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How to Think Like a Futurist

By Giuseppe Barone
April 1, 2021

Amy Webb is a quantitative futurist, founder of the Future Today Institute, and a professor in the New York University (NYU) Stern School of Business. Amy advises leaders and their organizations, including Fortune 100 companies and government agencies, on how to prepare for complex futures. In her role at NYU, Amy developed and teaches the MBA-level strategic foresight course that includes live case studies.

 

Strategic Finance spoke with Amy about her role as a futurist, what led her to become a futurist, and how forecasting technology and AI can shape organizations.

 

SF: How did you become a futurist, and what does your role entail?

 

Amy Webb: I’ve always been interested in technology, science, and the future, going back to watching Star Trek and joining the Future Problem Solving Program International team in the sixth grade. In college, I took a multidisciplinary course of study, and after college, I worked as a foreign correspondent in Japan and China covering the economy and technology. I had the right background to understand the longer-term implications of what was then brand-new technology.

 

When I moved back to the United States after nearly a decade, it was as if I’d come back from a distant future. I saw a future in which the existing business and distribution models for news would no longer be relevant, and I wanted to research a radically different path forward. I secured seed funding for an R&D lab where we focused on forecasting the future of journalism. We spent most of our time prototyping, and I took a much deeper dive into strategic foresight, studying everything I could find from futurists. That led me to found what’s now the Future Today Institute [FTI], where we help leaders and their organizations prepare for deep uncertainty and complex futures. Our primary area of focus is emerging technology and science and next-order impacts on business.

 

There are a few lineages in future forecasting, including in the ’70s, when Pierre Wack developed scenario planning for use in the private sector while he was at Royal Dutch Shell. That’s my lineage. I wanted to build a technology-led, data-driven organization that used signal mapping for trend identification, longitudinal trends for scenario development, scenarios for risk modeling, and all of that for better strategic planning.

 

SF: What do you do with your forecasting technology? How does it help shape organizations?

 

AW: At FTI, we surface and monitor longitudinal technology trends, explore plausible outcomes, and develop strategies. Our technology-led, data-driven forecasting methodology includes signal mapping, trend identification, scenario development, risk modeling, visioning, and strategic planning. We conduct independent research and provide advisory services for Fortune 100 companies, government agencies, and private equity and venture firms around the world.

 

In my experience, many organizations engaged in modeling the future are simply relying on teams of young people to spot trendy changes in technology and society. Without a strategic foresight methodology in place, executives aren’t comfortable leaning into uncertainty, and they wait to take action until ROI [return on investment] can be proven or there’s a set of metrics with answers to questions about the future. Predictive models, especially when you aren’t in control of all variables, are brittle. Rather than prediction, leaders should focus on being prepared and creating a state of readiness within their companies.

 

SF: How do your vast life and career experiences help in your role as a futurist?

 

AW: I was an ’80s kid—part of the generation that was overscheduled but under-supervised. So, I tend to need a lot of stimulation, but I have the discipline to follow through and get the work done. Because I have an interdisciplinary background, I naturally see connections between unusual things.

 

I tend to think of myself as a human Venn diagram. I look for outliers and curious intersections, and I’m always thinking about next-order impacts.

 

SF: What role do you see new technologies playing in the business world? How will AI reshape the workplace?

 

AW: AI is already being used by business. This year, businesses will have greater access to cloud-based AI systems offering robotic process automation and low- or no-code platforms that will allow them to create business applications using their company data. The real problem for most businesses isn’t finding programmers who can build AI systems but finding data scientists who have enough experience and understanding to know what to do with the platforms. Every business is different. There are a ton of possibilities across every industry.

 

SF: How can individuals become their own personal futurists to prepare themselves for emerging technologies and changes in the workplace? How can they set themselves up for success?

 

AW: My colleagues at FTI have been working very hard to democratize the field of foresight and to make our tools and frameworks easy to use by everyone. More than process and methodology, it’s a mind-set. If you believe you have agency in shaping the future, you’ll be motivated to track signals, think about outcomes, and position yourselves and your organizations for preferred futures. The future is always coming. It’s simultaneously five seconds, five minutes, five years, five decades away. The best way to shape the future is to develop the habit of always listening for signals. If you don’t want to experience future shock, then you have to get good at mapping next-order implications. It’s important to remember that while we’re all dealing with great disruption, there is also opportunity.


IMA’s Annual Conference & Expo

June 14-16 VIRTUAL

 

Amy Webb will be a keynote speaker at IMA’s virtual Annual Conference & Expo, June 14-16, 2021, where she’ll present “How to Think Like a Futurist.” For more information, visit www.imaconference.org.


 

Giuseppe Barone is manager of communications and public relations at IMA. You can reach him at giuseppe.barone@imanet.org.
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