How To Think Like A Futurist (& Disruptor)

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  • Future Thinking
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  • 12 min read  |  On 30th March 2021

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  • Future Thinking
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  •   by Rich Williams

  • 12 min read  |  Last Updated: 30th March 2021

  • What does it take to think like a futurist? What is a disruptor? What techniques help me think like a futurist?

    Futurists aren’t anything new, they’ve been around long time. It’s just the name that is more of a modern terminology, and which has started to become more mainstream.

    There was a time a decade or so back where I was asked at a networking event, ‘what do you do?’, to which I replied, ‘oh, technically I’m a futurist’. The look on his face was a picture. You would’ve thought I had killed his cat or something. That was the end of that discussion pretty quickly, yet this was a pretty formal event and the area was pretty conservative, in a pretty conservative country, so I wasn’t really too surprised. His cat was fine.

    Fast forward a few years and if I was asked the same thing, and replied the same, the response would be very different, one of interest, but still a hint of confusion, ‘tell me more’ though, rather than ‘run for the hills’.

    People are a lot more liberal these days, even ultra-conservatives.  So much of our thirst for knowledge today, with the information age scattered in all kinds of niches. It certainly isn’t just a ‘futurist’ that raises interest, so does ‘disruptor’, while the ‘ethical’ part of design thinking seems to promote the ‘oh that sounds good, what is it?’ response too.

    Yet, this isn’t even about my ‘labels’, and I actually don’t particularly like labels (or identity groups). I’d prefer just to explain to people what I do through active examples, but it seems they won’t really get it unless a label is attached to it first. I guess it’s like a chemistry experiment. Put ‘this’ and ‘that’ together and see what happens. Okay, but what is ‘this’ and ‘that’, that’s pretty important to know right?! We don’t want to burn the house down (I hear misunderstood disruptors saying, ‘or do we?!’ – no we don’t, we definitely don’t).

    Thus, the fancy titles we have for what we do these days, and they are becoming more elaborate than ever in this post-modern era of the ‘me me me’. The ‘happiness engineer’ or ‘belief coach’, ‘assistant executive social media handler and influencer manager’. Yes, they can get pretty long, and sometimes ridiculous.

    What exactly is a ‘futurist’?

    When most hear it for the first time, they envision some psychic or scam artist, but thankfully that couldn’t be further from the truth. The psychic already knew that!

    A futurist is forward-minded though, but it’s not about loosely predicting suggestible patterns of common life that could fit anyone, or about bold outlandish claims that they know exactly what will happen to you next in a year, 5 years, 10 years. If you want next weeks lotto numbers, then ask an octopus.

    What a futurist does do is make a prediction through insight, whilst combining logical reasoning and imagination to develop potential possibilities. It is closely linked with being a ‘disruptor’.

    So, what is a disruptor I hear you ask?

    A disruptor looks for new ways to improve something through disrupting what is currently taken as the norm or trend. It’s becoming a pretty trendy job in itself.

    We are living in more and more of a disruptive society where change happens so fast and people from different cultures, backgrounds and knowledge are integrating and interacting from very different paradigms. Socially we have seen numerous conflicts and breakthroughs occur through disruptions, but a ‘disruptor’ is mostly concerned in how to ‘do’ something that leads the general trend towards a new, improved direction, sometimes abruptly.

    Yet, there’s a misconception that disrupting is just trying to shake things up for the sake of change. Changing everyday wouldn’t be disrupting, it would be chaotic. Disrupting, at least today, is purposeful change. When we see that stale thinking is getting us nowhere, who do you call? A disruptor.
    Disruptors are often outsiders to a particular organisation, and often need to be to see things with fresh eyes that insiders can’t. When disruption does occur, it’s not a small shift in thinking though, it’s quite a jolt.

    Again, not for the sake of change but towards a meaningful shift. It’s uprooting and tearing up the manual, the one gathering dust (or in this age, even a speck of dust). With disruption, we aim to change how people see things, how we think, learn, behave, conduct business, and so on.

    Today, we should also consider how this could have a negative effect on the current environment, as with any change, disruption for the sake of it isn’t always the best idea and people may hold resistance against it at first. People need time to adjust. If disruption happens too regularly then we don’t have a stable framework or structure to fall back on and things can fall apart, so there’s a balance in getting disruption right, despite it appearing like such a radical shake-up.

    Disruption was arguably more necessary a while ago when the work environment was so slow to change, yet today is it more common for change to occur since globalisation. Now it’s not just considering how our local market is thinking, but we also have to be aware of how that market is likely to be diversified and different from how it was before, and, of course, we need to consider the whole online window thing (the internet) which needs our attention too.

