Brands Are Looking to Futurists to Foresee Trends and Anticipate Disruption

They're known as trend spotters, forecasters or analysts

In an age of digital disruption, every organization needs futurists. RobinOlimb/Getty Images

For automakers like Ford, where cars can take three years to go from concept to completion, the ability to see what’s coming down the road isn’t a luxury, it’s a necessity.

That’s why, for the last two decades, Ford has had a team poring over data and examining trends in the social, economic, environmental, technological and political arenas.

A major trend the team identified early on was that people were living longer, says Sheryl Connelly, Ford’s manager of global consumer trends and futuring. And as people age, their vision degrades, their reaction times get slower, their range of motion becomes more limited.

As a result, car doors now open wider and seats are closer to the ground, making it easier to get in and out. Because older drivers can’t easily turn their necks to see what’s behind them, carmakers began installing rear-end cameras with dashboard displays. To compensate for slower reaction times, they invented adaptive cruise control and lane departure warnings.

It turns out that technologies to help aging drivers navigate more safely also come in pretty handy when you want to build a car that can drive itself.

“A lot of the early ingredients of autonomous vehicles were created for an aging population,” Connelly explains. “But from a marketing standpoint you’re not going to say, ‘Look at the nice car we made for old people.’ You need to come up with design solutions that work for everyone, whether they’re 68 or 18.”

Connelly’s team didn’t predict the advent of driverless cars. But by examining the data, Ford knew cars would need to adapt to meet changing human needs.

“My job is not to predict the future,” says Connelly. “It’s to prevent strategic surprise and open people’s minds to a broader range of possibilities.”

Signs point to yes

For almost as long as there has been a future to speculate about, there have been futurists. As an academic discipline, futurism is more than 100 years old, says Amy Webb, founder of the Future Today Institute and professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business.

As a quantitative futurist, Webb explores long-term strategic risks and opportunities for global 1000 companies.

“If a company ignores the signals we see in the present, what happens?” she asks. “If they make a decision to go in a particular direction, what are the potential outcomes? What are the next-order implications, and how can we reverse-engineer better outcomes to the present day?”

In the public imagination, however, futurists are often lumped in with fortune tellers, mystics, seers and oracles. That’s why many go by more sober titles like trend spotter, forecaster or analyst.

“I’ve always had an uncomfortable relationship with the term ‘futurist’ because it has lots of historical baggage,” says Paul Saffo, who teaches forecasting at Stanford University’s School of Engineering. “There are folks who call themselves futurists who are really visionaries. They tell you what should happen. A forecaster tells you what the range of likely outcomes might be.”

David Shing (aka “Shingy”) is Oath’s “digital prophet” (except when traveling in the Middle East, where he defaults to “forecaster”). His job is to look at trends, behaviors and ideas and distill them for brands and agencies doing business with the digital media company.

“Whether you want to call it forecaster or futurist doesn’t really matter, it’s the output I care about,” he says. “That output can be contextualized to say, well, this is what I think is going to happen. Some of it’s right, and some of it’s wrong. But that’s OK, because it’s all about understanding that things are changing.”

It is decidedly so

In this age of digital disruption and radical reinvention, however, every organization needs futurists, no matter what they’re called.

“No public company management team has ever raised their hands and said, ‘We’re about to be made obsolete,'” says Rich Greenfield, media and technology analyst for global financial services firm BTIG. “Think about what Netflix has done to television. The legacy media companies all said they were going to be fine. The reality is that it’s completely upended their business and changed consumer behavior. You have to understand technology and predict how it’s going to shape the future.”

Greenfield says the key is to expose yourself to as many new technologies, companies and ideas as you can, no matter how obscure they may seem at the time.

“I never say no to a meeting,” says Greenfield. “The goal is to meet as many people as possible, because you never know. I met with Snapchat when it was 20 people.”

Faith Popcorn, who has been tracking consumer trends for the Fortune 500 since the 1970s, says being a futurist is more art than science.

