Nor Cal Explorer: Institute for the Future


Today I decided to do a study on the Institute for the Future based out of Palo Alto. It has to start with Back to the Future for me though because the movie has been in the news a lot lately considering their imagining of what 2015 might look like. I might be dating myself somewhat, but I remember the first movie came out in 1985, and was based on going back in time. It was so successful, they came out with a sequel 4 years later, and this time it was based on going to the future.


Simple enough. The first movie you go back in time, but you risk never being able to make it “back to the future”. Of course, the “future” from a “past” perspective could be the “present” – you see how it can start to get a bit confusing – but let’s just say the inventor of the time machine in the movie had always intended to go into the future. If going back in time was a misstep, then finally we could get back to the real goal at hand – back to the future.


Where the past is a known commodity, the future is an unknown. One could argue that to have advance knowledge can be the leverage one needs to get ahead – to have some kind of inside knowledge and take advantage of what others do not know – but in more practical terms there is a lot of effort being put into projecting what the future will “entail”. It’s not so much about prediction as it is how to cope with new realities like… the future happens a lot faster these days, changes are more likely to be groundbreaking, and chances are you will have to rethink everything you know or work from as a basis. Then it will happen again, even faster, more impactful, and more challenging than the last time.



I think I’ve heard of companies like Intel and Ford hiring dedicated “futurists”, and I assume this involves researching trends and upcoming technologies to gather some manner of intelligence on where to invest development efforts. People have been talking a lot about the Internet of Things for quite a long time, but only recently this has become “the” big technology movement, so I can see how it would pay to have people out there looking for this kind of thing before it takes off, giving their company some opportunity to seize the initiative before the rest of the market quickly saturates with adopters of a new technology.



I’m not completely sure what a futurist does. I saw one “thought-leader” such as myself criticize futurists as worthless - citing some articles on what Back to the Future got wrong about 2015 - he promotes new models of organization planning and development that are tailored for the uncertainty of the future, suggesting that it’s not about the ability to anticipate so much as it is about the ability to respond. I can understand that logic and why it might be offered at the expense of criticizing futurists – but I also think there is a lot missing from that model. Isn’t it a constructive activity for a modern learning organization to run over simulations on possible futures… to stress the systems to test for fractures and areas that may be in need of improvement? There has to be some skills involved in forecasting that are useful, otherwise you are suggesting an organizational model that operates completely in the blind other than what is immediately in front of it with no idea about what is about to come. Like I said, I think it’s an interesting theory, but problematic.


Maybe the biggest thing missing in the model between anticipation and response is the ability to influence. I kind of wonder who is asking the “what if” questions, projecting out the amazing things that might be possible - let’s say if certain innovations and trends just starting to emerge today really blossom. If you see some kind of brilliant vision for your organization, then surely that can go a long way in helping you to materialize the outcome you have in mind – even if the end product turns out to look somewhat different than you had imagined.



So, interesting for me to come across the Institute for the Future. I am kind of fascinated by how they might propose their value. For one thing, where a company might not find it reasonable to hire a full-time futurist, they might be able to share in support of a dedicated organization in this field. Here is an institute that has worked on providing this value for companies, non-profits, governments, etc. for over 45 years- so just in their longevity you have to consider they have been doing something worthwhile. That they are still around today when you might say there is more buzz about the increasing complexity and uncertainty of the future- I think you might consider they have become very good at what they do. I think it would be interesting to study the careful ways in which they describe what they do, maybe look at some of the foresight methodologies they play with.



They do have a snapshot of 2015 from their perspective in 2005. Click the image above to open a broad 10 year forecast (PDF). Very interesting. In fact, what really caught my attention here is this person sharing the item.


Rachel Hatch @rachelkeas is a futurist, civic hacker, and entrepreneur… from Redding. Now I can understand Palo Alto being the home base for the IFTF, but Redding is notoriously “old school”. It’s a phenomena I have followed over a long time, but they have struggled to reconcile the past and the future, economic growth vs. quality of life, etc. So, interesting to get signals they are doing better with this, and no doubt this coincides with the emergence of some “new school”. Rachel seems like someone I would like meeting, and I also noted she is a co-curator of a local TEDx movement, which aligns perfectly with my own regional TEDx project. She has some pretty dynamic insights to share. I was checking out this slideshare where she offers up some thoughts on future forces that could affect financial technologies or “FINTECH”- a subject I have been having conversations about lately.



I’m not trying to go too much in to me here, but I have to say that connecting with the “people” involved in the Institute for the Future sounds kind of exciting. I know I have a lot to offer, but I also think there is probably much to gain. I wanted to share another video I found that almost seemed to speak right to me. I’m all about “disruption” – which is to say I was often in trouble at school for disrupting class – but it’s just in my nature to test constraints and see what I can get away with. I could share with you a lifetime of stories on this, how this makes me amazingly suited as a systems engineer, and how this puts me into what I am doing right here in this very activity. I know I have a lot to offer, that people with my disposition may be key influencers in an emerging environment characterized by increasing complexity, volatility, and competition - but generally speaking it is a challenge to get recognized for it. Check this out.



I think the IFTF will suggest that their activity can be constructive toward creating a kind of future wanted. When you project out to a concept level- like a concept car for example- you can bypass the constraints that hold you from the possibility. Those constraints could be that such an item is not feasible, practical, that the technology does not exist to support it, etc. Perhaps more important than whatever actual “constraints” is the “assumption of constraints”.


In the present, there are so many excuses for “why not”, but all it takes is for someone with a change of tone, inflection, attitude, perspective, etc, to come back with “why not?” – challenging what is “stated” or “status quo” with the question, refusing to accept the authority on the subject, putting forward the possibility of a superior view as the statement. Some people are not so inhibited by the “rules”, but rather get it in their head that they want to make something happen, and I guess you could say from there they just do it.



Let’s get back to the future, lol! Case in point - imagining the Nike shoes, and then people sort of willing them into existence. It is literally happening, that people loved this idea of these futuristic shoes, and just could not help trying to make them into a reality. There have been some iterations along the way, but 2015 marks a special date where the producers of the movie suggested the shoes would exist, and it sounds like Nike is aiming to release these shoes – complete with power laces- sometime this year. Alright!



Thanks for reading. Please feel welcome to join the conversation. This is a subject I would love to discuss with anyone interested.


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