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Why a futurist?

As a newcomer to the future industry, I observed the wealth of knowledge that the future brings, and the societal relevance that this knowledge carries. I am convinced that when people, including myself, become knowledgeable about possible futures, it provides them guidance in the rapidly changing world we live in. Changes happen at such a fast pace that people feel overwhelmed. How to deal with a global health crisis? Will the Netherlands one day be flooded with water? It takes courage to respond adequately to those changing circumstances and an effort to learn how to deal with such questions.

However, early in my career, I experienced that hardly anyone else shared my thoughts about the future because they were skeptical of the practitioners that translate the future: the futurists. Critics even questioned whether futurists were real professionals. For example, futurists were often depicted as crystal ball gazers. This image is a relic from the past, as, until the Enlightenment, the future was the domain of prophets. The prophets were the connection between the divine and the human (Beerden, 2015). The prophets predicted the future as oracles and helped individuals make strategic choices. There was a certain amount of magic connected to foretelling the future. A crystal ball is a symbol of the same magic, but also of imagination and intuition.

The signal of skepticism was amplified when I became a teacher in ‘futures studies’ at the applied university Fontys. At open days of our institute, parents often asked me the implicit normative question: “what profession will be attainable for my child after completing this curriculum?” They wanted to know whether their child would be able to get a ‘real’ job after studying the future. As such, most parents seem to prefer a higher education degree that everyone understands right away and leads to a straightforward profession. This hesitance towards a training in becoming something as distinctive as a futurist, illustrates how dominant established professions are.

The aforementioned experiences motivated me to reflect upon my field of expertise: the future. My objective is to clarify what kind of professionals futurists actually are. With in-depth research into the translators of the future, I hope to contribute to the development of futures studies. And with that, I hope to contribute to a collective understanding of the importance of ‘futures literacy’. Futures literacy means that we learn to speak the language of the future. The word ‘literacy’ is traditionally used to indicate that a language is mastered and fluently spoken. This term is also applied to all sorts of topics, for example to indicate whether someone knows the way digitally, i.e. whether this person is ‘digitally literate’. In that spirit, I use the term literacy with respect to the future.

Picture by Diederick Bulstra