How Do Futurists Spot Trends That Shape Our Lives?

In the U.S., between 500 and 1,000 people are employed as futurists.

No, they can’t tell you when you’ll meet “the one” or if you’ll win the lottery. Futurists look at global trends and make predictions in different spheres, like business and politics. They also work as speakers, authors, consultants, professors and much more, helping people and companies conceptualize possible futures and strategize on how to respond to them.

But every futurist’s career is extremely varied. Rewire spoke with four top futurists to discover more about this unusual path:

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Brian David Johnson

Brian David Johnson

Futurist in residence at Arizona State University, Futurist and fellow at Frost & Sullivan

What is a futurist?

Futurism has been around for quite some time. What futurists were in the beginning were artists. They were embracing progress and machines back in the ’20s and ’30s. Coming out of World War II, specifically out of the U.S. military and the Rand Corporation, you begin to have futurists who were doing planning—not only nuclear scenarios, but supply chain scenarios in this new Cold War we were in. The practice of it started there.

The futurists you see today are a bit different. I am an applied futurist, which means I work with organizations to not only model the future, but go about making that future happen. I really only work 10 years out, and I work with people to model both positive and negative futures.

Then I work backwards and see what that organization needs to do to make that future happen. What are the things that are in their control that they can start to do to move towards that positive future and move away from that negative future? What are the things that could happen not in their power that could affect the future?

What does a typical workday look like for you?

I have about three typical workdays. One of them would be out lecturing on a stage in front of about 1,000 (to) 14,000 people, talking about the future to people who are building it. In past months, I have spoken (during) the Arizona State of the State in front of legislatures, companies and developers, to a university audience, to a large trade association in San Francisco, and to—which is my favorite—a middle school. They’re the ones that matter, the ones who ultimately are going to build the future.

A second typical day would be me working with a company specifically onsite and modeling the future with them. I go on-site and we work together to model the future. I walk them through the future-casting session where we model positive and negative futures. I do an analysis of that raw data and come back to them with a report that says, these are the futures, and here’s what you need to get done eight years from now, four years from, and here’s what you need to start doing on Monday.

My third typical day would be myself in my library researching and writing.

What do you wish you had known before embarking on this career?

How awesome it would be. I really mean that. As an integral part of my futurecasting and backcasting process, as well as my threatcasting work at ASU, I use science fiction. I use science fiction stories based on science fiction facts to model possible futures. Because science fiction gives you a language to talk about the future.

All good stories are about a person and a place with a problem. A science fiction story actually allows you to look at the effects of the future you are modeling. I’m a total nerd, so I’ve always read science fiction comic books and movies, and I’m a science fiction writer. I’ve always used that as a part of my work as a futurist.

What are some of the unique challenges of this job?

What I tell my students is that modeling the future is actually not the hardest part. The hardest part is working with organizations, whether that be companies or schools, to actually go about changing the future.

There’s an incredible amount of inertia you need to overcome as you build these futures. When you find it’s very hard, that means you’re doing the right thing.

What advice would you have for people interested in becoming a futurist?

Do it. You need a diverse set of viewpoints because that will make the futures you’re modeling far more robust. You also need to be curious when you don’t agree with or like people. You need to ask yourself, why am I having an allergic reaction to this person’s idea?

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Faith Popcorn

Faith Popcorn

Founder and CEO of Faith Popcorn’s BrainReserve

What is a futurist?

A conduit to tomorrow—a person who can show you where the future is leaking into the present, where we are heading, and what we should do about it right now.

How did you first come to work as a futurist?

This career didn’t exist when I embarked on it. I was working in advertising—I started as a copywriter—and felt, “Why is everyone at the agency so focused on today? Why aren’t they thinking and worrying about tomorrow because that’s the future of their business?” So I left and that’s how my company Faith Popcorn’s BrainReserve began.

What does a typical workday look like for you?

Every day is different, which is one of the things I love most about being a futurist.

