Episode 168 - Made In The Future
Published May 7, 2015
SPECIAL GUEST: Amy Zalman. The world is changing before our very eyes. On the show we've talked with a number of futurists, many of whom are members of the World Future Society. On this episode, we're joined by the CEO & president of the WFS, Dr. Amy Zalman, to take a look at the role this organization is playing in shaping the changes that are affecting our world. We also talk with Amy about this year's World Future Society Annual Conference, being held July 24th through 26th in San Francisco, titled Making the Future. Recorded 5/3/2015.
Mike & Matt's Recommended Reading:
Strategic Narrative, Amy's foresight consulting company
Amy Zalman on Twitter
School of International Futures' bio for Amy
Amy's TEDxGeorgetown talk, Power Narratives
World Future Society announcement naming Amy CEO and President of WFS
Interview: Amy Zalman, president of the World Future Society, by Nick Smith (E&T - Engineering & Technology, 10/13/2014)
Alpha: Welcome to another episode of Robot Overlordz, episode #168. On the show we take a look at how society is changing, everything from pop culture reviews to political commentary, technology trends to social norms, all in about thirty minutes or less, every Tuesday and Thursday.
Mike Johnston: Greetings cyborgs, robots, and natural humans. I’m Mike Johnston.
Matt Bolton: And I’m Matt Bolton.
MJ: And joining us on this episode is Amy Zalman. Amy, thanks for coming on the show.
Amy Zalman: It’s my pleasure.
MJ: So, you are the president of the World Future Society, and since Matt isn’t terribly familiar, I’m going to kick it over to Matt to ask a bit about what that is.
MB: Alright. Yeah, could we just start, for those who aren’t familiar with it, could you just tell us about it and what your goal is, and what you’re working on?
AZ: Absolutely. I would love to. The World Future Society is the world’s first and longest-running membership organization in the world and for a global membership interested in bringing people’s awareness to the future. It was founded in 1966 by a man named Edward Cornish who was a journalist at the time. He lived in the Washington D.C. area, which is where we are still headquartered, and he was himself very concerned, in his own self-description, about the future and particularly—I think this is where Washington D.C. becomes relevant—about the potential for thermonuclear war, and about the cold war, and the geopolitical future. So, he started literally on his back porch an organization made up of volunteers. He started mimeographing a newsletter that he called The Futurist, and it grew really remarkably into something almost describable as a movement. At its height, this organization had 30,000 members, it used to have very large conferences, and we, today, have members in 82 countries. We have 6,000 members, of which I’m very proud. We still put out, although we’re about to rebrand and relaunch, The Futurist. And we are, although continuing our mission not only to raise awareness and to support futurists and people engaged in foresight to study the future and determine what it might look like, but increasingly to move into supporting capacity-building in institutions and those who recognize that they need to shape the future and make decisions actively that help build our future. So, that was a little all over the place. I’m happy to fill the blanks. But we’re a global membership organization, we’re headquartered in D.C., we have members all over the world, and our most exciting next thing is our annual conference, World Future 2015, which will be in San Francisco this July, from the 24th to the 26th. So, I’m happy to talk about that later in the show as well.
MB: Sure. What types of people would you say are involved in the organization? Is it more academia or businesses? Or a combination of a lot of things?
AZ: That’s a great question, and there are probably three ways to answer it. One is that historically we have been an organization of people who are very public sector-minded, and we have had a very good chunk of academics. In its founding years, in the ‘60s, and ‘70s, and ‘80s, this discipline, which some people have never heard of, called foresight or future studies, was working hard to be taken seriously as an academic discipline. So, there was an effort to turn it into a social science, and they really found their home in the World Future Society, and it was built of them. Later, the greatest amount of funding that sort of helped build foresight came from governments, because they had the big money, and foresight projects and scenario-planning grew most formidably in government. So, we have a big public sector group. Now, I would add a kind of third element, which is that this organization is changing. I didn’t mention this before, but it has only had two people lead it until now: the founder, who led it for 40 years, and my predecessor, Tim Mack. I came on last summer with a mandate to modernize, change, transform the organization. So, we are now looking around at the ways in which the foresight landscape has changed and who cares about it, and why people are so into it and excited, and our demographic is changing, too. I’m working hard to make sure that it gets younger, but also to include people who are in design, engineering, the private sector, and the technology sector, and have them meet up with our traditional constituency of academics, public sector, and the CEOs and managers of foresight consultancy.