    So, to disrupt something today often involves not only being creative but also thoughtful about why we are disrupting. How a new model can be embraced by people from different paradigms, and how it can benefit an array of situations. Even though disrupting is more common today, we have to be smarter with how we do so. It’s not just creating a new, bigger rocket because you can, it’s disrupting the market in a way that our new rocket is fumes free, renewable, safe to handle, reacts with solar energy, lightweight, and doesn’t ‘offend’ others, etc.

    Disruption was generally about changing a market because we had a big idea and we had the boldness to do so. Often, it worked. Disruptors always tend to win in the end. You don’t imagine the company who still sell VHS and refused to move on are doing as well as they were at the height of the trend, no. Netflix is though.

    Yet, disruption doesn’t have to be about Big Tech either. It can be done throughout small, local businesses who mix creative ideas through sprints with a new vision of how they can interact with their customers that other competitors didn’t think of. One which considers the social implications, and how it can be future-proofed.

    This is where disruptive thinking merges with futurist thought.

    How does a futurist think?

    If a disruptor is both creative and destructive, a futurist is a pessimistic visionary.

    What?

    Surely I mean optimist? No, actually most futurists are pessimists first, but are so in the hope of optimism. It’s never really the optimist who change the world. Sorry, but it’s not. It’s the ones who realise something isn’t right before the others do, and get to work on seeing what might be up.

    Humans, are all optimists by design. We have to be. We have to find value in ourselves and find a reason for living. It’s why we fight, to make ourselves stronger in our minds, to survive. If we have weak wills then we tend to struggle or need the support of others a lot more. Of course, in a globalised world we have so many strangers around us that it makes sense for people to get as many ‘i’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine’s’ as they can.

    Unconsciously, we do what we have to in order to survive. In this day and age, that often sees us fall into patterns of comfort (or seeking support). As soon as we’ve realised physical survival we often also turn off our sharp adaptability, focus and drive until we really need it. We conserve energy because we’ve been taught to in order to stay safe for when we might need it. Or we burnt out doing routine tasks because they are known and safer, even if miserable for us.

    So, what do we do in order to ensure we don’t fall asleep in this comfort comatose? We tell ourselves we have something to look forward to, we find a way to find more value in ourselves, we ensure we are optimistic.
    If we did just give up on ourselves though life wouldn’t improve. There’s a reason why even if life can be hard we still force ourselves to get out of bed and keep going. There’s a hope that things can improve.

    While that was a pretty long-winded tangent, it is akin to why a futurist often comes from a pessimistic viewpoint. They don’t want things to be worse, they want to find value in making things better, so they know that the urge and adaptability of the creative mind comes from seeking to problem solve, and you can’t problem-solve if you don’t seek problems first.
    So, that pessimism in searching for problems first and will to see things improve helps a futurist adapt and develop solutions to all sorts of problems, ones which might not even exist yet. The job of a futurist is to seek to ensure some of the visions don’t come true though, to keep things improving.

    Sometimes though, just the notion of change or something being new is enough to give humans hope, yet at the same time, it can lead others into the fear of change. The difference often is in the individual’s ability in how they take discomfort (there’s a difference in being a pessimist because life is hard, and in knowing that being out of your comfort zone can help you grow).

    If you think futurist ideas, and in particular, pragmatic solutions to evident problems within the idea, are just going to spring up when you are sitting around in comfort, then you are likely going to be disappointed. If you think about those forced meetings in work where an hour would go by and no real progress was made on any new inspiration or path, often ending in ‘so just work harder for those targets’, then you will see this in motion.

    Techniques to think like a futurist

    A part of being a futurist is to allow the creative vision the room to flourish. Most ideas form in this phase of ‘whitespacing’ where we have no pressure around us in coming up with an idea, where things can just flow, yet does that mean I’m contradicting myself and we actually need comfort for ideas to flow? It would be nice if it was true, but actually, whitespacing is more of a deliberate practiced ‘after-thought’.

    Think of it as a wind-down where you are letting the thoughts of the day come together, rather like in a dream. However, for you to have different thoughts other than the usual routine habits and the ‘what’s on my to-do list’, all very logically minded processes, you have to have had something in that day change from the routine to promote new creative thoughts.

