Published in The Toronto Star, August, 2010.
One of the first things a futurist will tell you, is all the things they’re not.
A futurist, explains Richard Worzel, is not a soothsayer, oracle, fortune teller or prophet. They do not read tea leaves, tarot cards or carry crystal balls to divine the future.
A futurist is a professional who fastidiously researches current trends and patterns to identify the driving forces of change. From there, they paint possible scenarios of what the near future holds. They’re hired by Fortune 500 companies and governments to act as advisers and consultants, and forecast where technology, security, health care, politics and sustainability are headed.
Think Al Gore, whose climate change forecast is based on historical and recent climate patterns. Consider the film Minority Report, which envisions a plausible society where privacy is non-existent and no one is anonymous. To create this quasi sci-fi future, director Steven Spielberg enlisted eminent futurist Peter Schwartz to act as a script consultant.
According to Worzel, a futurist whose clients include Ford, IBM, Bell Canada, Xerox and Nortel, the next 10 years will be at once radically and “dangerously” different than any other period. The workplace will become increasingly automated with everyday robots displacing humans. Soon we’ll be able to customize health-care needs according to individual DNA. And that will likely segue into “transhumanism,” where science and technology will allow us to exceed natural human abilities.
“It’s going to be very different from anything that we’ve experienced to date,” Worzel said. “The rate of change will be accelerated and people will be caught flat-footed.”
Last year, the Ontario College of Art & Design became the first in Canada to offer a master’s of design in strategic foresight and innovation — a two-year, part-time course aimed at mid-career professionals. The program challenges students to solve complex problems — be they political, entrepreneurial, environmental or sociological — by examining the present, forecasting outcomes and devising with solutions that stretch the imagination and explore ideas outside the linear-shaped box.
“The first phase is horizon scanning,” explains Greg Van Alstyne, director of the Strategic Innovation Lab, part of the futurist program. “We’re looking for quiet signals of change over the horizon. Foresight is not about predicting the future, but about exploring scenario outcomes . . . The goal is to get beyond personal blind spots and biases.”
Students come from multidisciplinary backgrounds and include health-care industry workers, entrepreneurs and science fiction writers such as Karl Schroeder, who was already working as a consultant for the Canadian government writing future “wild card” scenarios on matters of security and technology.
Enlisted by the Department of National Defence in 2005 to write a “dramatized future military scenario” based on the department’s own internal foresight data, Schroeder produced “Crisis in Zefra,” a 27,000 word report that would be read by the highest echelons of government. The book, set in a mythical African city-state 20 years in the future, explored the strategic moves of Canadian peacekeepers.
Futurism was a natural transition from his work in science fiction, Schroeder says. But he cautions that the two genres also bear a significant, unmistakable distinction.
“As a sci-fi writer, I’m under no obligation to be right. My only obligation is to be entertaining,” he points out. “As a futurist, you work in the hope of minimizing surprises.”
With an aging boomer population and the rising epidemic of diabetes, Chris Meier, manager of programs and development at the Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute at St. Michael’s Hospital, is hoping to help redesign traditional patient care strategies that tend to be “reactive” instead of proactive, he said.
“It’s about learning how to take steps to position ourselves for the future.”
As part of the foresight program, students in their second year will work on a lab project to paint a picture of Canada’s media and entertainment landscape in the year 2020. The project, funded by the Ontario’s Ministry of Culture and the Ontario Media Development Corporation, is meant to make Canada an industry leader, Van Alstyne said.
“It’s about future-proofing players.”