People often ask me why I became a futurist. The answer to the question looks clear in hindsight, there is a progression from an interest in certain subjects at high school then Uni, all of my roles in the workforce had a component of futures thinking required in them and then I found the foresight program at Swinburne. The lived experience was different, there was no clear goal, rather I went where my interest and curiosity led me. My experience of people who were seen to be future oriented in organisations was that they were often on the outer, seen as difficult because they asked hard questions or advocated for a different direction but in the pre-1990s recession world they were left near a pot plant in a tucked away office to think their thoughts and every so often someone would lob in asking them to be involved in something. They were always interesting people to have a chat with and most were happy to spend time talking to a younger person who had an interest in thinking out ten or twenty years.

The leaner organisations that have evolved since the late 1990s have no place for these oddities.

I have worked with senior managers who believed that if they needed a view of the future they could buy one from a consultant. Many organisations reward the same values and behaviours in their senior managers: action over reflection, past over future, optimism over pessimism. This means that many people in decision-making positions have not had the time or the focus to develop their ability to deal consciously with the challenges thinking about the future can throw up. I often find that groups want to be different in the future, but they are unaware of how they operate in the present (action, past, optimism) so are unable to choose to be different, instead they fall back on their tried and true ways (that have been so successful to this point) and wonder why they end up in the same place again.

I recently facilitated a class discussion on the world of descent – so what society in australia might look like post-peak oil, with the impacts of climate change thrown in for good measure. What was interesting about the discussion wasn’t so much the content but the tendency of the group (myself included) to want to head towards dystopia (hell in a hand basket) or utopia (something will save us – technology, community, individual development). Both these extremes felt unreal, like fairytales and hence the solutions were fluffy and insubstantial. What was difficult to do was to hold the complexity of the ‘messy bit’ (technical term) in the middle. Once I was aware of my own thinking, I was able to bring the group to consciousness on this dynamic so we then moved to a rich and rewarding conversation about what the messy bit might look like which felt more real and led to us thinking about how things might actually play out.

The reflection for me on this activity was that the useful engagement with the future has to be conscious. Now this isn’t news for me but what was interesting was my own internal desire to move to extremes when confronted with higher and higher levels of complexity, and I have been trying to combat this thinking pattern for the past ten years! Once made conscious, the group worked together to mitigate each individual’s tendency to bifurcate and so the generation of new, workable ideas was possible. This was in a group that was high performing, able to be reflective on their thinking with a desire to learn something different to their normals ways of being. So what do you do when the group you are working with are successful people who are rewarded for their current ways of thinking with a tepid desire for change and no practice at reflecting on their own thinking?

I think that many organisations currently have no place for the future. It is too hard, too confronting and challenges too many myths that we hold dear. The oddities that brought the future into the present just by being themselves have disappeared from our workplaces, to be replaced by consultants who are brought in to challenge thinking and then dismissed when the questions they ask become difficult. I think there is a role for consulting, after all I do this for a living, however if organisations want to be consciously engaged with the future they need to have their own futures thinker in residence. Someone who just by being themselves makes thinking about the future a normal thing to do. Who challenges successful people to think differently, who brings the future to the table in discussions about the present. Someone who is happy to be in a tucked away office near a pot plant, visited by those with an interest in thinking about what might be possible. By having someone in the office who thinks and talks about the future as a real place, the ways in which an organisation engages with the future will change. The longevity of that person will depend on the ability of those around them to deal with change and difference, it will also depend on the person’s ability to exist on the ‘outer’, but my experience as both a consumer of their ‘product’ and a producer of such thinking is that it does make a difference.