    Remember, we humans will find numerous ways to conserve energy instead of putting ourselves in perceived danger, even if it’s miserable routines. Today, that is done through the instant gratification of getting anything we want at the push of a button. You can thank Big Tech for that, yet you might also want to think twice, as that dopamine rush that is so easy to gain these days (no doubt why they call us all users) only keeps you trapped in that passive energy-saving mode.

    We don’t really learn anything new or fresh when we sit for hours behind a goggle box in a passive state. We might think we are but we’d fail the test of putting it into practice a day later as it hasn’t really set. The idea wasn’t given enough time to really compute, no time to ‘whitespace’ (a reason why we should always have breaks between sessions of work).

    It has to associate with perceived action for us to take the benefit of ‘creative procrastination’, purposeful daydreaming if you like. This only works because you are forced into an adaptive action last minute – knowing a deadline looms, with no deadline your mind isn’t engaged towards any stimulus. Sitting there like a vegetable watching TV passively hoping for inspiration isn’t the same. You won’t grow ideas, but maybe some sprouts.

    Instant gratification doesn’t allow the time for us to think creatively. We are unlikely to get into a frame of mind that thinks of something we need if we just grab something already there, or so easily-available to get.

    So, part of being a good futurist is to not only trigger our deadline fueled adaptability, or our daydream-like-yet-deliberate whitespacing, but also to consider delayed gratification.

    This is knowing that you will receive a bigger reward later if you don’t seek it now, like the marshmallow test. This isn’t easy for people to do today, as there’s just so much noise around and temptation, but the practice of delayed gratification, like meditation, can help people hold back their desires and take a second to think, and to visualise.

    It probably sounds counter-intuitive to what a futurist appears like too. Surely a futurist wants everything that isn’t in the world already here now?! Generally, no. They just want to ensure that the future we are heading to is thought-out and considered.

    Part of ensuring ideas for the future are considered means to learn how to visualise what could be the future scenarios. This is where disruptive futurists excel, as they can think of many scenarios, from utopian, dystopian, and all in between, and see the more likely trend or path if we were to follow a certain way.

    Of course, this is not being a psychic. There’s no crystal ball here. But more ideas and visions do start coming to you when you match these techniques along with picking certain topics as a means of focus. That topic can be anything, from a product or service to a social issue.

    You could think of a future vacuum cleaner. One thing every child has in abundance is creativity. If you were to give a child a picture of a vacuum cleaner and say, ‘okay, draw a vacuum cleaner of 10 years time’, they will likely draw something that would be so futuristic it wouldn’t be that practical or resourceful at all, more likely for 50 years time, but the imagination alone would come out and create. No doubt a flying vacuum that sucks out dirty air around you, or a vacuum that reads the particle type in the air and only sucks out the damaging ones eliminating pollution, or one that works to go around the house, adapts into different shapes as it goes under chairs and obstacles and then returns to the docking station and unfills itself ready for the next day or week.

    Of course, being a futurist isn’t only about coming up with possible ideas. That would be fun and a doddle for a creative futurist in some ways, but it’s not just about coming up with ideas.

    You have to be able to match the potential ideas with a grounded understanding of how the world works and what it really needs. You have to be able to read the signals before others see them, see the current trends, and think beyond that.

    Here’s one advanced technique to being a futurist

    We often think about what will be next. What is after the book, the computer, the laptop, the mobile, the watch, etc? A futurist (a disruptive futurist anyway) clearly thinks not just of what is next but what are the potential problems with the next. To answer it doesn’t require a complete guess, or even require to work out the best solution to what next should be. It requires them to think of what is after next.

    To see what is after next isn’t easy at all. Yet, if you are to be a futurist you need to feed your imagination with possibilities based on history, current realities, and future possibilities. So, to know what could be after next, you need to put yourself in the shoes of living with all the possible outcomes of what is next, and then pull them apart and see what leads to a more natural progression of what is the most likely to follow.

    Of course, no one is a psychic and you may get it wrong, as there are so many changeables along the way that make it impossible to know for sure. Yet, the more practice you put into imagining different scenarios, the more you will be able to see different solutions. It could be that one of the solutions to a vision that you disregarded would actually be next. Some of the greatest inventions were created by accident whilst trying to work out something else, so it’s not always a bad idea to just let things flow.

    After all, the biggest key to thinking like a futurist is to recognise patterns and signals, so you need a pool of ideas to work with to examine. They don’t come when you fit your mind into the current world of what is the latest news, trend, or what your friends are talking about. We like to think we can all spot the next big thing right in front of our eyes, but it most often comes from insight and, especially, foresight. Looking backward to see how things developed and then forward towards a logical prediction of how that could fit into the world’s needs next and after next!

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