“People always look for methodology because they want to understand it, and you really can’t,” she says. “We read and see everything, listening for the vibrations of the culture. We look for places where the future is bleeding into the present. On our website we have a bank of 17 Trends we’ve been tracking for four decades, and a TalentBank of 10,000 futurists in a particular line of work or art that we are in constant contact with. That’s our methodology.”

Reply hazy, try again

If you’re taking big swings on future trends, you’re guaranteed to strike out occasionally. Shingy says his most infamous forecast happened in 2012, when he said mobile apps were “a rubbish concept.”

“What I was really trying to say was that apps needed to operate together,” he explains. “Back then I couldn’t transact something in one app, take that data to the next app and then the next app, and so on. I was thinking of mobile as an extension of the desktop when it’s a totally different utility. So yeah, I completely got that wrong.”

Popcorn says she thought all companies would begin to embrace corporate social responsibility—a trend she termed Save Our Society—25 years ago. Today, only a handful of brands have social or environmental responsibility at their core, though that number is growing.

But often it’s the things futurists didn’t foresee that haunt them. Saffo recalls chatting with Vladimir Putin in December 2011 before they both appeared on a panel in Moscow.

“All Putin wanted to talk about was social media,” he says. “I remember being puzzled by why he was just asking about Twitter and Facebook. Then I thought, ‘Of course, he’s a despot and a spy, these are important tools for propaganda.’ I felt sorry for the Russian citizens. Never occurred to me to feel sorry for us.”

Outlook not so good

The hard part of futurism isn’t gathering the data, identifying trends or translating signals into insights. The challenge is getting companies to take action on the things the forecast has revealed.

“The forecasts that are painful to me are not the ones I’ve gotten wrong, it’s the ones that I got right but the client didn’t take me seriously,” Saffo says. “That’s what’s broken my heart.”

Part of the problem is companies that are focused on quarterly results have difficulty looking at things over the long haul.

“For most Fortune 500 companies, ‘long term’ means two to three years, maybe five at the outside,” says Webb. “My goal is to get those leaders to think even further out than that, so that when something starts to happen five or 10 years from now, it’s not a surprise.”

Mostly, though, corporations are highly averse to change, especially if it threatens their core business model.

“In the ’80s Kodak hired us to tell them about the future of film,” Popcorn says. “We told them there is no future, it’s all digital. They got very uncomfortable.”

And when large organizations try to spur innovation by bringing futurists in-house, they quickly get absorbed into the prevailing corporate culture, she adds.

“As soon as a futurist enters the halls of a Fortune 200 company, the futurist gene switches off,” Popcorn says. “They’re inhibited by politics and the fear they’ll be fired if they suggest something new.”

You may rely on it

Not everyone agrees with Popcorn. Saffo says large organizations can develop forecasting skills on their own, with a little help.

“The most important thing an outside expert can do is help the company build its own internal culture of foresight,” he says. “Everybody in the company needs to be looking into the future for indicators of change and surprise. I would start by identifying people in the organization who are already informally working as forecasters, and cultivate that talent.”

But that’s not going to work if everybody in your organization looks and sounds the same, says Anne Boysen, futurist and founder of After the Millennials, a Gen Z consulting firm. Companies need people with diverse opinions and backgrounds who are willing to challenge the status quo.

“Diversity is incredibly important,” she says. “You need to make sure you have enough women, enough people of different ethnic backgrounds and that you don’t kick out everyone who’s over 50. We tend to think of millennials as being the big innovators, but that’s not necessarily true.”

We are all futurists to some degree, says Connelly. The trick is to avoid being seduced by our own assumptions.

“When you get married, you assume it will last a lifetime,” she says. “When you make an investment, you assume it will pay off. Companies think the things that made them successful in the past will guarantee their success going forward. I try to explore the underlying assumptions to get to the root of how we tend to shape our own future—and the consequences if those assumptions turn out to be wrong.”

This story first appeared in the December 3, 2018, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.