Forecasting the Future with Futurist Amy Webb

How would you like to be able to predict the future?

That superpower might not be as far off as it seems – thanks to Amy Webb’s new book, The Signals Are Talking.

Of course, Amy refuses to describe her job as predicting the future. Instead, she calls it “futures forecasting” – emphasis on the plural. As the founder and CEO of Future Today Institute, Amy uses data, models, and scenario development to figure out what events are likely to happen in the future and the probabilities of each one. Amy then advises her clients, from Fortune 500 companies to government agencies, on the best way to prepare for the future.

Amy focuses specifically on the technological aspect of the future, but her current job wasn’t always her dream. Amy began with a full ride to a musical conservatory to study classical clarinet, but ended up with a degree in economics and game theory before moving to Asia to work as a journalist. And while she was happy as a journalist, she knew that wasn’t her end game.

“I didn’t like writing about technology, which is sort of like the future in the present, because at the moment that story came out, that moment was gone,” Amy explains.

So when Amy returned to the United States, she became involved in thinking through what the real future was – which led to her founding the Future Today Institute 11 years ago. Being a futurist was exactly the job she’d been looking for. One night she sat in her living room with a career guide in her early 20s … and she finally had it.

Forecasting the future sounds sexy and cool. And while Amy clearly loves her job, it’s this perception of the future that drove Amy to write The Signals Are Talking.

signalsaretalking_2c1

“My huge concern right now is that everybody has fetishized the future,” Amy says. “So everybody’s really excited about technology, and it’s fine to be excited about science and tech. But the problem is that we are not making meaningful plans for the future.”

In other words, we are prepared for dystopia or utopia – but not much in between. Amy likens this disconnect from the future to our relationship with our cars in the 1940s and 50s. Back then, people knew how their cars worked because they had to deal with them when they broke down.

“A modern-day car, if you pop the hood on a brand new car, you can’t even see the engines,” Amy says. “You’re driving a piece of technology. You literally have no idea how it works. And you know that’s not a problem for everyday people. But we are facing troves of technologies where we’re so far removed, and it’s so complicated that not only do we not understand how it works, but it’s hard to conceive of what comes next. And what comes next is not people who write software that powers computers, but computers that write their own software for themselves. Right? Where humans aren’t even involved. So it’s critically important right now that everybody can do what I can do.”

It’s easy to assume that you can deal with the future, well, in the future. But in The Signals Are Talking, Amy presents several companies who have either thrived or fell behind based on their (in)ability to critically examine the future. Blackberry could have retained their top spot in the mobile arena had they paid a little bit more attention to the iPhone. On the other hand, Nintendo has pivoted brilliantly with the times to become an electronics and software company – a long way from their start in 1889 as a playing card manufacturer.

Futures forecasting matters for individuals too, not just entrepreneurs or big companies. Take real estate, for example.

“The future of drones will probably mean that we have to regulate the airspace,” Amy explains. “Regulating the airspace probably means eventually that we have to change how buildings are designed. We already have a lot of cities in the country where the population density is very high, and it’s really expensive to live there. So all of these things together motivate people to move – for example – from Austin, Texas over towards San Antonio, which is already a thriving little city. Once all of those things start to happen – people will then be living in the middle of the country instead of the edges of the country; buildings instead of being skyscrapers are landscrapers, right. This then directly impacts real estate agents who have to sort of reformulate how they do their business.”

And it’s especially important to start work on the future now, thanks to what Amy calls the paradox of the present.

“One of the remnants of our evolutionary history is this tiny spot hidden in our brain that gives us the superpower and the wherewithal to get through difficult situations and to survive natural disasters and to run if something is chasing us,” Amy says. “But unfortunately, that exact same part of our anatomy is responsible for freaking us out, for taking over when confronted with something new or different or anything that has to do with change because humans don’t like change.”

This is why people see new technology and either love it or hate it – never once breaking the cycle. So what’s the only way to do so?

“Take a step back, understand what’s happening, and have some kind of workaround for it,” Amy says. “The workaround that I suggest is the method that’s in the book, which is to listen to everything once and reserve judgment until you’ve spent some time researching and starting to connect dots.”

This is also why Amy thinks one of the biggest mistakes people make when futures forecasting – other than not doing it at all – is to buy in too quickly to the ideas presented to them. She reminds us that according to every major car manufacture, we’ll walk outside on January 1, 2020 to find cars whizzing by on their own..a prediction that’s simply not true.

“Part of this is just stepping back and developing a different kind of common sense,” Amy says as she encourages us to think critically.

So how else can you prepare for the future? In The Signals Are Talking, Amy describes a 6-step method for figuring out what’s coming next. But it all starts with the “unusual suspects” at the fringe. These are the crazy out-there ideas one would normally disregard that could change people’s lives – and you need to find them before they hit the Wall Street Journal. Good places to look include the US Patent and Trademark Office database, in pre-publication academic research, and other places described in the book, so that you can create a ‘fringe sketch.’

“The whole point of that is to create order where there would otherwise be significant disorder,” Amy explains.

“Basically, what you’re doing is you’re creating nodes and connections, and the point of this is to help yourself to overcome that information overload, so that you are in control,” Amy continues. “You have a clear picture of what it is that you’re looking at. You’re able to spot trends, hopefully early trends, and you create some order where there would otherwise be disorder.”

Amy also recommends working on these steps with a combined group of people, since some of these steps require “process-oriented thinking, and some of it does require really creative leaps and thinking about things in totally different ways.” A complementary group of thinkers will allow you to flare and to focus when you need to – an idea she goes into much further detail in The Signals Are Talking.

Even if you don’t have a team, Amy recommends creating a “personal advisory board of future thinkers” – both for your personal and professional futures.

“With everybody working together, at the end of it, you’ve got a way to see the future that is both creative and pragmatic.” Amy says.

Something else you might need to consider in your work forecasting the future? Ethics. It’s a field that’s constantly changing – even though we might not realize it.

For example, Amy points out that in the 1950s, many American families had dinner sitting around a table together. The very thought of somebody not making eye contact because they were preoccupied with a cell phone would have broken a fundamental rule of etiquette. Yet we barely consider it rude now.

That might not seem like a big leap, but it could be.

“Who’s to say that 250 years from now, we would even want to be inside of a human life, like a human body? Right?” Amy asks. “Maybe we would all prefer to be uploaded into a computer system and either use body blanks or no bodies at all. That sounds crazy, and it is a crazy thing, I know. But the point that I’m making is it’s hard to predict how our cultural norms and what we consider to be OK human behavior and what is our human nature, right, hard to think through what that looks like 2, 3, 400 years from now.”

If that thought terrifies you, there is something you can do: become more self-aware of how you interact with technology.

This is especially important as AI becomes more and more prevalent and technology begins to learn from us. In The Signals Are Talking, Amy presents the example of a chatbot who learned hate speech and slurs thanks to how it was spoken to on Twitter. And it’s not just AI – take the current fake news problem on Facebook.

“Part of the reason that’s happening – this is my theory anyways – isn’t because a bunch of people are stupid and don’t know any better,” Amy says. “I think what’s more likely happening is that we live very very fast-paced lives and we’re not mindful about our interactions with our screens and technology and everything else. So we look, we glance, we see the headline, maybe, maybe we read two sentences, right, that are part of the first two sentences of the story, we see a photo, and that’s the story. Right? And we’ve become habituated to that. And it’s happening more and more, you know, and it’s, as we can now, see starting to cause us problems.”

Of course, Amy suggests other ways to make sure our interactions with technology remain ethical. It’s important to continue having conversations about these issues, and about diversifying both the users and the creators of these systems, since we often unknowingly build bias into technology. But for the average consumer, mindfulness is best.

This mindfulness extends to how we interact with those on the fringe, a group that often is not just ignored but reviled, much to the chagrin of Amy, who advises those working on dreams to “keep your head down and keep working. Keep at it, because ultimately, they are the ones who create whatever comes next.”

“Fringe thinkers in the late 1800s are the reason that we have electricity running through our cities and our homes, and the reason that we can sit in our offices and our houses and have light,” Amy reminds us. “It was fringe thinkers who first thought of using a combustible engine instead of steam. People thought it was crazy and it could kill you and everything else. It’s because of those people, that we can fly from New York to Tokyo in a reasonable amount of time. Ada Lovelace was a crazy fringe thinker who in the late 1800s postulated about the future of a thinking machine in the footnotes of a paper she was translating from Italian. Turing was a fringe thinker who was also thinking about the day that machines might think, and here we are standing on the precipice of machines finally thinking. So sometimes that fringe thinking takes a while, but and it can be really really hard. But there are lots of people throughout history to look at to see why fringe thinking is so important and why their words matter.”

Even if you’re not a fringe thinker, there’s a lot you can learn from Amy Webb. For example, she spends her mornings and evenings reading for both education and pleasure. She considers her superpower to be learning (an obvious asset for a futurist such as herself), and advises any aspiring entrepreneur to focus and dedicate yourself to the cause, even when it’s hard.

But her biggest piece of advice to anybody trying to change the world? No surprise here: it’s to map out your future.

“So whatever it is, the changes that you’re trying to make, you have to reverse engineer back to the present, and then you have to also include the realities of whatever’s happening today.” Amy says. “So you have to be thinking. And most people who think that they are planning for the future are only thinking short-term really you know. So if you really want to effect change, you’ve got to think farther ahead and then farther ahead than that.”

Because remember: the future begins now. The signals are already talking.

Get more from Amy Webb when you buy her latest book, The Signals Are Talking.

Written by Sasha Graffagna

Image Courtesy of Mary Gardella Photography

How would you like to be able to predict the future?

That superpower might not be as far off as it seems – thanks to Amy Webb’s new book, The Signals Are Talking.

Of course, Amy refuses to describe her job as predicting the future. Instead, she calls it “futures forecasting” – emphasis on the plural. As the founder and CEO of Future Today Institute, Amy uses data, models, and scenario development to figure out what events are likely to happen in the future and the probabilities of each one. Amy then advises her clients, from Fortune 500 companies to government agencies, on the best way to prepare for the future.

Amy focuses specifically on the technological aspect of the future, but her current job wasn’t always her dream. Amy began with a full ride to a musical conservatory to study classical clarinet, but ended up with a degree in economics and game theory before moving to Asia to work as a journalist. And while she was happy as a journalist, she knew that wasn’t her end game.

“I didn’t like writing about technology, which is sort of like the future in the present, because at the moment that story came out, that moment was gone,” Amy explains.

So when Amy returned to the United States, she became involved in thinking through what the real future was – which led to her founding the Future Today Institute 11 years ago. Being a futurist was exactly the job she’d been looking for. One night she sat in her living room with a career guide in her early 20s … and she finally had it.

Forecasting the future sounds sexy and cool. And while Amy clearly loves her job, it’s this perception of the future that drove Amy to write The Signals Are Talking.

signalsaretalking_2c1

“My huge concern right now is that everybody has fetishized the future,” Amy says. “So everybody’s really excited about technology, and it’s fine to be excited about science and tech. But the problem is that we are not making meaningful plans for the future.”

In other words, we are prepared for dystopia or utopia – but not much in between. Amy likens this disconnect from the future to our relationship with our cars in the 1940s and 50s. Back then, people knew how their cars worked because they had to deal with them when they broke down.

“A modern-day car, if you pop the hood on a brand new car, you can’t even see the engines,” Amy says. “You’re driving a piece of technology. You literally have no idea how it works. And you know that’s not a problem for everyday people. But we are facing troves of technologies where we’re so far removed, and it’s so complicated that not only do we not understand how it works, but it’s hard to conceive of what comes next. And what comes next is not people who write software that powers computers, but computers that write their own software for themselves. Right? Where humans aren’t even involved. So it’s critically important right now that everybody can do what I can do.”

It’s easy to assume that you can deal with the future, well, in the future. But in The Signals Are Talking, Amy presents several companies who have either thrived or fell behind based on their (in)ability to critically examine the future. Blackberry could have retained their top spot in the mobile arena had they paid a little bit more attention to the iPhone. On the other hand, Nintendo has pivoted brilliantly with the times to become an electronics and software company – a long way from their start in 1889 as a playing card manufacturer.

Futures forecasting matters for individuals too, not just entrepreneurs or big companies. Take real estate, for example.

“The future of drones will probably mean that we have to regulate the airspace,” Amy explains. “Regulating the airspace probably means eventually that we have to change how buildings are designed. We already have a lot of cities in the country where the population density is very high, and it’s really expensive to live there. So all of these things together motivate people to move – for example – from Austin, Texas over towards San Antonio, which is already a thriving little city. Once all of those things start to happen – people will then be living in the middle of the country instead of the edges of the country; buildings instead of being skyscrapers are landscrapers, right. This then directly impacts real estate agents who have to sort of reformulate how they do their business.”

And it’s especially important to start work on the future now, thanks to what Amy calls the paradox of the present.

“One of the remnants of our evolutionary history is this tiny spot hidden in our brain that gives us the superpower and the wherewithal to get through difficult situations and to survive natural disasters and to run if something is chasing us,” Amy says. “But unfortunately, that exact same part of our anatomy is responsible for freaking us out, for taking over when confronted with something new or different or anything that has to do with change because humans don’t like change.”

This is why people see new technology and either love it or hate it – never once breaking the cycle. So what’s the only way to do so?

“Take a step back, understand what’s happening, and have some kind of workaround for it,” Amy says. “The workaround that I suggest is the method that’s in the book, which is to listen to everything once and reserve judgment until you’ve spent some time researching and starting to connect dots.”

This is also why Amy thinks one of the biggest mistakes people make when futures forecasting – other than not doing it at all – is to buy in too quickly to the ideas presented to them. She reminds us that according to every major car manufacture, we’ll walk outside on January 1, 2020 to find cars whizzing by on their own..a prediction that’s simply not true.

“Part of this is just stepping back and developing a different kind of common sense,” Amy says as she encourages us to think critically.

So how else can you prepare for the future? In The Signals Are Talking, Amy describes a 6-step method for figuring out what’s coming next. But it all starts with the “unusual suspects” at the fringe. These are the crazy out-there ideas one would normally disregard that could change people’s lives – and you need to find them before they hit the Wall Street Journal. Good places to look include the US Patent and Trademark Office database, in pre-publication academic research, and other places described in the book, so that you can create a ‘fringe sketch.’

“The whole point of that is to create order where there would otherwise be significant disorder,” Amy explains.

“Basically, what you’re doing is you’re creating nodes and connections, and the point of this is to help yourself to overcome that information overload, so that you are in control,” Amy continues. “You have a clear picture of what it is that you’re looking at. You’re able to spot trends, hopefully early trends, and you create some order where there would otherwise be disorder.”

Amy also recommends working on these steps with a combined group of people, since some of these steps require “process-oriented thinking, and some of it does require really creative leaps and thinking about things in totally different ways.” A complementary group of thinkers will allow you to flare and to focus when you need to – an idea she goes into much further detail in The Signals Are Talking.

Even if you don’t have a team, Amy recommends creating a “personal advisory board of future thinkers” – both for your personal and professional futures.

“With everybody working together, at the end of it, you’ve got a way to see the future that is both creative and pragmatic.” Amy says.