MB: You said you’re in 80 countries. That’s obviously a lot of people, too. How do you kind of get everybody on the same page with that many countries, and obviously language barriers, and all that kind of stuff?
AZ: [Laughs] That’s a great question. I have no idea whether everyone is on the same page.
AZ: And, in fact, the differences are really interesting. Among my objectives in the next few years is to take advantage of that tremendous globality. For example: start having regional conferences. Have ways in which to use and leverage the opportunities for collaboration, and networking, and actually doing things that that scope suggests. But what I can tell you is that different countries see foresight and do it differently, and that’s amazing at the same time, that they have things to learn from each other. So, we have chapters that put some people on the same page. We have a very active chapter in the Netherlands that is very concerned with public sector issues; they have something called the Public Sector Foresight Network there. So, they’re largely built of government. We don’t have a chapter, but we have excellent friends—and I was just in Turkey—to speak to the Turkish futurist association, where they are very business-oriented, and that is true of many groups in Europe, as well. They are industrialists basically, and they come out of business and are sponsored by businesses, and are interested in trends that affect the private sector. We also have a very thriving chapter in Mexico, where they’re about to have a conference that’s focused on bringing some new resolutions about human dignity to the UN. So, they’re very kind of transnational-focused. So, different countries have different focuses. I don’t think I answered your question about how we put them on the same page, but I’m not totally sure that’s our goal. What we want to do is, you know, connect, learn, network.
MB: Do you think it’s become slightly easier than it was when it was founded just because of the internet and making it easier to communicate with all these different people all at the same time?
AZ: Absolutely. I think everything that any other business or organization would say is both an incredible boon because of internet communications and communications technology is true of us, as well as some of the challenges, or the things that make it a little bit harder to get heard and figure out what are priority communications in a world where there is much more communication. But absolutely, no question. The fact of that transformational change in the communications landscape is part of the reason why the World Future Society is focused now on ensuring that the way we communicate and what we facilitate and foster is a little different than 50 years ago when it made complete sense to just push out a magazine and produce books, which were very important in their time. But the landscape has changed, and many of the people who are audiences are producers themselves, of course, of stuff that we should be reading and listening to. So, we’ve become more dialogic, I think.
MJ: Amy, we kind of jumped it right away to the World Future Society. What is your background outside of the World Future Society?
AZ: My background goes all over the place, but it’s at least been future-focused. I have undergraduate degrees in literature, I have a Masters degree in poetry, and started my life as a poet, which I think is the ultimate job in kind of taking tools that you have lying around—they happen to be language—and shaping and building a future that you didn’t know, didn’t expect. At the end, we’d call it a poem. I’ve owned a business called Oryx Communications. I have a doctorate in Middle Eastern studies. All of that sounds pretty random, but actually it added up into a fairly coherent story in the last ten years. I moved to Washington from New York at a certain point, and ended up in national security. So, I spent some years working with technologies, with analysts, and with the defense community to try to help us, the United States, communicate more effectively with overseas audiences and partners there. My last position was as the Department of Defense Information Integration Chair at our National War College, which sounds scary, but is actually where senior civilian and military officers are sent to learn strategy before they’re promoted to senior strategic positions. So, somebody who is a colonel, or a lieutenant colonel, may get sent—if they are considered to be very promotable—to the War College for a year. They’re turned from a really great tactician into a strategist, and they go on to become a flag officer. So, that was a very fascinating last position and it led me to think a lot about the future, of course, of defense and national security, and the connections between strategy and foresight.
MB: Wow, that’s really cool. As somebody who was in the military, I just find that fascinating.
AZ: Yeah, it was very cool. It’s a great place.
MJ: So, Matt and I have talked a lot about the future and how the vision of how the future is going to lay out seems to have changed since we were kids. I mean, it seemed very technology-focused, and that we were going to move out into space, and a lot of that stuff hasn’t happened. What kind of challenges do you see for both the World Future Society, and maybe just society in general, ahead that have maybe changed the way people view the future?
