How to Think like a Futurist


Good evening — and welcome to the pub.

It’s fitting that we’re here tonight, because it’s in a pub that we’ll begin our story.

But before that, let’s start with some basics.

What is a futurist?

I get asked that question all the time. And it’s a fair one. It’s not really a term people used a decade ago.

And it maybe sounds a bit shady.

Many people think futurists are a bit like psychics.

But we’re not.

If you want to know who’s going to win the Melbourne Cup this year, you’ve come to the wrong event.

We’re more like climate scientists.

A climate scientist can’t tell you whether tomorrow will be rainy.

But they can tell you whether it will be rainier in ten years. Or a century.

Climatologists look at trends, correlating trends with observations.

Then they make – well it’s something between an educated guess and a conclusion.

Think of it more as a probability.

Probabilities help us plan — both as individuals and as organisations.

When everything seems to be changing everywhere all the time, knowing the chances becomes essential in decision making.

With a futurist on your side, you can always err on the side of the future, rather than betting against it.

That’s a good capacity to cultivate.

And that’s one reason why we want to teach you how to think like a futurist, this evening.

Because, quite frankly, there’s going to be plenty of work.

I’ve lined up a few lessons – practical observations that you can take away tonight and use to practice as a futurist.


Fourteen years ago I moved to Australia.

Within a fortnight I’d been invited out to pub trivia.

What a great thing that is. Have a few beers, answer some questions – we came _this_ close to winning the meat tray.

A bit of harmless fun.

That image remains in mind as my first real night out here in Australia.

I looked forward to playing lots more pub trivia.

But it didn’t work out that way.

Because – eleven years ago – Steve Jobs got onto a stage in San Francisco and showed off this odd new thing Apple had developed.

Odd, but wonderful.

He’d taken all of the bits of a much larger computer and somehow squeezed them into a tiny black slab that fit comfortably into the palm of your hand.

That was marvel enough.

But what it could do…

He spent a whole hour showing it off — and spent less than two minutes demoingMobile Safari – the first real web mobile Web browser.

That’s one of those ‘when it changed’ moments, a fixed star that you can set your course by. Because everything was different after that.

The smartphone put the Web into our hands. Mobile broadband made the Web accessible everywhere – by everyone. All the time.

And that changed everything in the world.

We can tell because of one completely unintended side effect of the smartphone: it broke pub trivia.

If you go play pub trivia today – and bless them, some pubs are still at it – you have to strip down. Perhaps not to your skin, but certainly you have to surrender all of the smartphones and smartwatches and smart headsets and smart eyeglasses and everything else that we now have.

That’s not because of these devices. It’s because these devices are a corridor for the Web.

And the Web, well that’s a corridor for us. For all of us, everywhere.

The Web has become an incredible tool for connecting with one another.

When people connect, you know what they do? We start to share. We have to. We’re driven to be social. We’re driven to share the things important to us.

When someone shares, we listen. We’re listening for the things important to us.

And happens all the time. You find a fellow cricket tragic. Or Swans fan. Or science geeks. Or what have you.

When we find that common ground, it’s like fireworks. Each shows off what they know. We learn things we never knew before. Our knowledge becomes more complete.

We connect, we share and we learn. Then we put that learning to work.

All of the future rests on that foundation.

That’s the first and most important thing you need to know to think like a futurist.

This is the climate that we’re operating in; it’s been ticking over for near onto a billion seconds – since Tim Berners-Lee, father of the Web, had his first brainwave back in 1989 – and it’s got a while to run yet.

We’re still learning how to connect, we’re learning how to share, and we’re learning how to learn.

We do these things completely differently from a a decade ago.

Some of that is smartphones, but most of that is us, connecting, sharing, and learning from each other.

I call this one the ‘pub test’ – because it all starts with pub trivia. Take a look at the way we used to play it — compare that to the way we play it now.

