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The future is NOT now


Tracey Follows is Chief Strategy and Innovation Officer at Google’s Future Lab and full member of the Association of Professional Futurists.

She will anticipate opportunities and pitfalls facing companies and help guide their business towards their best possible future.

Here is my summary of a recent talk Tracey gave to graduates of Google Squared explaining the dark arts of being a futurist.

Down with future deniers

There is an increasing industry in futures: thinking about your own future, where you want to go and how you want to get there.

“The future is now” is a phrase that sits uncomfortably with me. It’s on every conference poster and it’s splashed across online copy.

The reason it irritates me is it just isn’t true. If you think about it, it can’t be true. The future is the future and now is now.

I understand where they are coming from, given the exponential growth of technologies, we can convince ourselves that the future is now.

Every person in every era thinks that they are living in the most random, accelerated, complex times. But it’s lazy to deny the future and think it’s all happening now.

It is not helpful and it’s downright irresponsible. If we are not thinking deeply and strategically about what kind of future we want, then we aren’t doing justice to the now.

There are a bunch of future-deniers who have a nostalgia for the present: POSTALGIA. It is born out of the selfie culture.

You are interested and excited about what’s happening now, but you are deeply worried about the transient nature of it all, so you have to snap everything.

As a result, you miss the now.

There are also a bunch of people who are future avoiders. This is equally irritating, but not so explicit as future deniers.

There is a future, but it is so complex, so difficult and so unknowable that there is no point in thinking about it any further. These people are future avoiders.

Contrast what we feel about the future with the prestige that we afford history. There is a Soviet era joke: “The future is uncertain, it is only the past that is unpredictable.”

We should understand that the only thing that exists is the present.

Whoever is in power dictates the lens we use to look back at history. All the interpretations of history are just that. The future doesn’t exist either.

It is just a bunch of stories and interpretations about how we think about the future. Once you start to think about a multitude of possible futures, it is quite liberating.

Futures is plural

We are always looking to define the problem and always looking to define the solution. I invite you to consider the possibility that the past and history is plural.

The future is something we co-create. It isn’t just something that happens to us. Equally it is not there 100% for us to entirely create.

We have influence on what might and might not happen in the future. Let’s stop searching for the solution.

The future isn’t there to be predicted. It is there for us to consider and ponder the uncertainties. We have choices about the sort of future we want.

It is not about predicting the future, it is about deciding the future we want and taking the decisions that move us towards the future we want.

There is a culture clash. We are always looking for certainty.

You don’t need to be right, but you mustn’t be wrong

Being a futurist is less about predicting and more about organising, rehearsing and considering alternative futures.

In the Future Laboratory we are constantly rehearsing. Life is about preparation. That is what organisations are doing.

Consider the possible alternatives: what does that mean for resources and the kind of people we hire? You start to create what I would call scenarios.

How do you need to adapt to make your preferred futures happen? It is an in-depth thought experiment.

You create three or four different types of scenarios: one optimistic, one pessimistic and one that would be an evolution of where we are now.

In the short term you might find that none of these scenarios actually happen.

But I guarantee you will have considered some possibilities in that thought experiment that will be very useful.

In a way it is all about rehearsing for all those possible futures. The job of a futurist is not to be right, but it is to not be wrong.

Humanity is bigger than technology

We are living in a generation that thinks technology is the biggest driver of change. Our ethics and our own behaviour can’t keep up with it.

And we are in a much darker place because a lot of the time we are thinking we can’t keep up with technology.

Tech is really important. It really is a big driver of change. But it isn’t the ONLY driver. When you look at possible futures, you have got to consider all of these STEEP elements:

  • Society

  • Technology

  • Economics

  • The Environment

  • Politics

If technology was the biggest driver of change, we would all have jet packs…but social and political change moves at a much slower pace and are hugely significant.

The environment is really slow, but its change is there and it is more fundamental than tech. It is less noticeable than tech because of the speed of change, but no less significant.

Humanity is bigger than technology.

Zoom in, zoom out and the death of the five-year plan

Lots of people think a five-year strategy is pretty futuristic. But strategy is changing and adapting. The strategy is to think of strategy as zoom out and zoom in.

Companies like Google ask where will people be in ten or twenty year’s time. Every single day they are thinking of that.

But at the same time they are holding another, shorter time line in front of them.

What can we do in the next 10 or 12 months to get us towards that? This is much healthier. This is the death of the five-year plan.

It is better to have a far future vision and a present strategy. The way that we envision the future influences the choices we make now.

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Jeff Bezos said: “The people who are right most of the time are the ones who change their minds.”


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