The Futurologists : The Tomorrow People

Posted by Peter Cochrane on July 24, 2005

The Observer, Technology Magazine, 24th July 2005

Hephzibah Anderson meets the men and women who make an industry out of predicting the future

So why didn't TelCos roll fiber into the local loop? Well, the story is a bit like the Gulf War - they stopped right on the border - and made the fundamental error of not completely vanquishing the enemy - and now we suffer soda straw communication pipes as a result. Across the planet dumb decisions were made out of political necessity, individual and corporate self interest, technical ignorance and financial ineptitude. In 1986 fiber direct to the home was demonstrated to be financially viable. For the UK it would have cost a mere $22Bn to fiber every home, which in comparison to the $34Bn just wasted on 3G mobile licenses was a bargain. For many countries the optical fiber story goes something like this:

My first job was as a researcher in a publishing company. Spat from the conveyer belt of formal education into a dazzlingly blank future, I was assigned a project called The Book of the New. An apocalyptic title, but then this was the tail end of the Nineties and with the millennial countdown already ticking, I spent my days immersed in the thoughts of cranky crystal-ball gazers, wading through hip style mags and stacks of medical and scientific journals, hunting for innovations premature enough that they might still seem new when our presses finally began rolling.

In the end, the book was overtaken by the company's present tense reality - dwindling resources, staff cutbacks, same old story. Nothing dates quite so fast as the future, yet looking back I'm struck by how many of those predictions that we channelled seven, eight years ago are now taken for granted: advanced keyhole surgery; glasses made of 'memory' metal that ping back into shape when sat upon; all manner of spooky sounding genetic wizardry. The future creeps up on you, but there's another school of thought that says it's already here. As William Gibson noted: 'The future has already happened, it just isn't very well distributed.'

Humankind is as hardwired for curiosity about the future as nostalgia for the past. We may have done away with God in the secular West, but we still want horoscopes dished up with our daily news. Similarly, science fact has long since surpassed science fiction, yet psychics and fortune-tellers continue to make a living, just as sales of Nostradamus's cryptic scribblings remain buoyant.

For clues to the long-term future, the ancients consulted oracles, our medieval forefathers listened to clerics, and in the Enlightenment it was philosophers and historians who were believed to hold the key to tomorrow. In the 20th century, we looked to science fiction for our future fix. And in the 21st?

Perhaps it has to do with the psychological effect of passing the 2000 marker, of all those zeros. Perhaps it's linked to the accelerated pace of change - the snowball effect of 'positive technology feedback', as it's known, whereby the more advanced technology becomes, the faster it improves. For whatever reason, the future feels somehow to have edged that bit nearer to our here-and-now.

Human dreams - and nightmares - about what lies around the corner haven't really changed, the only difference is that where once it was artists and novelists who conjured them up, now it's scientists. Just last week, a book landed on my desk called Breaking the Time Barrier: The Race to Build the First Time Machine. If you want to read it, you'll need to look on the non-fiction shelves. Likewise, last month two professors at Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania predicted that teleporting could be with us within a generation, and in May, BT's futurologist Ian Pearson told this paper that he anticipated digital immortality by 2050. Eerily, Kazuo Ishiguro's most recent novel, a dystopian fable of human organ farming, is set not in the distant future but the recent past.

At this post-future point in time, we look to futurologists to tell us as much about gizmos and gadgets as about our human selves. In a world of rapidly evolving technology, human nature remains a constant, and futurologists ground their predictions about breakthroughs in nano, bio and nuclear technology in the emotional and the irrational.

Stroll down Commercial Road in London's East End and you'll find yourself in a melting pot of old and new. This patch of land has been home to successive waves of immigrants: Huguenots, eastern European Jews, Bangladeshis. All fled here to forget their pasts, clinging to traditions that reminded them of who they were even as they embraced a future they were determined should be better, brighter. Today, if you gaze eastwards along Commercial Road's low-rise length, you'll see the Gherkin plonked down in the middle of the city like an alien spacecraft, a mirage of tomorrow shimmering in the summer heat and smog.

The Future Laboratory is based nearby, a four-year-old thinktank that gazes from two to five and from five to 10 years into the future for clients such as the BBC, L'Oreal and Unilever. Its founders, Chris Sanderson and Martin Raymond, live in the building, exemplifying the lean, laid-back office of the 21st century: a tall, skinny house with desks in the basement, a library in the loft and wireless broadband throughout. There's even a garden and a curly coated black dog, Jasper. Its staff of 15 are all young and dressed for a stroll in the park, the computers are all Macs and paperback fiction lines the bookshelves, battered just so. (Like most modern futurologists, they've no time for history.)

