People often think that foresight is about predicting what’s next. Actually, what futurists do is try to stretch people’s thinking so they question whether the “default future” they’re building their lives around is satisfactory — and that other paths are open to them. Prediction fails. Preparation succeeds.
Breaking down an organization’s “default future” is the first step in futures work. A good speech and committed discussion is one way to start the process.
Breaking Down Barriers
I was drawn into futures work because, as a Science Fiction writer, I found I was often called on to speak at foresight conferences. I learned that my role was to “soften up” the crowd for imminent foresight exercises. As an SF writer, I was automatically the wackiest person in the room, so in a way I was able to give permission to professionals (who are often trained never so speculate) to stray a little ways outside their comfort zone: to speculate for a day.
As a speaker I focus on breaking down the “default future” — the audience’s unspoken assumptions about what can and will happen. One way to do this is by presenting startling and inspirational possibilities, glimpses of what Stuart Kauffman calls “the adjacent possible.” Another way is to go dark, and present the dystopian end-game of current practices taken to their logical conclusions.
For example, at the Broto conference in 2019, I talked about the necessity of doing art on the same scale as the problems that face humanity and the planet today—not in the sense of doing transnational works, or having huge budgets, but by scaling up our imaginations to the level necessary to conceive of solutions or adaptations to climate change, ecosystem collapse, etc.
Bringing Storytelling to Futures Work
A good example of how I use narrative to make complex topics understandable is my Sektor 3.0 speech on “technologies of trust.” You can find the half-hour talk below (in English). I gave it in May, 2016 in Warsaw, Poland, to an enthusiastic audience that included members of the public, media, academics, researchers and business people.
Also in 2016, at the Foresight & Trends conference in LA, I described the plotlines of three possible novels. Each of the stories captures the complex essence of one emerging megatrend. Together, they reduce what might be a long, tedious analysis of demographics and drivers to something vital and easily memorable. The stories are, “Decapitation,” about blockchain technology and how Distributed Autonomous Corporations put a company’s CEO, CFO, and upper management out of work; “The Lady (almost) Vanishes,” about how emerging tech is making it impossible for people to disappear; and in “The Garbage Miners,” how a strike by workers who convert trash into feedstock for 3d printers nearly shuts down the country.
I’m happy to narrow in on specific topics, too; in August 2014 I spoke at the Future of Digital Cash workshop in Los Angeles. I reviewed how science fiction has treated the idea of money throughout its history, and unfolded two new possibilities for money in the 21st century. In fall, 2016, I spoke to an audience of biomedical engineers about how to use the Three Horizons method as a career planning tool.
Recent Talks and Events
- Guest and workshop participant, Viriditas, Engineering Biology for Space Exploration, a one-day conference held at Ginkgo Bioworks in Boston on October 20, 2018.
- Award Recipient, Netexplo, UNESCO, Paris, France, February 15, 2018. Received an award as “Talent of the Year” in the area of blockchain thought-leadership.
- Panelist, Anticipation 2017, Senate House, London, England, November 10, 2017. Discussion on strategic foresight as a tool to influence government policy.
- Speaker, Open Innovations Forum, Moscow, Russia, October 17, 2017. I spoke about using science fiction to explore the future.
- Keynote speaker at the Annual President’s Meeting of the International Federation of Library Assocations and Federations (IFLA), held at the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Centre in Athens, Greece, 3 April 2017. Addressing “fake news,” I gave a talk called “Library and Antilibrary.”
- Keynote speaker at 2016 University of Calgary Biomedical Research conference, Banff, Alberta, October 22, 2016. My topic was “Three Horizons of Biomedical Engineering.”
- Keynote speaker, Sektor 3.0, Copernicus Science Center, Warsaw, Poland, May 18, 2016.
- Panelist, Future Tense space exploration event, March 8, 2016. The discussion surrounded how science fiction can inform our real-world aspirations in space development, such as to colonizing Mars or interstellar travel.
- Keynote speaker at the Army of Tomorrow conference in Kingston, Ontario, February 20, 2016.
- Invited speaker at the Future of Digital Cash workshop in Los Angeles in summer, 2014. Bitcoin and beyond–we talked about everything from the history of the receipt to currencies post-bitcoin. Since the event was not recorded, people felt willing to say what they really thought, which made for an eye-opening series of presentations.
- Invited speaker, Cognitive Computing Forum, San Jose CA, also in summer 2014. Complete videos of the talks, including mine, are available from the site for a fee. I discussed the idea that our civilization is creating a kind of “artificial unconscious” for ourselves using information technology.
- Speaker and workshop facilitator at DRDC FIAC Workshop in spring 2012, Cornwall Ontario.
- Speaker and panelist at the 2011 Applied Brilliance conference and workshop, held Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
- Keynote speaker at Bringing Together Communities, an interdisciplinary studies conference at the University of Windsor, 2011.
- Keynote speaker at DRDC Managers’ workshop, 2010.
- Keynote speaker at O’Reilly Publishing’s Open Source Conference 2009, held in San Jose, California, 2009. The subject: “rewilding” the human species.
- Guest speaker at Broto Art, Science & Collaboration conference, Provincetown MA. May 17-19, 2019.
- Guest speaker, Digital Media Europe 2019 conference, Vienna, Austria. April 1st, 2019.