AZ: That’s an interesting question. In certain ways, I think the answer is that our challenges, whether of the World Future Society—I’ll just speak to the world, that’s much easier—right now are actually not so different than they were in the ‘60s or when we were kids maybe in the ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s. I happened, last year, on the first issue of The Futurist, this yellowed-page, typed mimeographed four-page document in which Edward Cornish had put together for the first time some little news items about the various kinds of ways people were studying the future right now, and these people brought up all kinds of technological, and political, and scientific issues, which actually have advanced considerably. So, one entry was about somebody warning—in the mid-1960s—that the United States should prepare for full unemployment because computers would ultimately automate all of our jobs. He also said that we should beware of government surveillance, which, of course, is on our plates right now. There were scientific issues in the 1960s like boards that used to evaluate who could get kidney transplants. We have some of those same issues today: how do you select how to provide medical services and things like Ebola medications last year. So, there are lots of things like that. But each of these little articles had a little segment which we’ve never solved. Science has advanced, technology has advanced... They all said, “Wow, we have some kind of decision to make politically as a community, as a society, as a world,” and when I look around now, I’d say that those continue to be our greatest challenges. We are advancing mightily, thanks to Moore's Law, technologically. We are on the cusp of extraordinary things—we know this—in education and medicine; great challenges and great opportunities. But our challenges still lie in what Alvin Toffler called the “politics of futurism” as opposed to the science of it, or the art of it. We forecast pretty well. I mean, you know, pundits aside, actually the science of forecasting certain kinds of trends, like demography, or even some things in climate, we’re not terrible at. But we are not good as communities, as governments, as institutions at finding ways to determine what to do with those technologies in order to create really preferential futures for as many of us as we can.
MJ: Do you see that as a cultural issue? Matt and I have talked quite a bit—recently we did an episode about politicians that are literally proud of not using technology—I’ll speak for both of us: it drives us nuts to see that now, a politician saying, “I’ve never used email.” In 2015, that seems like it’s just such backwards thinking. Do you think there’s a larger cultural problem among the political class? Since you work in D.C., do you see evidence of that? Or are there people out there who are embracing the technology, I guess, that somehow are not getting the mic as often?
AZ: Absolutely. Look at Hillary Clinton’s Twitter feed. She’s definitely figured out how to work it. That’s an interesting question. I’m still pondering how somebody gets away with never using email, and I’m thinking, “Wow, they must just have a great administrative assistant.” Like, what is that? How do you do that?
AZ: And I personally would not like to bag my own groceries and book all of my own airplane tickets, but I accept it.
MJ: I’m just curious, really.
AZ: Yeah, I’m trying to sort out where the technology… Where does that come from. I think that we might be talking about two slightly distinct things, both of which are really interesting, but we will quickly connect. One is about people not being interested in acknowledging that we have these new technologies to communicate and to reach people, and that they actually serve functions which are important in civic life. Like, if you’ve never used email, how do you understand what the rest of the world is doing, and how do you understand the way that either wonderful, cooperative things or challenging conflicts arise when communication—and speedy communication—is so much an element of that, just being able to collect people on a corner. So, I think about that in that national security realm, for example. So, one is, yes, I think that’s a problem. I don’t know anybody who doesn’t use email I don’t think, and I happen to feel really privileged to know very progressive minds in the government who are really eager to incorporate foresight into the way that they work and to think about the future. There are challenges which are not necessarily their fault. I was at a very interesting meeting a couple of weeks ago, where a number of government agencies were in the room together, talking about foresight and how it could be introduced into government work, and somebody said reasonably, “Well look, I’m on the edge of retirement,” which is true, a lot of people who are working in government at a senior level are in their 50s, 60s, they’re about to leave. “In what way...” he said, “what are we supposed to do about planning for the future?” And there were two answers in the room, which were great. One of them was that of somebody else, John Kamensky, who works at IBM in governance, he gave this really provocative answer and said, “This is a question of your legacy, of planning. Isn’t this part of your work anyway? So you don’t have to be there in the future in order to think about planning for it. This should be what you do, and if you are a leader, then you should be thinking about what it is you plan to leave behind and what it is you are shaping. So, it is a question of your professional ethics to think of the future.” And then my answer, which I realize I just called great, but anyway, was to engage people who actually are younger. Whether you are an institution or an agency that grows leaders from inside or you get them from outside, you can engage people, when they enter, into thinking about the future of the institution, and that way you do two really good things. One is you get some people who use email in the room, and the other is you get people who may be there later, because they’re the ones that are going to live in the world in 30 years, and they’re the ones who may be leading it, as well. Is that an answer? [Laughs]
MJ: Yeah, I thought it was. [Laughs] You’ve talked a little bit about engaging younger people. If you could say anything to them about how to think about the future, what would you say?
