Futurists March on Washington: WFS, PSFN, APF, WFR, and more

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Volume 2,
Number 10
August 8, 2016

As partisan politics and its inherent short-termism vacated Washington, D.C., for the summer, futurists found an opportune time and place for thinking together about thinking ahead.

The main attraction for this brief Summer of Futuring was the World Future Society's summit (July 22-24), with approximately 530 total attendees. Also conferring in D.C. were the Public Sector Foresight Network, the Association of Professional Futurists, and members of the editorial board of World Future Review, the publication formerly serving professional members of the World Future Society and now edited by James Dator for SAGE Publications. Other venerable futures institutions on the scene included The Millennium Project, led by Jerome C. Glenn, and TechCast Global, led by William Halal.

Julie Friedman Steele with Kimbal Musk. Photo by C.G. Wagner

Worldfuture 2016 marked the World Future Society's 50th anniversary with the introduction of board chair Julie Friedman Steele as the new (interim) executive director. Steele made herself visible and accessible to conference goers throughout the event, serving as host and principal discussant for all the keynote presentations: space entrepreneur Bob Richards, co-founder and CEO of Moon Express; poet Sekou Andrews; restauratur and food activist Kimbal Musk; animal rights leader Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States; and MacArthur Foundation managing director Cecilia Conrad, who described the 100&Change grant initiative.

In the “box of chocolates” that is the WFS conference, sometimes you really do know what you're going to get. Attendees flocked to such popular speakers as the family of Future Hunters, Edie Weiner, Jared Weiner, and Erica Orange; techno-philosopher and futurist Gray Scott of Serious Wonder; and deans of the Futures School, Kedge partners Frank Spencer and Yvette Montero Salvatico.

One predictable aspect of the conference was the frustration generated by multiple sessions being scheduled concurrently, and the tightly packed meeting rooms were also hard to discreetly escape to sample other sessions.

The "unconference" in action. Photo by C.G. Wagner

An innovative solution to the concurrent session scheduling problem was the introduction of an “unconference” format—essentially a cross between poster sessions and roundtable discussions, wherein presenters had their own tables for 90 minutes and could chat more informally with a small group of participants.

Session Sampler

Twenty-One Trends for the Twenty-First Century: Gary Marx, president of the Center for Public Outreach, based his presentation on his new book of the same title, which surveys broad trends in demography, technology, the environment, the economy, and global relations, as well as how these trends will be affected by big data, geriatrics, neuroscience, nano/biotech, security, robotics, the share economy, the gig economy, DIY, the Internet of Things, drones, and more. Many opportunities may be found at the convergence of two or more trends, he said.

The Learning Revolution: Parminder K. Jassal of the ACT Foundation and Katherine Prince and Jason Swanson of KnowledgeWorks presented a variety of emerging paradigms for learning and education. For example, individuals could use the blockchain technology underlying Bitcoins to keep track of their learning experiences and submit their achievements to school systems for credit or to employers as a credential for employment. The blockchain will keep track of classroom experiences as well as on-the-job experiences that qualify for learning. This is a step away from central control of education toward individualized learning, the speakers claimed.

The Age of Illumination: The Coming Revolution in Discovery, Innovation, and Productivity: Deborah Wince-Smith, president and CEO of the U.S. Council on Competitiveness, outlined the variety of ways in which the new technologies will unleash new powers in the future—and unleash tsunamis of data that will double every two years. Increasingly cheap mobile computing empowers us to handle this flood of data, she said, transforming retailing, public health, agriculture, and disaster response.

The Future of Work: Journalist, HR consultant, and lifelong futurist Alexandra Levit offered an overview of trends shaping the future of work relationships. The declining birthrate in the developed world is leading to talent shortages that will lead to the “rise of the seniors, take two,” she said. It will also require the large cohort of millennials to move into leadership positions a decade earlier than their elders did. Levit also disputed the notion that job losses are due to automation; rather, new technologies have generated more opportunities. The social media manager, for instance, is a category that didn't exist 20 years ago. Look for more occupations requiring human skills, such as interpreting big data.

Emotional Machines: On the subject of human-computer relations, Richard Yonck of Intelligent Future Consulting reminded attendees that “emotion was our first interface,” and to work effectively with our technological partners, we need to make our machines more like ourselves than the other way around.

Public foresight programs: Several speakers offered overviews of their initiatives in applying futurism in public agencies, including Aaron Bazin and Mehmet Kinaci on NATO's Framework for Future Alliance Operations; Steven Gale on the U.S. Agency for International Development's Global Development Lab; Byeongwon Park on the Center for Strategic Foresight at South Korea's Science and Technology Policy Institute; Peter Padbury on Policy Horizons Canada; Prabhat Ranjan on India's Technology Information, Forecasting and Assessment Council; Leon Fuerth, director of the Project on Forward Engagement (and former national security adviser to Al Gore); the U.S. Marine Corps Warfighting Lab's Futures Directorate, represented by Patrick Kirchner, Jesse Cook, and James Trahan; and Kira Hutchinson on the U.S. Army's Mad Scientist initiative to explore the operational environment of 2030-2050.