It’s often a mix of client meetings, a BrainJam (brainstorm) session with my team as we work on a consulting project; talking with TalentBankers—members of our global network of future thinkers—and TrendTrekking. That’s our term for exploring signals from the future. It could be going to a wearable tech incubator, or talking with someone who’s pioneering a new kind of cannabis-infused beverage.

What advice would you give someone interested in becoming a futurist?

Read voraciously. Explore things you are not naturally interested in—off-the-beaten-path restaurants, talks, galleries, concerts, products. Meet-ups of people who are passionate about something that sounds odd to you. And connect with those who are also interested in futurism and innovation—there are more and more and more of them. Then when you think about what you’ve heard, read and learned, look for patterns and—equally important—look for outliers.

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Dr. Nilda Perez

Dr. Nilda Perez

Futurist, business foresight strategist, speaker and author

What do you wish you had known before embarking on your career?

I kind of fell into this career. I was interested in learning about global business and this strategic foresight course offered a deeper look into the future of business and organizations. I immediately fell in love with futuring and all of the possibilities it offered.

What are some common misconceptions about futurists?

That we read palms or tarot cards or that we are kooky because no one can really read the future. Which is true but futurists can read trends past, present, and can scan future trends that will assist in finding those opportunities or threats to someone’s business or an entire industry.

What advice would you give someone interested in becoming a futurist?

It is a fascinating career path. You are continuously scanning the future and you see things happening that most are oblivious to.

Alisha Bhagat

Senior strategist at Forum for the Future

What does a typical workday look like for you?

I start my day by doing a scan of industry journals and general news. I’ll check twitter to see what is trending and read a little bit of current research in the areas I’m working on.

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Alisha Bhagat

After scanning, I’ll dig into some project work. This could mean one-on-one work with a company on their strategy or using futures tools to problem solve around an issue. I’ve worked on topics such as the future of sustainable fashion, the Argentine tea industry and the food system in the U.S.

What does a futures project entail?

Working on futures projects involves three main components. First, the subject matter knowledge that is gained through research and interviews. Futurists need to be generalists who can pick up subject matter knowledge easily. This could mean deep research into a particular industry, a series of interviews with experts, or visiting a farm or factory.

Second, there is the process component of utilizing futures tools to help analyze the current situation, look at trends impacting the future, and creating possible and desired visions of the future. Futurists use a pretty extensive toolkit to create the right process for the situation.

Finally, thinking about the future is not effective if the process lacks ownership and purpose. A major part of the work I do is to help groups think about positive and sustainable futures in which their business as well as the planet can flourish. To do that, visions of the future need to be shared by the people in the organization and they need to be an integral part of the process.

The future should both inspire and delight people so that they are able to take the insights of a futures process to create new products, services, or strategies.

To do this we create artifacts from the future, write immersive scenarios, and find fun and creative ways to engage with people to make the futures real. The next step is helping people to think about their part in it.

What do you wish you had known before embarking on this career?

I started this career having only worked in the world of government and policy. I now spend most of my time working with companies. I wish I had spent more time working for some large companies I now consult with so I could have better understood their operations and internal decision-making early in my career.

What advice would you give someone interested in becoming a futurist?

It is good to be an interdisciplinary thinker and a generalist. It is a very niche career so you have to think about what unique skills you can bring to the table. You simultaneously need to be a rigorous researcher and a creative visionary.

My advice would be to check out the wealth of information out there: foresight programs at universities, books on futures studies, groups such as the Association of Professional Futurists, and see if the job of futurist is interesting to you. Reach out and talk to people in the field to see what path is right for you. I wouldn’t be where I am today without many mentors to help me along.

Stephanie M. Bucklin

Stephanie Bucklin is a freelance writer whose work has been published by New York Magazine, TODAY.com, Vice and other outlets. She has also written a children’s book, “Jack Death,” published in 2016 under a pen name. She graduated from Harvard with a degree in the history of science.