For the futurologist community, Gibson is a guru, quoted as frequently as Rudyard Kipling's 'If', another of their rune-like favourites, and sure enough, there he is on the first page of the lab's nattily bound turquoise manifesto: 'The future has already happened; it just isn't very well distributed.' It's a sentence worth rereading for its insidiousness. The future is already here. There is nothing we can do to prevent it. It also offers a very honest appraisal of the futurologist's work. For though they seem a thoroughly modern phenomenon - smooth-talking management consultants, stripped of suits and ties and reincarnated for the 21st century - the means with which they divine their hi-tech messages are astonishingly low-tech.

In the case of the Future Lab, it's a 'LifeSigns Network' of 2,500 academics, geneticists, photographers and the like, spread throughout 25 cities around the world. 'These are people who are living slightly ahead, who are slightly eclectic in their tastes - an applied ethnographer, say, or a retail anthropologist,' explains Raymond. The plan is to put the network online, but for the moment, it's all done manually, with questionnaires emailed out to each person separately four times a year.

As we speak, the LifeSigns team is lying at our feet, names and numbers crammed into a series of fat rolodexes. Amid all this good design and relentless modern-mindedness, to see them there, huddled in a nest, is oddly reassuring. These people are the Future Lab's tea leaves. It's their thoughts, ideas and inclinations that are checked against a 1,000-person snapshot, and then against in-depth interviews with 100 people. 'Within reason,' Raymond hedges, 'You can get it right.'

The lab's 'technicians' come from design, fashion and journalism backgrounds but, generally, futurologists still tend to be scientists. Ian Pearson is BT's man of tomorrow and knew he wanted to be a scientist from the age of 12, when he would play in his scientist dad's laboratory after school. He joined BT 20 years ago and has worked as a performance engineer, network planner and cybernetics maven. The job description 'futurologist' is a mad professor-style title that gives him licence to roam wherever his curiosity takes him, attending some 100 conferences at home and abroad each year.

A 44-year-old father of one, Pearson is the man who invented text messaging (he's not alone in this claim, but insists he arrived at it independently of the competition). Among his other hits he counts the rise of the search engine and interactive digital TV. There have been some misses, too, including virtual reality, whose allure he vastly overestimated. His predictions stretch ahead as far as 50 years' time, and though he concedes that beyond 20 gets you into the realm of guessology, at a distance of up to 10 years, he sets his success rate at an impressive 85 per cent.

'It's really just common sense and intuition,' he explains. 'You've got to keep abreast of things but an awful lot of my time's spent thinking.' When he gets stuck, he tries ordering his thoughts by bashing out an article, or else hops in his car and turns the stereo up loud. He rarely takes notes, and never on computers. 'Computers are no use for that - you learn very quickly that you can't explain all the stuff in your head to a computer.' Refreshingly deadpan and neither optimistic nor pessimistic about the future (he predicts 'life might be slightly better in 20 to 30 years' time'), he tells me that he tries hard to like gadgets, but it's generally to no avail. 'I want the gadget you can't buy until 2010,' he jokes.

The founder of BT's futurology lab is Peter Cochrane, who began calling himself a futurologist 15 years ago. Since then the world as a whole has shifted, he explains, from a do-it-for-me to a DIY mentality. Technology is now firmly in the hands of the consumer.

'Take text messaging,' Cochrane enthuses. 'It was never sold, promoted or marketed, and now it's a number one service - isn't that cool?' Eventually, he predicts, the corporate IT department will go the way of the typing pool. Already, he tells me, BP is offering a trial bonus to employees who use and maintain their own laptops and PDAs. 'It's an enlightened view,' he says.

His own seer's system consists of gathering a group of 'consultants' aged between five and 90 years old and letting them loose on new technologies. 'They'll always do something different and unexpected.'

This DIY revolution has driven the demand for futurologists. When camera manufacturers realise that the new camera is in fact the mobile phone, they panic. It's a sense of panic and opportunity both that prompts executives to call in the Henley Centre. With a history of gazing ahead that stretches back 30 years, the Henley Centre has never been based in Henley and flatly refuses to call itself a futurology consultancy. Last month, it merged with Headlight Vision, a research agency with clients including Nike and Nokia, and now calls itself Henley Centre Headlight Vision.