Photo by C.G. Wagner

The future of WFS: Two back-to-back sessions gave attendees an overview of the private member network that replaces The Futurist magazine as the organization's principal membership benefit. While moderator and board member Deborah Peacock tried to steer the discussion toward chapter development, participants at the first of the two mirror sessions pressed for more details on the benefits WFS is now offering. Many expressed concern about the lack of a publication to distribute to prospective members as a recruitment tool, noting that The Futurist had always been an "ambassador” for the Society.

Peacock emphasized that the suspension of the magazine was a financial decision and that the new WFS—whose membership now numbers “almost 3,000,” according to membership concierge Abby Tang—is very much in a formative stage. Peacock encouraged all members to provide feedback and ideas.

Note: Shortly after the conference, WFS announced a fundraising campaign to pursue a number of member-generated ideas, including “bring back The Futurist.

Public Sector Foresight Network

Also drawing nearly 100 foresight professionals to D.C. was a meeting July 22 that joined the international Public Sector Foresight Network (PSFN) and the U.S. Federal Foresight Community of Interest (FFCoI). The goal of the joint meeting was to “share knowledge on best practices in identifying emerging trends and discuss issues such as how foresight can be incorporated into decision making,” according to PSFN co-founder Nancy Donovan of the U.S. Government Accountability Office. “Both networks decided to combine forces to organize a joint meeting in 2016 in order to facilitate the exchange of diverse views and best practices by U.S. and international foresight officials.”

The participants shared their experiences bringing foresight work to their government agencies, including a strategic foresight project for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, a work technology study for the Basque Country, and work toward formulating an aspirational component for meeting Sustainable Development Goals.

A more detailed report on the meeting prepared by Lane Jennings will be posted on the AAI Foresight Signals blog.

Association of Professional Futurists

Also meeting ahead of the WFS conference July 22 were members of Association of Professional Futurists, who held their annual professional development program. Although AAI Foresight did not attend personally, we enjoyed following the event on Twitter (and hearing the praises of attendees reporting back to us during the WFS conference).

A few tweets:

Andy Hines @futurist_Ahines: @profuturists Opening session on "purpose" followed w/ Jim Dator's amazing futurist journey; always fascinating to learn why we do futures!

Maree Conway @MareeConway: Recurring theme at APF #pro2016 is need to have people and their needs at centre of our work; appeared in many ways today #4futr

Jennifer McDougall @mcdougalljennie: Can design thinking make you a more innovative and effective futurist? #prodev16

APF @profuturists: Breakout sessions: identifying needs over wants, values & beliefs, responding to feedback #ProDev16 #4futr

APF @profuturists: Breakout sessions: consulting through multiple perspectives & operating environments #ProDev16 #4futr

APF @profuturists: Breakout sessions: content must prompt inquiry, curiosity and response. Medium is (still) message #ProDev16 #4futr

incognito sum @incognitosum: Futures & futurists can't be separated from theories of social change @jimdator speaking at @profuturists #ProDev16

Maree Conway @MareeConway: Talking about prediction - big data helps you predict the future for the next 30 seconds Jim Data #prodev16

Christopher Bishop @chrisbishop: #prodev16 #4futr @profuturist put #futurist on your passport so you can have a teachable moment with a border guard/customs official

APF @profuturists: It is always the duty of futurists to think about what's next, to be able to talk about what could be vs what's expected @jimdator #ProDev16

Marti Ryan @martifuturist: @pinnovation "Strategic planning is a waste of time in an era of disruption. Use strategy as a process of learning" #prodev16

Marti Ryan @martifuturist: Super grateful for the opp to bump brains w @profuturists #prodev16. The energy, thinking, leading & creativity continue to inspire me.

World Future Review Editorial Board

Several members of WFR's editorial board also met informally over breakfast during the WFS conference: Antonio Alonso Concheiro, Guillermina Baena Paz, Guillermina Benavides Rincon, Clem Bezold, Stuart Candy, Jay Gary, Jerry Glenn, Fabienne Goux-Baudiment, Sirkka Heinonen, Andrew Hines, Lane Jennings, Claire Nelson, and Wendy Schultz.

Editor Jim Dator solicited ideas and fielded concerns from participants over the logistics of publishing the journal independently of WFS and in digital form only. He announced that the title of the journal would soon be changed to World Futures Review to emphasize the multiplicity of futures studies, and to indicate that the publication was no longer affiliated with the World Future Society.

Dator explained that SAGE’s strategy of bundling online subscriptions to social science journals (of which WFR is one) made past and current issues available through several thousand university library systems worldwide, and that the publisher had no objection to authors using their articles in books or for other purposes provided they did not simply copy the text exactly as it had appeared online.

Suggestions for changes and improvements in the journal were many but uniformly positive. Everyone present applauded Dator’s achievement in getting the journal back on schedule, and agreed with his goal of featuring articles about the field of futures studies itself and not possible futures for society or some specific aspect of it.

One goal that several of those present stressed was to get WFR recognized as an accredited journal, which would allow articles published there to count toward academic tenure. Exactly how this might be achieved is not clear, but the topic will certainly be pursued in future discussions.


Thank you to Clem Bezold, James Dator, Nancy Donovan, Jay Herson, and Lane Jennings for their contributions to this report. --CGW