No single person can claim the future for themself. The future is shared by a multitude, whether we like it or not, so it is a futurist’s folly to attempt to envision or build a future without a community.
History shows us that many things are accomplished more effectively with greater numbers. Amateur traders on Reddit took on Wall Street as a coordinated online community. Amazon, one of the biggest retail companies in the world, took notice when a group of employees in Bessemer, Alabama tried to organize themselves into a union. A mob was able to overtake and vandalize one of the most important buildings in the U.S. For good or bad cause, it’s undeniable that people hold more power when they join together.
Practicing foresight is no exception. That’s why IFTF Foresight Essentials consciously structures our trainings so that most foresight exercises are completed in groups or with partners. It’s also the reason we train our foresight practitioners how to facilitate our tools themselves, because we expect them to use the tools with others, whether at work or with a community. Foresight is better done with others because the more diverse perspectives you can incorporate, the better your forecasts and insights. A wonderful quote by author William Gibson that IFTFers practically have tattooed in their brains is, “The future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed.” This means that the future is right in front of us if we’re willing to look for it. A diverse team of curious thinkers can see a wider swath of the horizon than a single pair of eyes and can pick up on a greater spectrum of that horizon’s beautiful colors.
One challenge, however, is recruiting others to your team. Futures thinking isn’t quite mainstream (yet!), so foresight practitioners still have to work extra to convince others of its worth. Renowned futurist Jim Dator wrote, “Futures studies is to modern academia and societal decision making what Science was to academia and societal decision making in the late Middle Ages. Because of this, I am no more likely to get most successful academicians, politicians, and business persons to take futures studies seriously (and thus to help them and their organizations to think and act more helpfully about the future), than Copernicus was in getting the powers that were in his time to recognize that the earth isn't the center of the universe. Because futures studies is not like other established fields in academia, it is constantly being misunderstood and misused.”
So, how does a futurist build their community and keep it sustained over time? A few recommendations taken from some experienced foresight practitioners are the following:
- Start small,
- Find people who are curious,
- Talk to people of influence,
- Show impact, and
- Energize people.
Dr. Laura Nissen built her foresight community by presenting recommendations and thereby building trust with her university's influential stakeholders.
Start Small and Build From There
Maybe it has happened, but I’ve never heard of anyone building a large community of futurists from scratch overnight. As Dr. Maisha Winn, Co-Director of the UC Davis Transformative Justice in Education Center, explained at IFTF’s Ten-Year Forecast Summit last year, she built her foresight community incrementally. First, she started with a core group of colleagues who met to share readings and gather signals of change, then expanded the group by introducing other colleagues to the work the core group had done. The group did this by using their signals to create forecasts which it presented to a group of scholars. This second group was then invited to participate by recording their own “futurecasts,” podcasts based on the forecasts they had heard (you can have a listen here). Dr. Winn continued to scale up her engagement by sharing the futurecasts with the larger community, then hosting an open house with the scholars and the public to expand the conversation around the future of various academic topics.
Find People Who Are Curious and Passionate
John Miranda, Director of Marketing Insights at Intel, built his foresight community over the years by finding intellectually curious people from all levels of the company stationed all over the world. Over several years he’s been running a program called Trendscape, composed of about 30 people who convene twice a quarter to discuss the things they’re reading regarding the broader technology industry which could affect the company. They come to meetings prepared with topics to discuss, and everyone brings their unique perspectives to push the conversations in new directions. Afterwards, these passionate minds develop a one-page document summarizing about ten new ideas and why they matter for the company, with links to back up their thinking. Then, to push themselves even more, they invite outsiders to stress test their findings.
Miranda finds intellectually curious people to join his group as naturally as a fisherman who tosses a line of bait into water. Whenever he presents his market insights at work, people who are eager to learn more reach out to him. He also makes the effort to connect with new staff, and every quarter he widely socializes the new ideas his community came up with using a distribution list of hundreds of colleagues.
If you future, they will come. During our IFTF Certified Practitioner Meet-Up in March, an attendee asked one alumna, who had spent 5 years building up foresight inside her large organization, what she would recommend to others first starting to build momentum in their organization for foresight. She said, “I recommend constant experimentation. If you go in and ask people to join you in that spirit of experimentation, there's a lot of pressure taken off, and it gives you a lot more agility and flexibility….We started to document ‘what did we learn?’ and to ensure that we had a process to hone what we were building. Believe me, if you put it out there, people will come.”
Talk to People of Influence
Dr. Laura Nissen, Professor and Presidential Futures Fellow at Portland State University’s School of Social Work, advocates communicating a strong message about the value of foresight with influential decision-makers. Dr. Nissen built a futures collaboratory which is designed to be an experimental, improvisational space for students, faculty, and staff outside of the university hierarchy to learn basic foresight, play foresight games, and apply foresight to the university’s challenges. She connected with the university president and provost to first ask them provoking questions, as good futurists do, like “is the university ready for the future?” and “what would it look like if we were ready?” and listen to what they wanted for the university. She also communicated to them how foresight skills and ideas fit the challenges they were facing.
Miranda at Intel also endorses building and maintaining relationships with senior stakeholders. His Trendscape group presents their new ideas every quarter to executive staff to ensure their work stays relevant. Most importantly, they explain why the new ideas are important to what they collectively care about. When the ideas resonate with senior staff—and sometimes they don’t—it opens the door to conduct more research in particular areas of interest.
According to Miranda, the most important thing to sustain your community is demonstrating your impact because more people will join and stay if they think they’re making a difference. “If you can really translate the work and contributions they’re making as a group, and they can point to real change across the company, then their energy is more persistent,” says Miranda.
One IFTF alumna also highlights the importance of having what she calls “Evidence of Wow” to validate futures thinking’s value. This could involve collecting anecdotes and testimonials from people who have been exposed to foresight, or what she did, which was to form her own metrics around foresight by measuring how the use of futures thinking with clients accelerated the closing of a deal.
At Portland State University, Dr. Nissen earned credibility with the president by delivering big recommendations for the school. Rather than just introduce futures thinking as a shiny new tool, she established foresight’s worth to the school.
A good way to attract people to your community and keep them for the long-haul is balancing the important work with keeping people excited. Both Dr. Winn and Dr. Nissen elevate the value of energizing people by creating spaces for play. At the beginning of every group meeting, Dr. Winn dedicates time to a foresight activity, and Dr. Nissen uses games to help spark imagination and creativity. She says she capitalizes on “the alchemy of peoples’ simultaneous joy, curiosity, and deep frustration. If you can blend and honor those things together, it’s wonderful.”
If you’re looking for futures games, two of our favorite, which were developed by Dr. Jane McGonigal, IFTF Director of Game Research + Development, are “The First Five Minutes of the Future” and "100 Ways Anything Can Be Different in the Future", where you list 100 true things about any topic of your choosing, then flip them all to imagine how things can change in the future (you can play it with Dr. McGonigal in IFTF’s newest Coursera course “Life After Covid-19”).
The recommendations enumerated above for building your foresight community are certainly not the end-all-be-all of methods. As social, cultural, and professional dynamics change, forming communities will involve new methods and tools. As practitioners in our community have also recommended, it’s important to be flexible and be persistent. Your organization may pivot, so your tactics may need to pivot as well.
If you’ve taken one of IFTF’s public or custom trainings and want to be a part of IFTF’s foresight community, join us and other practitioners from around the world when we meet online for our monthly Practitioner Meet-Ups. Email us if you’d like invites.