If the rules allowed us to use smartphones and everything they connect to, pub trivia would become more like a scavenger hunt.

The winning team would be those with the best abilities to ferret out unexpected answers to bizzare questions.

Instead, the rules force us to rely on what’s in our heads.

Which is weird. Because the world has never been about what’s in our heads. Even if we got tested on that in school.

In our day-to-day lives, when we want to know something, we reach for our smartphones, tap around a bit, and get to the answer.  We live in that wider world, and we know how to tap into the collective knowledge and experience of billions of others.

In practice this means that when we’re standing in front of a telly at Harvey Norman, we’re looking up the reviews – and the prices over at JB HiFi.

It means that when we’re lost we can find a photo of the storefront we’re looking for.

It means that when we’re facing any of life’s hard or dangerous moments, we can connect with others who have faced the same challenges.

It means that – if we choose to – we can always work from the best available information.

Every decision, from titanic to trivial, can be informed by what others have learned and shared.

That’s the true meaning of the ‘pub test’. The world we’re in now offers us every opportunity to leverage the experience of countless others to amplify our capacities.

The weird thing is how often we will do the opposite. We cut off and ignore a world of good advice.

That’s rarely wise – either personally or professionally.

I spent the first third of my career as a software engineer.

When I wrote software back in the 80s, my office would have been filled with manuals open to a range of pages with several bookmarks inserted in each of them.

When I write software today, my browser has twenty or thirty tabs open – manuals, but also looking at how other people have solved this problem, or a problem near to this problem.

It’s been shown that best software engineers are the ones who turn to Google most frequently.

Connecting, sharing, and learning from others really does give us the advantage.

That’s how you lean into the future.

Individuals and organisations that learn how to connect and share and learn will thrive.

They will outperform individuals and organisations that can not or will not adapt to the changing conditions.

That’s true for futurists, too. A futurist has to stay connected, has to keep learning.

We’re close to the experts now. Connected and learning. Orgs like Kepner Tregoe.

Whenever we need them, we can turn to them. So we can always make the best possible decisions.

Experts help us stay current.

Every day a new tool or resource comes along, designed to help us connect, share and learn around something – anything – we consider important.

We’re learning and getting better at learning.

That means our capacities – both as individuals and as organisations – are growing by leaps and bounds.

That’s the biggest factor in the future.  The enormous growth in human capacity is the shape of the future.


That’s half the story of our story — but here’s where we come to a point that every futurist has to understand: the seeds of the future are here in the present.

Look closely, and you will see the future everywhere.

William Gibson – both a science fiction writer and the man who coined the word ‘cyberspace’ – put it concisely, “The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed.”

If you look out today, one thing stands out.

Or rather, stares down.

Because everywhere you go people are all the time everywhere staring into smartphones.

We have to remind ourselves not to do it when we’re walking across a busy street. Because the smartphone is so alluring.

Some of what’s coming through on that screen people connecting, sharing and learning from one another. But that’s far from the whole story.

Most of our apps connect us not just to one another but to far-flung services, located somewhere out there — in the cloud.

That’s where things get interesting.

At the same time we’ve been learning how to learn, we’ve also been learning how to teach machines how to learn.

The best modern example of this comes to us from last year, with a computer program known as AlphaGo.

You might have heard that just a year ago, a computer program became the best player of Go in history.

And the only way you can learn how to play Go is by playing Go.

Researchers in the UK taught a computer program to play Go, but – and here’s the important bit – they gave it the capacity to learn from its mistakes.

The computer studied the game board after every move it made. It learned which moves left it weakened, and which moved it toward victory.

Not that there was a lot of victory at the beginning.

Even a very bad human opponent could beat this computer program – named AlphaGo.

No human could expect to win their Go first games. AlphaGo didn’t either. But it learned from every loss. Every bad move made it better, fed into a continuing stream of data used to improve its performance.

In every game it did just a bit better than the game before it. Several thousand games later, AlphaGo could defeat a novice human player.

