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Sunday reflection: How to become a futurist

future ahead concept

By Simon Davies

Today’s Sunday Reflection is aimed mainly at my fellow privacy advocates. My intention is to offer an idea to alleviate your discomfort at parties: become a futurist, because futurists will always be cool.

Here’s a prediction: in the future, everyone who isn’t a consultant will be a futurist.

On the rare occasions when privacy advocates actually go to a conventional party it’s difficult to explain to non-advocates what we actually “do”. There was a time when this didn’t matter. Privacy was such a novel idea that you could maintain the cool factor even if people didn’t understand your job function.

These days, in an era when everyone knows at least something about privacy, we’re all just dumped into the “unemployed” category – or even more humiliating, associated with people who never quite made it as a consultant. So unless you also happen to own a circus or run a BDSM club we’re all doomed to be un-cool.

Here’s a prediction: in the future, everyone who isn’t a consultant will be a futurist. However, now is the time to stake your claim – before the rush.

First, you need to arm yourselves with some facts. Remember that futurism has already been commandeered by clever consulting companies, so you don’t want to go down that route. The consulting futurist is actually an analyst that uses pattern recognition, analytics and Big Data to assess trends and then construe a future scenario.

You are the weaver – and you transcend data analytics.

No, you want to be the Arthur C. Clarke sort of futurist. You will go beyond Big Data. You are the weaver – and you transcend data analytics. In fact, Big Data forms just a thin weave in your glorious tapestry of the universe. You need to be the futurist who futurises about what other futurists do.

The Arthur C Clarke futurist assesses political shifts, megatrends, social psychology and environmental issues to construct scenarios of the sort that used to be called “out of the box thinking”.

I hate to disappoint the younger privacy advocates, but the Clarke futurist must be a little aged. You might get away with being a statistical futurist in your 20’s, but no-one will take you seriously in the other guise until you start losing your hair. A fact of life I’m afraid. The youngest futurist listed in Wikipedia is 33 year old Danila Medvedev, but even he had to grow a beard and wear really thick glasses

The reality however is that any good privacy advocate who has been round the block a few times is a futurist by nature, so there’s no need to fake anything. Still, a few tips on style are always useful.

The Arthur C Clarke futurist assesses political shifts, megatrends, social psychology and environmental issues to construct scenarios of the sort that used to be called “out of the box thinking”.

First, get the image right. You need to appear confident, but never flashy. No designer clothes, just a neutral black. It needs to be the sort of black that doesn’t look pretentious. So, no roll-neck sweaters or fancy black suits – just a casual outfit. And make sure you wash the dye out a little beforehand. You don’t want to look like you bought the outfit especially for the party.

Next: attitude. Clarke futurists listen more than they talk. The words uttered by a Clarke futurist  should fall like leaves of gold. It’s also true that the more you talk, the greater the chance people will discover that you are flawed. In this matter you would be following sensible advice from the adage: “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.”

Everyone wants to believe that they have something important to say, so listen carefully and put that person in the centre of your world when they speak. That’s what successful politicians do. They learned that if they acknowledged what people were saying and interjected with what seemed a far-sighted question then the other person will always go away saying “that’s a really smart guy”.

Next, think broad and think deep. An urban planning consultant may tell you that the future of house building is being determined by new taxes on floor footage. An urban futurist will keep you amazed by advising that the future is being determined by radical political action in Latin America. A good futurist traces the source of trends, not just the dynamics.

Finally, think in radical ways. In fact, the further ahead you want to predict, the more radical you must become. This too was an Arthur C Clarke observation. He was concerned that unless he seemed unbelievable, he was probably being inaccurate. Go to the exact opposite of a scenario and think from that point. If someone asks you for your view on the future of data protection, respond with: “There will be no future for data protection. It will die”. By thinking this way you probably get closer to discovering the truth more than you ever would by thinking within a current framework.

Go for it! And I’ll see you at the next party.