Machine Futuring vs. Computer Aided Futuring

The post below is a hasty collection of notes from a presentation for the Association of Professional Futurists (APF) which I was meant to share with Dr. Mike Jackson, Shaping Tomorrow’s Chairman. Unfortunately, I had some technical difficulties, and Mike had to give the whole presentation himself. I have posted these notes to provide the basic idea of my presentation and allow APF members a forum to ask questions that Mike might not be suited to answering. –Dennis Draeger

I think the benefits of the Shaping Tomorrow Forecast system for futuists are obvious, but I have been working with it for a little more than a year now. Even when Mike first told me about the new system, my first reaction was that we could now gist the future.

Just to explain where that term comes from, I borrowed the idea from my research into machine translation (MT). As MT has improved, largely through the big data initiatives at Google, it has become easier to understand at least the basics of a foreign language document without having to understand the source language. And those researchers who use MT to understand foreign language documents whether for espionage or journalism are using the term “gisting” when they talk to colleagues because they are getting the gist of a foreign language document. The term is used in a similar way in other industries such as law, but the key point is that Futures is a foreign language for most people. Our job as futurists is to make the future relatable to whoever our audience might be. Otherwise, we are a secret society guarding esoteric knowledge.

Shaping Tomorrow acts like a machine translator for non-futurists. It takes big ideas about the future and distills them to their essence for non-futurists. Do the non-futurists care that they are missing out on important nuances that may reveal important aspects of the future? No, many people just want the gist. Some clients might want exactness and the whole story. However, the whole story and exactness get pretty expensive, and that’s why machine futuring is perfect for clients of any budget. If they can’t afford much, they can use the Forecasts to gist the future. If they have precious little time to spare, they can gist the future. So, the Forecast system actually makes Futures/ Foresight more accessible for a broader audience.

Shaping Tomorrow’s Forecast system can immediately reveal the scenarios, wildcards, and trends that other researchers have already thought up or discovered. Someone in the APF pointed out some seeming contradictions in one of our Forecast summaries. Those apparent contradictions were simply two different scenarios.

While some futurists will find the process insubstantial, I have found that computer aided futuring is a great tool for three specific things:

  1. Beginning a foresight project. Shaping Tomorrow’s Forecast system is good for those who want the whole story but need a quick start to their research. This is where the benefit for futurists really comes through with computer aided futuring. So everything that Mike explained to you is a computer that helps you initiate your futures research. It allows us a glimpse at the entire STEEP in about an hour and half, no matter which STEEP you use. Then you can search for the specific topic of your study and take another 30 minutes to more thoroughly gist its future. Then you can click the links which will allow you to start your own research more rapidly than otherwise. All of this would have taken me two days at the least to get my head around the future of a topic. Now, my biggest issue is getting my head around the present which is why I click the links provided from the Forecasts.
  2. Collaborating on a foresight project. It’s good for collaborating in a couple of ways. First, you can send a Forecast summary to collaborators to read through before a meeting. During the meeting, they can discuss the highlights of the summary. Or, you can facilitate a meeting where collaborators discuss the summary line by line together. A facilitation method that I have found particularly useful is the six hats method. You could take them through the hats for each individual Forecast, you could have participants arrange the Forecasts according to the six hats (is this forecast yellow or orange?), or you could have participants lead a little with a combination of the two options I just said. Using the Forecast summary allows the participants to quickly and conveniently be on the same page as far as the research is concerned.
  3. Offering a less expensive yet broad report on the future of a topic. One of the ways I use the Forecasts is to write short reports using the Forecasts as much of the body of the document. I introduce the topic, I arrange the Forecasts, and I provide a short summary with next steps and strategic questions all in less than 10 pages. It’s really quite simple and less expensive because its less time consuming. So more clients are able to afford a Futurist’s perspective, and busy people can still gain the entire perspective a futurist offers without having to read a 40-page or 200-page report. Not everyone has time for the rest of the story, but at least we can give them a product which they can consume in its entirety.

One of the weaknesses of the system: if you allow the system to automatically scan for Forecasts, you may not learn about an emerging issue as quickly as if you were doing your own scanning, so do your own scanning. Another weakness is that it doesn’t give you the whole story on a topic, so click the links to further your research. It doesn’t entirely replace futurists anymore than MT entirely replaces human translators, but it can accelerate your initial research and help you get started faster while alerting you to new issues across the STEEP more conveniently.

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