AZ: I think in some ways I’d say our job is to listen. I mean, it’s less to tell them something about the future than to say, “What do you think? What do you hope? What do you fear? What if we gave you a really cool modeling program straight from a cool corporation, or we gave you some scissors and construction paper, what would you build? What should we have in the future? What do you think?” So, I think that would be one, would be actually trying to listen.
MJ: How would you engage more older people? Matt and I are both—among our friends, we’re the single guys who don’t have kids, we’re Gen. X, so a lot of our friends have kids and they’ve kind of disappeared off the map, off the radar. When we talk to them about some of this stuff, they’ll “well, I don’t have time for that…” What would you say to maybe engage some of them in thinking about the future, particularly around their kids. It seems like a lot of that nowadays is just overwhelmed with worry. We’ve talked somewhat about the trend toward helicopter parenting. One of our guests was Lenore Skenazy, who wrote the book Free-Range Kids, so we did an episode with her where we talked a lot about how raising kids has changed since we were kids. It seems like a lot of our friends are very afraid for their kids, that they’re not going to be able to have jobs, they’re going to be overwhelmed with college debt. How would you engage those people to maybe think about the future?
AZ: Yeah, that’s a great question. And I may be in your generation, as well—I’m at the tail end of Gen. X. So, there are a couple of things: one does not come from the world of foresight, it comes from the world of critical thinking and good judgement, and what I think are good parenting and mentoring and fostering skills. So, whether we’re talking about our own kids or the generation that comes after us that we may be working with or otherwise engaged with, I think fostering autonomy, critical thinking, the capacity to live a good civic life, which means looking for solutions with other people to challenging problems are really important—really important—skills. We know now with some statistical proof that one of the things that’s true of the internet, and getting information from the internet is that it can be very polarizing and it can push us into our own little worlds. And then there are slightly horrifying stories of kids in college sitting across in a room—at least to a Gen. X’er—tweeting each other, or texting to each other, instead of talking to each other. So as we get more virtual, how do we also get more engaged and face to face? And that can be with or without a technological interface. And how do we find a language, and a lexicon, and a set of processes, and a way of behaving and thinking that help us sit down together in a community, in a family, in an institution and say, “Wow, we have some challenge.” It may be global climate change. It may be “How are we going to use particular technologies in our house, because they’re available, and how are we going to find a way that works for everybody?” which is not easy at all, even in small groups. So, that’s one. A second would be actually increasing—so foresight, this large umbrella, offers several opportunities for helping to foster people who can think and make the future better, in addition to regular critical thinking skills, and the skills of judgement and disarmament. Those are knowledge, understanding trends, and learning from trends, what they say about our world. So, if you don’t know what’s coming up ahead, if you don’t know what trends in science, in technology, in demography, in society are then you’re not in a very good position to even think creatively about what you want the world to look like, or how you want to use those. A second is to be able to use some of the tools of foresight to play with those trends and look at what they foretell if we don’t do anything, and what we can do to shape or negotiate with them in ways that help us build worlds that we want. So, what kind of world do we want when we have nine billion people in it? I talk at the global level, but I think that all the things I’m saying are true also for neighborhoods, and towns, and cities, and states.
MB: Yeah, absolutely.
MJ: Is there anything specific that sticks out to you about maybe the future, some foresight studies or something that you might look at and think, “Wow, I can’t wait to get that technology or that specific trend to actually hit the mainstream”?