But, curiously, the people there don't even believe in the future, but instead in 'creating better futures'.

Yet, as Tamar Kasriel, currently head of knowledge venturing, talks me through their business and walks me around the office - tubs of Duplo bricks, star-shaped baubles hanging from the ceiling and a sort of nature corner filled with exotic products brought back by globe-trotting employees - it all sounds markedly like futurology. Are the futurologists wrong to call themselves such?

'I'm not even sure what the term means,' Kasriel says. 'What's important is that you have a model for understanding how your market operates, rather than the answer. It goes back to that idea of the future as being to some extent in your hands. Otherwise, you're just reacting all the time.'

It's a sound point. So much of futurology seems to be about making us feel passive and powerless. As another guru, Alvin Toffler, says: 'The future always arrives too fast ... and in the wrong order.'

Futurology has a thriving conference circuit that runs the gamut of opinions, from those who believe that the Martians have already been and gone (leaving behind the pyramids, of course) to the hardcore technophiles. Evangelical zeal and pseudo-religious vocabulary (until recently, Orange had a 'head of prophesy' on its payroll) are in abundance, yet there isn't really any magic to the business of futurology.

Really, the job is all about listening, looking and reading voraciously. It's about asking 'what if?' and knowing when to be sceptical. These people are visionaries only in as much as they conjure up a series of vivid pictures - and charisma and the gift of the gab play a vital role.

A large part of the Future Lab's message is packaging. Their design and journalistic backgrounds combine to produce catchy copy - think 'flashpacking', 'turbo-shandy man' and 'globesity' - coolly, seductively styled. Ian Pearson might seem a world away yet he, too, values humour and storytelling, and as a boy took to heart Einstein's insistence that if you can't explain a scientific principal to a child, you probably don't understand it properly yourself.

'The stage is very important. There's no point coming up with something brilliant if nobody hears it,' agrees Kasriel of the Henley Centre.

To a large extent, futurologists make their prophesies self-fulfilling.

Pearson attends around 100 conferences each year, Sanderson is just heading off when I arrive, and trying to schedule an appointment with Kasriel reveals two day-long conferences in the space of a week.

On a sticky Friday night a few weeks ago, sat in the air-con cool of one of Notting Hill's media dens, I met the real thing. Tall, blonde and gauche, Janus Friis is a Dane based in London and, at 28, the co-founder of Skype. Skype, aka The Global Internet Telephony Company, deploys peer-to-peer technology that enables you to use your computer as telephone, dialling up over the internet and speaking directly into the microphone on your desktop or laptop. As the usual crowd of wannabes and has-beens got their weekends under way, he politely shrugged off enquiry: 'I'm just an internet kid.'

In truth, technology is evolving faster than human need. As Cochrane confirms, anything likely to be delivered in the next five years will already exist in the corner of a laboratory somewhere. 'Labs have been perfecting the iris scanner for over 15 years,' he goes on. 'But it took post-9/11 security concerns and increased identity theft to create a need for it.'

But is it evolving faster than human imagination, too? Log on to LongBets.com, and you can glimpse the future as others see - and don't see - it: by 2029 - or 02029 as they put it - a computer will have passed the Turing Test, thereby proving its ability to think; commercial passengers will routinely take pilotless flights by 02030; at least one human being alive in the year 02000 will still be alive in 02150. Others feature extraterrestrial life, over-the-counter tickets to the moon and technological implants. From the Utopian corner we've the end of racism, 4-day working weeks and immortality, with dystopias pitching bioterror and bioerror, lessons in defence against robot attacks for school children and, depending on your take on it all, a world government.

None of it's exactly new, it's just become more real. With the future bearing down on us with such velocity, even futurologists are finding it hard to predict what life might be like in 30 years time, let alone in 50 or a 100.


Futurologists' favourite quotes

  • Henry Ford: 'If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.'
  • Alvin Toffler, futurologist and writer: 'The future always arrives too fast... and in the wrong order.'
  • Prof Alan Kay, computer scientist based at UCLA: 'The only way you can predict the future is to build it.'
  • Rudyard Kipling: 'If you can dream - and not make dreams your master.'
  • William Gibson: 'The future has already happened, it just isn't very well distributed.'