At this point, AlphaGo’s creators upped the pressure, matching the program against more expert players. AlphaGo lost more matches – but learned from better players.

Simultaneously, these researchers did something quite sensible – they got AlphaGo to play matches against itself.

In addition to the thousands of games it played against increasingly proficient Go players, it now played tens of thousands of matches against itself.

That’s when AlphaGo started to get very good.

Early in 2016 it beat a top-level grandmaster of Go. 

Then, last May, AlphaGo played against Ke Jie, ranked as the #1 Go player in the world.

AlphaGo wiped him out utterly, in 5 matches out of 5.

At a post-tournament press conference, Ke Jie marveled at an AlphaGo that “played like a god”. 

AlphaGo got to be godlike by making billions of mistakes. Every one of those mistakes made AlphaGo smarter.

We’re fond of saying that we learn more from our failures than from our successes. Take that, and multiply it by the absolute focus and indefatigability of a computer program, and that’s modern artificial intelligence. That’s the whole of it.

In lockstep with the growth in human capacity because of connecting and sharing and learning, there is growth in machine capacity, because all of this learning we’re doing help us teach the machines to be ever better.

That’s the second fundamental in the climate of the future.

I should be clear: this is not humans versus machines. It never has been. It’s human and machines.

And we can know this because it’s confirmed every time we stare down into a smartphone.

We are gazing upon systems that use artificial intelligence to profile our needs from moment to moment.

That has both good sides and creepier sides. 

Facebook, for example, watches every move you make when you use the app. They track you when you’re not using the app. They know everywhere you go online and how long you spent there. They feed all of that into your profile so they can tailor your newsfeed into something so alluring that you can’t look away.

And it works. People spend an hour a day on Facebook – even now when it’s clear that Facebook has been sorely lacking in its duty of care for personal data.

Facebook has learned so much by watching us that it knows just how to keep us hooked.

That’s really pretty creepy.

On the other hand, there’s a startup in Queensland – Maxwell MRI – using artificial intelligence to help radiologists identify prostate cancers when the scan is ambiguous. That happens a lot.

Maxwell MRI is working to fix that, and the tool that they’re developing will help radiologists with more accurate diagnoses – first for prostate cancer, then breast cancer, then lung. All the hard ones.

This is one of those seeds where the shape of the future can be clearly seen. It’s not the machine doing all the work, it’s the machine making millions of mistakes (on previous diagnoses) before it learns enough to offer guidance to the radiologist.

Both radiologist and machine perform better together than either would separately.

That’s a key thing to keep in mind the next time you see someone staring down into a smartphone: They’re using the machine to help them perform better. And the machines are listening to us, all the time, learning from their mistakes.

Over the next billion seconds the boundaries where we end and our machines begin will continue to grow more blurry, more smooth, and more seamless. We will be doing more – and so will our machines.

Three elements are key to understanding the world of the middle 21st century:

  • Growing human capacity through connecting, sharing and learning;
  • Growing machine capacity as we teach machines how to learn;
  • Growing capacities of both humans and machines as we work together to bring out the best in one another.

To think like a futurist, start applying these three trends to everything you see.

Here’s a few examples of what I mean…

  • What does it mean for a six year-old who rocks up on her first day of Grade 1, to see that teacher doesn’t turn to a smartphone for the answers, but instead hands her a book and requests rote memorisation of facts? How does that child square what’s happening in the classroom with the way things work in the world?
  • Or again, what about a newly minted uni graduate, sitting behind a desk, taking orders, doing what they’re told, being told that their input isn’t needed or desired, because the processes have been worked out and they work?
  • Or the senior who’s decided he’s had enough with council’s approach to development and organises all of his neighbours through a Facebook group to launch a range of protests – both online and on the street – until their demands are met?

These are just a few of the facets of the future.

Once you add the machines in, it gets even stranger.

