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Can you trust business futurists?

I tense up when these self-appointed gurus predict the forthcoming zeitgeist. What do futurists really know that we don’t, and where do they get their information?

fortune teller's hands

As a business journalist, plenty of press releases that come my way get thrown directly into the bin. The one that always makes compost – whether literal or figurative – features a person who claims to be a business futurist (specialising in futurology) who’ll be speaking at a conference. If you’re lucky, you might even get an exclusive interview backstage. Nine times out of 10 these experts have just flown in from somewhere exotic and don’t know anything about the Australian market.

Self-appointed gurus

Personally, I’d rather talk to a savvy fruitologist than a savvy futurologist. I tense up when I approach these self-appointed gurus of the forthcoming zeitgeist. Want to know where Google, Facebook and Microsoft will take you next? What’s really behind IBM’s Watson? Will he change our lives forever? They seem to have the answers ready based on their expert analysis of things that can be mostly found on well, Google, Facebook and Microsoft.

There are, of course, some great local forecasters, such as Bernard Salt. His data is impeccable and his knowledge of the changes in society, based on demographic shifts, is second to none.

Bernard’s the kind of guy we ask questions such as: What are the jobs of the future? What will the workplaces look like? Who will be working? And what will the effects of robotics and artificial intelligence be? What does Australian society look like beyond this era of digital disruption?

Bernard (unsurprisingly) is all for futurology: “There is a sense that Australia, and the world, is changing rapidly so business and the community is naturally interested in a perspective of the future. Futurism suits the times in which we live (insert smiley face),” he told me.

I think it’s been appropriate at all the times. How often in the 1950s and 1960s did we see films about humans vying to live on the moon or Mars and all those visions of people hovering/flying to their daily destination?

Futurists and FOMO

In times of disruption, the corporate world wants to be told what’s next to make them feel as though they’re at the cutting edge. They too, can be a part of it. It’s great for the new economies – corporates are so disruption-sensitive, they’re snapping up start-ups to leapfrog their peers. It’s FOMO that’s behind much of it – fear of missing out. Harnessing that fear, they will then form their own incubators and foster ecosystems and feel they’re across the shock of the new.

So I approached Nick Dacres-Mannings, who hosts the brilliant Disruptive Technology Lunch Series in Sydney at his investment firm, Rawson Lewis. Did he think futurists were for real or just another fad? He agreed that the incumbents always do best because they can buy these new assets. “It’s a lot harder to acquire customers than to create technology,” he said – and the big boys have the customers.

“In the end, the word futurist is just another word for consultant,” Nick told me, looking rather deadpan. Every investment bank has economists. They all forecast. They all have research analysts who forecast the future of companies based on historical results and expected trends around price, product or competition. “McKinsey could call itself a futurist. PwC could, too,” Nick said. “All of us are businesses making predictions about the future, often with imperfect information.

“But if you want to call yourself a futurist, it’s like wearing a bow tie in the office. You have to be smart and you have to be right. Otherwise cross out the word futurist on your card and replace it with ‘fool’ instead.”

Nice to see someone who (kind of) agrees with me. My own opinion is that real gurus are rare and exist on another intellectual plane.

In 1964, one man suggested that in 50 years we will be able to contact our friends anywhere on earth, even if we don’t know their actual physical location. He also said, “One day we might have brain surgeons in Edinburgh operating on patients in New Zealand.” The internet was ubiquitous by the mid 1990s and virtual surgery was successfully trialled in 2001.

No marks for guessing who said it; science-fiction writer Arthur C Clarke. Among other things he said science would invent a “replicating device” – that’s the 3D printer. He predicted that with it the world would fall into gluttonous barbarism because everyone would want everything at the press of a button.

Sounds a lot like Alibaba’s Singles Day or Walmart’s Black Friday. Now that’s what I call forward thinking.

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