With the world in a state of upheaval, forecasting firms are helping to show us the future – but can they?
monocle is only 10 minutes into a conversation with Rohit Talwar but he has already leapt 10 years into the future. The ceo of London-based Fast Future Publishing outlines a range of scenarios, deftly hopping between industries. He anticipates that body enhancements – 3D-printed limbs or genetic modifications – will become mainstream. He says that by 2030 the majority of jobs will be automated, many workers will focus on fields such as synthetic biology, nanotech manufacturing and artificial intelligence (AI), and to stay competitive, 80 per cent of the UK workforce will need to be graduates.
He goes on to describe four options for how the pandemic might play out, ranging from a healthy economy by 2022 to no vaccine and financial uncertainty in 2024. He briefly considers consumerism in the future: AI will provide on-the-spot health advice for food items and assist with wardrobe choices. As for mobility? Driverless vehicles will be common in a decade, as will super-fast green-transport technologies like the Hyperloop – and yes, there will be flying cars. Especially taxis.
Welcome to the business of looking to the future. It’s a vast, fast-growing space filled with hazily defined terms and a mix of chancers and highly skilled professionals. Broadly speaking, it can be split into two disciplines: “forecasters”, who make predictions by extrapolating existing trends, creating arcs that are accurate when things continue smoothly; and “futurists” (or foresight strategists), such as Talwar, who combine a stew of data, research and cultural signals to come up with more flexible scenarios of how the future might look, as well as strategies for how to shape that future. You can earn a masters in futures studies or strategic foresight, yet many futurists have backgrounds in science, advertising or design. It’s a lucrative space. Talwar estimates that the global futurist industry brings in between €500m and €1bn a year, though there are no official figures; the forecasting market is even bigger. This is not all science – and many predictions miss the mark.
Fast Future, which Talwar co-founded in 2015, advises companies from sectors including technology, science, mobility and hospitality. The point of conceiving forward-looking visions is to empower clients. “It’s not just making sure that they’re resilient against a range of future scenarios but [using that knowledge] to think about what they can do to create the future they want,” he says, adding that it’s a nuanced process. “The most common question I hear is, ‘What is the future?’ There’s always that desire to move from the exploratory, which is where we learn and grow, to the definitive: wanting to bet on 18 red. As much as I want to strangle the person asking that, I try to break down why you don’t have one future.”
The art of looking ahead has never seemed so urgent. With the world in an unprecedented state of uncertainty as the pandemic coincides with other upheavals – including the Black Lives Matter movement and Brexit – many are desperate to know what will happen next. Sometimes the trying conditions mean battening down the hatches. Yet many organisations and industries are casting their gaze further ahead; this is a time for reflection, rebuilding and figuring out how to do things better than before. And this makes futurists – masters of illuminating paths through the darkness – a hot commodity.
“The most common question I hear is ‘What is the future?’ – I try to break down why you don’t have one future”
Although pop futurist Faith Popcorn has been foreshadowing cultural hits since the 1970s, the foresight market has only become saturated in the past few years. Today it is heaving with freelance strategists, boutique agencies and multi-million-dollar firms offering thoughts on everything from the future of AI, transport or terrorism to dress silhouettes and the next big colour. Profit-making channels include one-on-one consulting, subscription websites, book deals and public-speaking arrangements. Big-name futurists, such as theoretical physicist Michio Kaku, can earn up to €50,000 per speech. The fierce competition has led some to propose ever-more-wild ideas: if you stand out, there’s money to be made.
Conjuring up future scenarios is a structured, evidence-based process. “It’s not pulled out of your arse,” says Cat Tully, a former adviser in the UK Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Tully is also the founder of the School of International Futures (soif). The 25-person organisation, based in London, advises governments and ngos, including the UN. Tully has seen a “massive uptick” in interest. Recent projects include consulting with the government of Oman on a national strategy and vision for 2040, and the future of mental health and obesity in the London borough of Lambeth.
soif’s toolkit is varied. They use analogies from the past: when considering the impact of 3D printing, for example, they look to how the Gutenberg printing press was embraced in the 1400s and beyond. “It takes a lot longer to have an impact than you expect, but then the impact is much more profound [than expected],” says Tully. They consider cycles: technological advancements tend to follow an S-shaped curve – slow to start, then rapid growth, then slowing down – while conflicts tend to be generational. Being able to detect “the signals from the noise”, as Tully puts it, requires being across many topics, from population growth to emerging technologies, and involves listening to people from across various disciplines and generations – especially younger people.
Lilly Berelovich discerns cutting-edge shifts in politics, technology and economics, translating the data into what we will be wearing. Berelovich is co-founder of Fashion Snoops, one of the biggest fashion forecasters. Few sectors are as obsessed with newness as fashion: its trend-forecasting industry has been estimated to yield tens of billions of euros a year. As well as Dutch expert Li Edelkoort and veteran firms wgsn and Peclers Paris, there are hundreds of start-ups promising insight into the shades, materials and silhouettes that consumers will soon covet.
Berelovich’s New York-headquartered firm, which was founded in 2001 and now has more than 150 employees around the world, offers a subscription platform and a consulting service. Its fashion clients are mid-market players (who tend to consult forecasters more than luxury brands) but it also works with beauty, home and car brands. The firm taps into its sophisticated AI system – tracking data from press mentions of items to retail purchases – and its network of “feet on the ground”.
Fashion Snoops works two years in advance. According to Berelovich, for 2022 we can expect colours to brighten – lime greens, vivid blues, hot pinks – as a mood booster to counter the current social gloominess. There will also be an emphasis on healing, which will play out in soft fabrics, as well as protection, which means anti-microbial materials and higher necklines.
“Brands want to be seen to have an authoritative position on the future. I’m helping them develop original research into something they can talk about at events”
Lucie Greene, the founder of Light Years, says that brands are increasingly using such insight as a communications tool in itself. “Brands want to be seen to have an authoritative position on the future,” says Greene, who launched her New York futures agency last year and works with firms including Coach and LinkedIn. “I’m helping them to develop research into the future of a category as something they can talk about at events.” Forward-looking morsels, she says, are becoming “a sort of branded content”.
This chimes with a shift in brands becoming more “self-aware, forward-thinking and strategic,” she says. Recently, the combination of the pandemic and social movements has exposed toxic cultures at countless labels. “There has never been more transparency about the failings of brands,” says Greene. “It has prompted a whole lot of looking inwards and trying to future-proof [behaviour].”
Improving self-awareness is key for futurists. They emphasise that their star-gazing scenarios are not science-fiction fodder; instead, they inform current behaviour. “You can either see the futures endeavour as examining a shiny ball that’s out there, or you can see what we’re doing more as polishing a mirror,” says former strategy adviser Tully. “It’s a process of reflection.” Now, more than ever, we need that.