Posted by: Nancy | September 6, 2009

The future is…

…(fill in the blank).

I heard a too-brief presentation recently from Bob Johansen, a distinguished fellow at the Institute for the Future. First off, he described his task as a futurist: to offer a plausible forecast in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world. VUCO world, for short.

Then he offered a secret on how he does his job: Start by looking farther out ahead, and then work your way back to the near-future. He said things are much clearer farther out, say 20 years in the future, and much harder to specify one to three years in the future. Besides, he says his role as a forecaster is not to predict, but to provoke.

He described several future scenarios that appear certain to him — for example, connectedness will increase in importance, as wireless communications melds with sensors connected to everything. He gave a convincing argument by showing how Helsinki and Tokyo are using the combination today: you can use a cell phone to scan bar codes on products on grocery shelves, and you’ll get a read-out of consumer ratings on the product. You pick your shampoo based on its environmental, health or societal rating, whatever matters most to you.

The best sound bite of his talk (in my view) was his proclamation: The word “consumer” is obsolete. It’s almost an insult to be called a consumer.

Every person is connected in a social network, and technology has amplified those networks. It’s a participatory culture. Johansen noted that the Institute for the Future embraces this participatory and open-source culture, and uses crowd-sourcing techniques to solicit input to its forecasts. (See Open Source World and other related posts on openness.)

Back to the insult of being a “consumer.”  Johansen argued that a coming trend favors self-identification as “makers” — people who are actively contributing to society, in whatever form fits, whether it’s cooking dinner or writing a novel or woodworking. Makers are contributing, active, participating.

He has tracked the rise of the Maker movement, noting Maker Faires springing up to celebrate creativity vs. consumerism, including in the Bay Area (of course!), Austin and around the world. (Should we do one in Kansas City?)

I think he’s on to something here.

I think there is a new awareness about the negative components of consumerism.  Bill Moyers had a brilliant conversation with Andrew Bacevich on this topic almost a year ago, and I haven’t been able to get it out of my head.  (Among the best parts: his description of America as an “empire of consumption.”) You can find it here.

A common thread in both theses is the participation of the individual in the SOLUTION.

The future  isn’t going to come from an establishment. Nobody trusts corporations or government to create the future. No, it’s up to us.

Johansen had a sticker on his laptop that says it all: I am making the future.

I like it.

I am making the future.

More from Bob Johansen here: Bob Johansen – Book Section Brief from Institute for the Future.

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