FutureFocus 2000 part two

It’s all over now, and it was exhausting. Although that was more to do with overly-long days rather than mental overload. While the event wasn’t as awful as I’d feared, it wasn’t as good as I’d hoped. Probably just slightly south of what I’d expected.

The good stuff first. One of the most useful and encouraging sessions was first thing on Monday morning, and titled ‘Futures Tools for Exploring the Fuzzy Front End of New Product Development.’ Basically it was about how to effectively use all this futures stuff in a corporation, with Andy Hines leading a panel mostly of other alumns in presentations about tools such as scenarios, scanning and, what I found most intriguing, Eric von Hippel’s lead user technique. It was interesting to hear how all this stuff I’ve learnt can be used in the real world, although it sounds next to impossible to actually get a company’s top brass to make useful decisions based on these reports.

Andy presented another session on Tuesday, ‘Trends in Global Values and Their Influence on Consumers in the Future’ (snappy titles were few and far between). This was an analysis of the erratic World Values Survey. The gist is that countries move from the modern (“I must buy those mass-produced branded goods”) to the postmodern (“Those mass-produced branded goods mean nothing to me, so I’m not going to buy them”) rather than any simplistic Americanisation-style transformation. Companies should, as we’re ceaselessly told these days, pay attention to the customers and not expect them to purchase whatever products the company decides to release. The descriptions of the modern and postmodern worlds seemed to ring true and it was fun to hear how strenuously old-school companies are still resisting the customer-centric view with all their might.

Unfortunately this is where the good stuff seemed to peter out. This isn’t to say the rest was awful, but there were many relentlessly mediocre sessions. ‘Sustainable Futures,’ presented by Reon Brand from Philips, could have been good but the endless generalisations pushed out anything enlightening or useful. Graham May’s ‘Misinformation Society’ certainly wasn’t bad or wrong but was unfortunately too simplistic and lacked the depth I’d hoped for. In these days when we’re surrounded with stuff telling us how the Net is changing the balance of information distribution, there was so much more to say (something Joe Coates, the entertainingly crotchety old man of the conference, didn’t hesitate in pointing out in the following Q&A).

‘The Impending Obsolescence of Maps’ had lots of highly detailed fly-throughs of 3-D information spaces, although these nearly all involved combining many kinds of geological survey data; there could have been so much more. I left a session on the future of China after ten minutes of listening to the presenter struggle with speaking English at anything approaching a reasonable speed. And I only lasted through the introduction to ‘Cybergame for the Millennium: Cops ‘n Robbers Playin’ Hide ‘n’ Seek on the Net’ before being bored from the room by the lengthy round-up of facts and cases narrated by the commander of Pueblo County Sheriff’s Department.

OK, so maybe I’m super-critical, my expectations were too high and there may have been mind-blowing sessions which I missed. But even allowing for this, the Closing Plenary, where three speakers told us about trends for the current century, was painful. Edith Weiner, a very engaging speaker, told us about “Trends Affecting Business.” Gary Marx, whose over-long and gushing, barking speech told us about “Trends Influencing Education.” And William E. Halal told us about the “Top Ten Breakthroughs for the Next Decade.” Now, these may be wonderful presentations to give to a room full of businessmen who want to go “wow, I never knew that!” a few times before returning to business as usual. But when you’ve got a room full of futurists who, one would assume, live for this stuff, it’s a waste of time. Before escaping part-way through Halal’s presentation I heard one concept that was new to me (satellite-assisted precision farming) and a stream that had me gritting my teeth in frustration. Did you know that soon lots of people will be using mobile devices to communicate, view media, etc? Did you know that there is an increasing number of non-whites in America? Did you know that “the old will outnumber the young” (ignoring the tiny matter of the entire developing world)?

I have to admit that a few people I spoke to actually thought some of this was interesting stuff, but I was pleased to run into BT’s Ian Pearson who’d also run metaphorically screaming from the hall. We indulged in some healthy British cynicism and bemoaned the surfeit of overly-optimistic and shallow views we’d heard over the past couple of days.

So maybe it’s partly a British/American thing. I certainly hope I wouldn’t hear people speak phrases like “cosmic evolution”, “expanded consciousness” and “third age wellness” with quite such straight faces at a UK event. Or maybe too much of the futures field is oriented around business to the extent it’s lost sight of things that are truly radical. I obviously expected too much of the conference and its participants (with some more than welcome exceptions, it has to be said, including an alarmingly intense teenager). At the closing event I visibly winced as the audience laughed with Edith Weiner recounting how her husband recently coined the term “himbo.” Hundreds of futurists, supposedly right up there on the cutting edge of everything, laughed at a word that is so ancient it made its way to that hotbed of street slang, the House of Commons, three years ago.