AZ: I’m not a technologist, so I don’t come from that world. Somebody who’s coming to speak at our conference this summer is working on hyperloop technology. So, that same transportation technology that has been made famous by Elon Musk in California, that technology that I can’t explain that gets you from L.A. to San Francisco in 20 minutes or half an hour. And they have begun to think about what that looks like internationally. So, I can’t explain the inside of it, but I know that when they get done with it, you could go from New York to Beijing in four hours or something crazy like that. So, I can’t wait for that.
MJ: Yeah, I would think that would be a gamechanger.
AZ: Completely. That would be fabulous.
MB: You had mentioned that you’re having a conference in San Francisco. Can you tell us about that and what’s coming up with that?
AZ: Yeah, the conference is going to be fabulous. This year it’s themed “Making the Future.” It’s called “Making the Future” for various reasons. One is because we’re in San Francisco and we want to make a nod towards the makers culture that’s there, and towards startups and investors and making in general. We’re also doing a little curtsey to our own efforts to make the World Future Society anew. So, it’s been around for 50 years. What will it look like for the next 100? The conference itself, I said, is from July 24th through the 26th, but it has all kinds of added activities. So if you came two days before, you could take 1 of 12 master courses. If you want to learn foresight in eight hours because you don’t have time to go through a two-year degree, you can do that. If you’re already engaged in using scenario planning, or visioning, or horizoning, you can come and take a course and learn some more sophisticated techniques, or add to your toolbox if you’re in this profession. If you’re just really interested in some of the things that seem of the future themselves, you can come learn about those, too. I know we have somebody who’s going to teach a course on the internet of things, and they will actually play with some objects and show you what it means when objects start to relate to each other on the internet without human intervention. So, that’s really cool. We’re going to kick off the conference proper with a keynote by Steve Jurvetson at 4:00PM PST on July 24th. We’re really psyched to have this venture capitalist who is a great symbol of what it is to make futures, because he’s on the boards of Tesla, SpaceX, a couple of other firms that arguably really are kind of making futures for us. We will then have a couple of days of lots and lots of sessions, lots of opportunities to network, hundreds of folks—I checked this morning—from 30 countries are coming, we know they’ll be more signing up in the coming months. We have a very interdisciplinary—and this year, interactive—set of sessions focused around technology, focused around governance, and some of the global projects that people are working on in different parts of the world, and focused on foresight itself. That doesn’t just mean book stuff. We will have some people who come from the world of design and science fiction doing things. We have science fiction readers reading. You can go to The Interval bar at the Long Now Foundation in San Francisco on sunday morning and have brunch. I feel I should stop this sentence at some point, but I have like ten other things to tell you that are really cool that you could do at the conference. There will be activities for people from 12 to 18 on saturday, so that will be really exciting for us as we kind of introduce a young futurist conference inside of our conference. And now I really will stop. But there are, like, ten other cool things.
MJ: Amy, for people that can’t get to San Francisco for that, is there any way to engage with the conference remotely?
AZ: That is a very good question. I do not think that we will be streaming it live this year, but we will be recording it intensively, and so we certainly will have some kind of output afterward that will make people feel, I hope, as if they were there and as if they absolutely must come next year.
MJ: Amy, if people want to find out more information about the World Future Society and the conference, where would they go?
AZ: There are a couple of places they can go. If you want to come to the conference this summer, please check us at WorldFuture2015.org. If you want to know more about us, you can go to our organizational website at WFS.org, and we will be updating that site later in the year, but there’s lots of good history there. And should you find that you really want to support us financially or otherwise, you can find us and more about our transformation at SupportWFS.org.
MJ: Well Amy, thanks so much for joining us today.
AZ: Thank you very much.
A: That’s all for this episode of Robot Overlordz. Are you interested in the future and how society is changing? We’d love to have you join our community. Visit our website to learn more and to connect with others that share that interest. You can find us at RobotOverlordz.FM. The site includes all of the show’s old episodes along with complete transcripts, links to more information about the topics and guests in each episode, and our mailing list and forums. We’d also love to hear what you think about the show. You can review us on iTunes or email us.
A: We hope to see you again in the future…
MJ: Thanks everyone for listening.
Image Credit: By Vassil (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons