Futurists and a Map to the Future

Posted on September 18, 2012


As an AIA Florida Convention Planning Committee member for the past several years, I have had the opportunity to work with some very talented Florida design practitioners.  The Committee works diligently over six or eight months to shape the annual convention’s theme, determine the content, secure speakers, and help facilitate the actual event on site each summer.

A couple of years ago, we were lucky enough to land a futurist as one of the speakers.  At the time, I knew futurist thought only as an “-ism” from architectural history class.  I learned a little bit about this small group of individuals dedicated to helping others envision what the future might be like.  Still, I considered it a novelty act of sorts.  Nevertheless, architects who attended ate this up, and our futurist was one of the best reviewed speakers for that year.

Unfortunately, I was unable to attend, which allowed me to continue to harbor some skepticism about the legitimacy of someone who claims to be able to intelligently discuss the confluence of trends, economics, culture, technology, anthropology, and, well, just the progression of life and humanity in general.  Are Futurists accepted as legitimate scholars and thinkers, or are they akin to psychics and palm readers?  For me, I always seemed to link the notion of futurists with the people who dream up what our world will look like in one hundred years, like the designers who create the fantastic other-worlds we see in cinema, like in Star Wars and other science fiction movies.  So I forgot about futurists for a while.

Then last year, I came across Jacque Fresco, a futurist who lives in Florida, and a project he was working on.  A documentary was made about him, and it sounded interesting enough that I put it on my ‘to see’ list.  Hmm.  Futurists do not cross the media’s radar often, so this must be somewhat significant.

And in its July+August issue, Green Source had a little piece on whether futurists would help design teams envision more progressive solutions.  I doubted the role of the futurist, but I liked the article’s thesis:  we need new ways to get to innovative design solutions.  Historically, a team ends up only making incremental improvements in creativity, design, and performance metrics on a project; we need to make greater strides with each attempt.

The author’s belief is that this is because design teams never free themselves from what they know (“familiar constraints—fear of untested solutions, apprehension about budgets and schedules, the tendency to avoid risk and embrace the familiar) in order to truly get to a groundbreaking place. 

Imagine a time line.  In effect, he was arguing architects usually start at Point A and end up at Point B.  Instead, we should start at Point A, have a futurist who thinks and envisions an unrealistic but revolutionary Point D, and work back to Point C, which is much farther progress than Point B.

Innovation, and how to achieve it, is a much-studied topic these days as everyone from Wall Street to hospital CEOs recognize the value of design.  And even those whose economic livelihoods do not rely on predicting the future are fascinated about what it might look like.  Once again, I like the idea behind author Scott Lewis’ article, but I am not yet sold on Lewis’ “backcasting” concept or whether futurists are the key ingredient to the improved design impact being sought.  If you have experience with futurists, I am eager to hear.

Posted in: Design Zeitgeist