — we have some agency shaping this second curve, this nascent curve, and how it evolves. And this is our moment to start thinking about that. 

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