Abraham Lincoln once said that “the best thing about the future is that it only comes one day at a time.”
That may have been true in the 18th century. Yet with an emerging academic discipline geared towards predicting future events, businesses, organizations and governments do not have to consult Miss Cleo to find out what may happen in coming years.
A new wave of professional “futurists” – people who analyze the past to make probable predictions about the future – is sweeping the professional world by helping decision makers in several different areas. Setting the crystal ball aside, futurists are now trained at several universities across the United States, where they are taught how to analyze data to predict future outcomes.
Two of the better-known programs are offered at the University of Houston-Clear Lake and the University of Hawaii at Manoa, both of which offer master’s degrees in futures studies and alternative futures.
Other schools incorporate the discipline into existing programs. Regent University in Virginia Beach, Md., has a growing school of leadership studies that includes futurist thinking.
Jim Dator, a futurist professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, said he thinks that all universities should have futurist courses, using the metaphor that futurists are “surfing the tsunamis of change.”
“The future is the only arena over which individuals have any influence, and yet almost all formal education in the US, and many, but not all, other parts of the world, totally ignore it,” Dator said.
Contrary to popular public conceptions, Dator said that people should realize futurists are not fortune tellers, and that they can play a useful role in society. What ethical futurists do, he said, is “forecast a range of alternative futures and help clients envision, invent, and move towards preferred futures, on a continuous, ongoing basis.”
“Responsible futurists never predict the future in the sense of telling accurately what will happen before it does,” Dator said.
Indeed, there are many breeds of futurists. Some predict a wide array of subjects, while others more specialized roles. Several companies have hired futurists to help them chart their business plans including big names such as Telecom, IBM and Hallmark, and even the FBI has added futurists to its staff.
Yet while futurists have grown more common, many still have doubts as to the legitimacy of the profession. Jennifer Jarratt, chair of the Association of Professional Futurists, said there is not a great deal of support in academia for the futurist programs, and that it “is probably always going to be a niche profession.”
However, Jarratt said she believes futurist courses are as relevant as history classes, and that there will always be a need for the profession so long as the future remains uncertain. There is a lot of change going on in the world, she said, and futurists are needed to analyze trends and information in a way that others in business and government simply don’t have time for.
People today may already rely on futurists more than they realize. Jarratt said that the very definition of a futurist is flexible, and that even a noted government official like Alan Greenspan could even be argued to be a futurist due to the economic insight he uses in being the chairman of the Federal Reserve Board.
As far as the future of futurists, Jarratt thinks they will still be around a hundred years from now. She said that futurists in Denmark have grown to be influential in government policy through advising the government with futurist thought, and said she hopes the trend will spread.
“Whenever you make a decision that will have consequences you should study the future,” Jarratt said.