Something else you might need to consider in your work forecasting the future? Ethics. It’s a field that’s constantly changing – even though we might not realize it.

For example, Amy points out that in the 1950s, many American families had dinner sitting around a table together. The very thought of somebody not making eye contact because they were preoccupied with a cell phone would have broken a fundamental rule of etiquette. Yet we barely consider it rude now.

That might not seem like a big leap, but it could be.

“Who’s to say that 250 years from now, we would even want to be inside of a human life, like a human body? Right?” Amy asks. “Maybe we would all prefer to be uploaded into a computer system and either use body blanks or no bodies at all. That sounds crazy, and it is a crazy thing, I know. But the point that I’m making is it’s hard to predict how our cultural norms and what we consider to be OK human behavior and what is our human nature, right, hard to think through what that looks like 2, 3, 400 years from now.”

If that thought terrifies you, there is something you can do: become more self-aware of how you interact with technology.

This is especially important as AI becomes more and more prevalent and technology begins to learn from us. In The Signals Are Talking, Amy presents the example of a chatbot who learned hate speech and slurs thanks to how it was spoken to on Twitter. And it’s not just AI – take the current fake news problem on Facebook.

“Part of the reason that’s happening – this is my theory anyways – isn’t because a bunch of people are stupid and don’t know any better,” Amy says. “I think what’s more likely happening is that we live very very fast-paced lives and we’re not mindful about our interactions with our screens and technology and everything else. So we look, we glance, we see the headline, maybe, maybe we read two sentences, right, that are part of the first two sentences of the story, we see a photo, and that’s the story. Right? And we’ve become habituated to that. And it’s happening more and more, you know, and it’s, as we can now, see starting to cause us problems.”

Of course, Amy suggests other ways to make sure our interactions with technology remain ethical. It’s important to continue having conversations about these issues, and about diversifying both the users and the creators of these systems, since we often unknowingly build bias into technology. But for the average consumer, mindfulness is best.

This mindfulness extends to how we interact with those on the fringe, a group that often is not just ignored but reviled, much to the chagrin of Amy, who advises those working on dreams to “keep your head down and keep working. Keep at it, because ultimately, they are the ones who create whatever comes next.”

“Fringe thinkers in the late 1800s are the reason that we have electricity running through our cities and our homes, and the reason that we can sit in our offices and our houses and have light,” Amy reminds us. “It was fringe thinkers who first thought of using a combustible engine instead of steam. People thought it was crazy and it could kill you and everything else. It’s because of those people, that we can fly from New York to Tokyo in a reasonable amount of time. Ada Lovelace was a crazy fringe thinker who in the late 1800s postulated about the future of a thinking machine in the footnotes of a paper she was translating from Italian. Turing was a fringe thinker who was also thinking about the day that machines might think, and here we are standing on the precipice of machines finally thinking. So sometimes that fringe thinking takes a while, but and it can be really really hard. But there are lots of people throughout history to look at to see why fringe thinking is so important and why their words matter.”

Even if you’re not a fringe thinker, there’s a lot you can learn from Amy Webb. For example, she spends her mornings and evenings reading for both education and pleasure. She considers her superpower to be learning (an obvious asset for a futurist such as herself), and advises any aspiring entrepreneur to focus and dedicate yourself to the cause, even when it’s hard.

But her biggest piece of advice to anybody trying to change the world? No surprise here: it’s to map out your future.

“So whatever it is, the changes that you’re trying to make, you have to reverse engineer back to the present, and then you have to also include the realities of whatever’s happening today.” Amy says. “So you have to be thinking. And most people who think that they are planning for the future are only thinking short-term really you know. So if you really want to effect change, you’ve got to think farther ahead and then farther ahead than that.”

Because remember: the future begins now. The signals are already talking.

Get more from Amy Webb when you buy her latest book, The Signals Are Talking.

Written by Sasha Graffagna

Image Courtesy of Mary Gardella Photography

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