I've seen a couple of articles recently about how futures and futurists are misrepresented in the mainstream press. The response to these articles by futurists seemed to be that the media had got it wrong because newspaper reporters just don't 'get' what futures is about. There didn't seem to be much consideration of the idea that maybe it's the message than needs working on, not only the receiver. Now I probably risk the wrath of those who have been in the futures field for longer than I have with these comments, which might also be viewed as those of the naive newcomer. But the current response to superficial media reports about futures reminds me a lot of how scientists react to media reports about their work. They too, point out the problem, but there are very few scientists who can position their work so that the message is understood in the mainstream, and a lot more who just don't try.
Futures writing is often convoluted and difficult to read, and there is an element of superiority in some of it. Not all, mind you, but sometimes you get the sense that you are being told that if you don’t 'get' futures, there is something wrong with you. Why should people be expected to read our work if that’s the sense they get from it? And if we spend time telling the world about how we do our work and not why we do it, why should we expect people to be interested?
Futures work is not only about environmental scanning or creating images of the futures – these are tools. The underpinning imperative is to work with people to recognise the need to take the future into account in their day-to-day thinking and decision making. The work of futurists – fundamentally – is about changing the way people make decisions today to ensure sustainability for future generations. It’s about changing the way people think and see the world. It’s important work, and the value of the work needs to be recognised. But just because I think it is so will not ensure that recognition.
People won't change the way they think because we tell them they should think differently, or that they should immediately understand something that is far beyond the realm of their everyday existence, or by assuming that newspaper reporters should somehow know intuitively how to write about futures work. Futures is still a mysterious field to most people, and futurists, by and large, recognise their responsibility to change that.
Prediction? Or Understanding?
I don't think that the mystery will subside either until the field moves beyond the term ‘prediction’. That one opens up all those cans of worms better left unopened. If a futurist talks about about prediction and then gets it wrong, why shouldn’t they expect to be treated as a bit of a joke? We will then always get comments like ‘where’s your crystal ball?’ when you tell someone you are a futurist. It’s no wonder that newspaper reporters write superficial articles when they interview a futurist.
The crystal ball thing is probably one of the most common reactions when you say you are a futurist and use futures approaches. Look at the site for the peak conference for tertiary education management in Australia, which has as its 2007 theme "Look to the Future". What do they have as their iconic image - a crystal ball!
How do we move the public perception of futures work beyond crystal balls? Does anyone beyond the field really understand what a futurist does or why they do it? Is the futures knowledge base codified like that of a doctor or lawyer? Is there any agreement on what the name of the field is – futures, futurology, futurism? What services do futurists provide to individuals? How do futurists assert their competence? And is this competence accepted and recognised in the wider society? What benefit do futurists provide to day-to-day life, as opposed to future life? If anyone can hang out a shingle and call themselves a futurist and then make spurious predictions about the future, how can the field ever expect to be taken seriously by newspaper reporters?
I have to say here that these questions are not unique to the futures field. Educational administration and management (my other life) are grappling with these questions right now. Any occupational group which decides that it’s time their work was recognised and which wants to assert its value to society has to articulate why and how it merits an agreed position in the division of labour. This whole identity issue is very topical in the field at the moment. Futurists and futurists in training like me need to work out our message, articulate who we are, what we do and why we do it so their value to society and the future is clear. Futurists can envision a future where long-term thinking is the norm because we ‘know’ what a difference that thinking will make to our existence. Futures is exciting stuff, and once bitten, the futures bug changes your life and the way you think – and we want everyone to share in that.
So, we need to take on responsibility to framing the futures message in ways that people ‘get it’ according to their rules, not ours. The message must be about thinking not predicting, and it must be about our collective responsibility for future generations rather than our present today. That’s the basic imperative that seems to not yet have surfaced, and that’s what newspaper reporters need to be writing about.