Being a futurist sure sounds like a fun job. Observe the world at large, amass predictions and inspire awe at one’s visionary talents.

But is there a future in it?

According to the Association of Professional Futurists, prospects are starting to look quite promising. As companies and government agencies grapple with the seemingly scorching rate of technological innovation and change, more are engaging the services of self-described futurists for advice on how to adapt.

“It used to be there were a few superstars,” said Andy Hines, a founder of the 3-year-old association. “What you’re starting to see now is a lot of lunch-pail sorts of futurists.”

Today, a number of corporations and agencies, including British Telecom, IBM, the FBI and even Hallmark, have futurists on staff. Scores of other firms employ them as consultants.

Trouble is, when you employ a futurist, it’s not always evident what to expect. Anyone can declare himself or herself a futurist. For people who make a living at it, the vagueness of the job title can be disconcerting.

“Some people who do futures work don’t want to tell others they are futurists,” said Jennifer Jarrat, APF chair and a partner at Leading Futurists LLC.

Perhaps with good reason. People who make sweeping statements about the future can see their words come back to haunt them. Such was the fate of millennium-bug alarmists when Jan. 1, 2000, calmly arrived. Or of Ken Olson, founder of Digital Equipment, best known for saying in 1977, “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.”

Jarrat thinks futurists would be well-served by instituting a certification process that establishes one as a professional. It might include an exam or education- and work-related requirements. But certification is still in the discussion stage. Hines is betting it will be in place by 2009.

Some futurists welcome “professionalization” because it could make people in high places take their views more seriously.

“Making future forecasting more of a formal field could be a great step toward moving some of the techniques into public policy,” said Howard Rheingold, a futurist and author. “I’m not saying it’s possible to predict the future, but grappling with what’s happening today and where it’s going is an important priority that seems to be ignored on the policy level.”

Today, much discussion about the future is concentrated among futurists themselves, who are active in launching organizations. Besides the APF, other futurist-oriented groups include the World Future Society, the World Futures Studies Federation and the World Future Council.

Futurists also enjoy convening meetings. The APF, for example, had a recent annual meeting in Las Vegas, a venue Hines saw as appropriate for discussing the blurring boundaries between the real and virtual worlds.

At night, meeting attendees engaged in what Hines described as an ethnography exercise. This consisted of piling into a stretch Hummer and cruising around the strip discussing emerging social trends.

For those wanting to train as futurists in a more conventional setting, academic options are limited. The University of Houston Clear Lake and the University of Hawaii at Manoa run two of the better-known programs offering master’s degrees in futures studies and alternative futures, respectively.

In many ways, techniques employed by futurists don’t fit into traditional academic disciplines. Futurists, Jarrat says, aren’t as dependent on numerical data as other forecasting professionals such as insurance industry actuaries or stock market analysts. Although she incorporates demographics or economic data in her research, Jarrat says her conclusions tend to be “more qualitative than numerical.”

In an age of relentless technological progress, such an approach has an advantage. While computers are quite adept at making numerical forecasts, for the foreseeable future it will still take a human to interpret what the numbers mean, said Ian Pearson, futurist at British Telecom.

“Computers are hopeless at handling subjective information,” he said.

By Joanna Glasner

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