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The answer to “What is a futurist?” can vary greatly depending on who you pose the question to. Likewise, the image of a futurist that is conjured in the minds of those who hear the term is just as likely to be as wide-ranging. If you ask someone who belongs to Generation Y or Z, especially those who are fans of the MCU, they may picture fictional billionaire genius industrialist Tony Stark, better known by his alter-ego, the Invincible Iron Man. On the other hand, others may think of Stark’s real-life counterpart, Elon Musk, founder and CEO of Tesla and Space X. To those who might never have heard the word, they may guess that a futurist is some sort of mystic holding a crystal ball, which they use to peer into the future.

The truth, however, is much more straightforward. A futurist, or someone who identifies or refers to themselves as such, is simply an individual who looks at the future with an emphasis on change and innovation. They explore existing and emergent data, trends and patterns, applying a little bit of history, research, logic, creativity, bleeding-edge developments and strategic (as well as out-of-the-box) thinking to envision what is to come. In doing so, futurists can make informed projections and recommendations to form and guide long-term strategic planning, inform the most optimal course of action to aid business growth and development as well as identify and capitalize on opportunities to vastly improve outcomes. Moreover, the insights gleaned can be put to use to avoid threats and mitigate risks through the recognition of forces and factors impressing upon one’s business or enterprise. Futurists are also able to imagine alternate future states to help futureproof organizations, keep their business on track as a going concern, meet and overcome future challenges as well as prevent disasters.

Futurists come in all forms. From scientists who predict the impact of changing weather patterns on crop yields to market researchers who utilize predictive marketing to determine what products adolescents will be wildly spending their allowances on to policymakers predicting what types of disruptions will emerge across various industries and business landscapes due to the introduction of new laws and regulations. They also go by a great number of appellations, titles and bestowed monikers, including futurologists, perspectivists, foresight consultants, forecasters, prognosticators, future-oriented thinkers, modern-day oracles, visionaries, and so on.

Regardless, all futurists share one thing in common and that is their focus on the future. Their field is futurology, which is the attempt to systematically explore and investigate predictions and possibilities about the future and how they might arise from the present. It is this ability to perceive or recognize what others oftentimes miss or are unable to see that has led them to be frequently hailed as “visionaries”. Futurists are not psychics. Their means are not arcane, psychic, supernatural or divine, but achieved rather through the thorough, precise and granular research, analysis and interpretation of quantitative, qualitative and speculative data to uncover trends and insights that would be particularly fitting in enlightening those who wield the power of decisioning, strategizing, road-mapping, direction setting and planning out tomorrow.

While the common shorthand used is prediction, they, in fact, do not make predictions about the future. What they do, to be more exact, is make informed estimations, outlining a variability of outcomes, from what is possible to what is preposterous — all of which can significantly throw a business’ most thoroughly formulated plans into chaos. They recognize things as they start to arise before they have the chance to become established. To a futurist, the future is not a fixed point as there can be many kinds of futures, which can be broadly organized into seven classes (all of which are subjective and are based to present moment conditions):

(a) Potential: Everything beyond the present is a potential future. This is on the assumption that the future is undetermined or ‘not fixed’.

(b) Projected: This is the singular default or ‘business as usual’ future inferred to be the continuation of the past through the present. This is considered to be the most probable of the Probable futures.

(c) Possible: These futures are ones that we think ‘might’ happen based on some understanding of the future that we do not have yet but might possess one day. Think teleportation technology.

(d) Plausible: These are futures we think ‘could’ happen based on our current comprehension of things that work in the world, such as the laws of physics.

(e) Preferable: These futures are what we would ‘like’ or ‘want’ to happen, based more on emotional rather than cognitive value judgments, such as zero inflation or end of world hunger.

(f) Preposterous: These are futures we deem to be impossible and will ‘never happen’.

In formulating the good, bad and ugly scenarios of tomorrow, practitioners of the art of futurology conduct research and studies of today’s markets and landscapes, business modeling, interviews, strategic planning and high-level deliberations. They are frequently tasked with informing how today’s developments will take shape and the extent to which they will affect the organization they are working or consulting for. The insights they reveal are not static but are ever-evolving based on how the present continues to change and us along with it.