Imagine a smartphone that’s continuously collecting all of the data you generate, analysing it, and making a continuous series of recommendations on the best next thing to do:

  • The best next place to save your invest your money;
  • The best next place to buy a home;
  • The best next meal to eat;
  • The best next exercise;
  • The best next medical exam with the best next doctor;
  • The best next time to sleep. Or read. Or date.

We already have some of this. It’s all piecemeal, these seeds of the future.

They’ll grow to become parts of one continuous stream of advice – from each another, and from the machines – that most people will simply accept as the best way to make the wisest possible decision in any given moment.

That’s going to have all sorts of surprising consequences.


William Gibson is famous for another quote about the future. “The street finds its own use for things — uses its makers never intended.”

As we get smarter and our capacities grow, we’ll see people leverage them into things both good and bad.

Fraudsters already use data profiling to convince their victims that they’re legitimate. Now they can synthesise audio and video: Imagine getting a call from a loved one asking desperately for money to get out of an emergency situation. That’s already happening.

The connected century has some unique dangers.

Any device, once connected, can be infected and turned against us.

The future can and will fight back – and rather than smooth sailing, there’s going to be a lot of tacking back-and-forth as we make our way against headwinds created by folks acting in their own self-interest.

The machines won’t act in their own self-interest – a true Skynet is unlikely – but people can reliably be depended upon to partner with machines to do just that.

We have people who have an entire planet’s capacities of sharing and learning to draw upon – and are already using it to serve their own ends.

That’s not something we think about – it’s more than a bit scary. But it’s something that we need to face, because part of being a futurist is seeing all sides of every trend, the great and the good and the bad and the just plain horrible.

Bad people use amazing tools.

You can already make a fairly decent case that this describes Facebook – and why that’s landed them in so much hot water.

A careful futurist avoids thinking in either utopian or dystopian terms. There’s always a temptation to invoke “Nineteen Eighty-Four” or “Terminator” – because they’re convenient examples that most are familiar with.

But a futurist has both the capacity and the obligation to present other versions of the future – ones that are neither heaven nor hell but do their best to reflect some of the deep complexities of the real world.

And I want to stress this – futurists do have an obligation.

Understanding the future gives a futurist a duty of care for that future.

A futurist should warn against doing things that would likely have damaging outcomes.

A futurist should encourage approaches likely to have positive outcomes.

A futurist fulfils both these duties by telling stories: watering the seeds in the present with the climate of the future, then taking people on a tour of that landscape.

To do this well, a futurist needs an open mind.

A futurist has read everything they can about anything that piques their interest. From this a futurist can grow a an internal sense that helps them to identify those seeds of the future in the present.

Because we spend so much time in the future – a future that presents as many dangers as promises – futurists can grow a bit pessimistic. 

It’s not a good occupation for pessimists – unless you’re a military or security futurist. Then paranoia is the order of the day.

For the rest of us Futurists – who may struggle to remain optimistic as we study a world changing so rapidly it seems to be mutating under our gaze – there’s one bit of advice I received twenty-five years ago from my mentor, when he taught me how to think like a futurist: “Have courage – and keep moving.”

The future stops for no one, and because we’re all now so good at learning from one another and learning from the machines that we’re teaching to learn, that future is visibly accelerating.

The future is making contact with the present.

That means futurists play a new, fundamental role in the world.

We help people make the best possible decisions in this moment, for all of the moments ahead of them. We help them anticipate the consequences of their choices.

One of my futurist friends recently taught me a lovely mantra: “We’re all doing the best we can — and we need to do better.”

One way we can do better – for ourselves and our organisations – is by thinking like a futurist.

And by giving permission to the future that you want to see.

  • Look for the seeds of the future.
  • Connect, share and learn.
  • Present your visions with courage.

Futurists don’t simply illuminate the future – we set expectations for that future. In so doing, we shape that future.

Use that power wisely.

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About the Author: mpesce