He is very tall. He was born and bred in the United Kingdom. He is famous. We’re not talking about the mighty tower clock in London, but the one and only Ben Hammersley. You might know him from several Ted Talks or ‘Cybercrimes with Ben Hammersley’ on Netflix. And, fun fact, he is the inventor of the word ‘podcast’. How did he stumble upon it? By accident. In 2004, he wrote an article for The Guardian about this technology. At first, the article was a bit too short. That’s why he added an extra sentence with some made-up words in it. So, it’s basically just a compound of the words ‘iPod’ and ‘broadcast’.
Knowing all that, you could wonder: “Damn. Why don’t I know this guy?” Well, the kind of work he does is part of a process that companies, governments, militaries, etc. go through and, once finished, is used by them to create the next new thing. So, he’s more at the basis of innovations by advising, inspiring and shaping it.
His job, being a futurist, sounds very intriguing. He also describes it so appealing: paid to live in the future and come back to tell us all about it. Others tend to call him a synthesist, someone who combines ideas in new and interesting ways. But what does it really mean to be a futurist?
A futurist helps people think about all of the things that are changing today and what that could mean for the way we will live or do business in the future. He specifically tries to figure out how the world will be, in which we would be doing the next new thing. Because we can be excited about a new technology, such as AI, and imagine how amazing it is today, when in fact we should imagine what this new thing will be like in a world where it is not an innovation. Only then, you know that that novelty became part of life and made an actual change. Let’s illustrate this with an example: last year, working from home was all new and exciting, as it was an emergency; this year, it will be old and boring. So, the way we will work from home this year will be far more interesting than last year, because that’s when real innovations are bound to happen.
But being a futurist is not about making predictions that are by definition true. It’s more about helping people think about their own area in new and interesting ways by taking ideas and insights from many different disciplines, such as technology, psychology, culture, politics, religion, etc. and combine them in an insane way. In fact, the point is not to be right, but to be wrong in an interesting way. It involves a lot of observation, reading and research. Being able to connect different ideas from different areas in a holistic way is therefore a very valuable yet neurodivergent skill. Most people are very concentrated on their own area, whereas his job is to make connections between all those different areas. That’s what makes his job - we quote - ‘professionally weird’ for the man in the street. Another important skill is to be able to recognize your habits and then consciously throw them overboard. A frequently occurring mistake is asking yourself: how will this innovation help me live my life today? It should be: how are you going to be using that new thing to live your future life in a world where you have that technology? And that’s different.
“We’re going to spend the rest of our lives in the future, so you should practise!”
But there are playful ways to master the skill. Ready to play one of Ben’s games? Let’s say that we are the year 2030 and someone has just become the richest person in the world by using the combination of 3D printing and the high levels of anxiety in the western world. How did that happen? Answering this question will force you to come up with a whole narrative. They’re basically storytelling games which kind of remind us of Black Stories. This type of exercise enables you to find all the things that could possibly go wrong, which then enables you to fix those things before you actually do them. Interesting!
So, how to distinguish an actual futurist from a fraude? Anyone who suggests there is only ‘one future’, has got it wrong. Anyone who talks about one single technology being the technology of the future, is probably trying to sell you something. Anyone who is making technological predictions for more than five years away, is making up stories. Anyone who doesn’t recognize that different areas (culture, politics, religion …) are as equally important as or massively interconnected with technology, makes no sense. In that regard, an actual futurist acknowledges the interdependent co-arising of change, which is actually a key Buddhist teaching. All things are influenced by many others and all of them are changing at the same time.
The future. That’s where we’re going to live for the rest of our lives, right? So, we’d better be prepared. All business you’ll ever get, is business in the future. And as change in companies often takes time due to hierarchical structures and internal ways of working, it's important you start changing your direction early enough. Because if you don’t, you will no longer matter and disappear.
If you want to prevent that from happening, you should try to look ahead for three years, which is - roughly - the forecasting horizon at the moment. And, good news: the pandemic has made it easier to look ahead, because it has paused everyone and everything and uncovered what’s truly essential. We see that people stopped doing many things they did before the pandemic, because of pandemic reasons, and they will never do them again. One of these things is, for example, going to department stores. Before the pandemic, they were failing as businesses. They were increasingly less popular. During the first lockdown, they had to close. But when they reopened, nobody went back. Everybody agreed they were terrible, but it was kind of a habit that people went there. When you break a habit for six months, you never go back. So, it’s up to your business to become aware of old habits and rethink them.
You don't want to miss what Ben had to say in our webinar. Check out the most likely scenarios for a post-corona world here and learn how you, as a company, can flourish more than ever before.