(Photo by Flickr user Open Grid Scheduler / Grid Engine, used under a Creative Commons license)
It is nearly the end of my conversation with World Future Society director Julie Friedman Steele by the time I finally think to ask her a question that seems so obvious it’s probably the one you’re wondering about right now:
What is a futurist?
Turns out, this is not an obvious question at all — the World Future Society doesn’t have an official definition at the moment.
Steele tells me the Society is in the process of coming up with a new definition for the 21st-century futurist. She says they’re asking members and looking to find the common denominator. Steele does offer some basics to identifying a futurist, pulled from her personal definition — futurists tend to be “free-thinking,” have a “growth mindset” and be “lifelong learners” she says.
But also, “everyone is a futurist on the inside.”
I’m starting to see why coming up with a definition is a challenge.
Historically, the World Future Society has been less focused on the futurist inside, and more focused on the futurist outside — the professional futurist, if you will. These are academics and researchers and such, people whose future-thinking is integral to their identity.
Now, the Society is trying to “democratize” the futurist mindset. With an accelerated rate of change, “more and more people are very interested in what the future holds,” Steele tells me. This is an opportunity to widen the organization’s base of support.
It’s also an opportunity to redefine the title “futurist,” hopefully in a way that is broad enough to be inclusive while at the same time narrow enough to be meaningful.
I grasp for my next question, trying to wrap my head around how a 50-year-old society exists for a largely undefined, nebulous-seeming group. What do futurists care about, I ask. What do they think?
Here, things begin to fall into place. A futurist, Steele tells me, believes that “the future is not set in stone,” and also that we are not confined to being passive observers of change.
Steele says many companies subscribe to this futurist mindset — they’ve got to believe that it’s possible to create a version of the future where their product is still relevant. Other good futurists include millennials — they just “get it” — and, increasingly, people over the age of 55. Steele tells me she believes advances in medicine and technology have created possibilities for this demographic that didn’t previously exist.
Finally, I’m beginning to see how one can make the pronouncement that everyone is, or at least has the power to be, a futurist. Belief in personal agency, one could argue, is at the cornerstone of a cultural ideal like the American Dream, where you’ve got the power to change your destiny.
But this all-American futurism is accompanied by an equal measure of discomfort, or even fear, when it comes to talking about the future. Politicians threaten that we could be “the first generation of Americans that leave our children worse off than ourselves,” while voices in popular culture (and even a fair number of famous thinkers) worry about an upcoming AI takeover.
The futurists at the World Future Society want to change the conversation. They want to talk about how the future can be good, wonderful even. Why? Because it hasn’t been built yet.
As with any personal philosophy, futurism is a little fuzzy around the edges. But if it seems like a good one to you then, well, you might be a futurist! And you’ll be pleased to know that the 2016 annual summit will be held this July at the Washington Hilton. The theme? “A Brighter Future IS Possible.”