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Picking up signals: Futurist Ryan looks ahead to build visionaries

August 23, 2022
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Rebecca Ryan is a top 50 professional futurist, economist, best-selling author and entrepreneur who will deliver the keynote address at the Wisconsin Economic Summit, which takes place Sept. 20-21 at Appleton’s Fox Cities Exhibition Center. She is the founder of NEXT Generation Consulting. Ryan outlines strategies in urban planning, economic development and workforce development to ensure that communities are well-equipped for future trends and challenges. She shared some of her perspectives with WEDC:

Rebecca Ryan

Rebecca Ryan

When I tell people I’m a futurist, I get a variety of reactions. Some people are intrigued. Some, I’m convinced, just think I’m kooky. Others, though, see the transformative value in examining how we emerge from the present and anticipate what’s ahead. 

Businesspeople draw specific benefits from thinking in a futuristic way. In fact, the ability to look ahead is often baked into an entrepreneurial mindset, but it may not always be structured in the most useful fashion or exercised in disciplined ways that make it muscular and visionary. 

That’s where the skills of a professional futurist come into play.

We look for signals and help others sharpen their radar to pull in information that allows them to anticipate and create a brighter future. That’s really the job of futurists, visionaries and change leaders: making things better.

But just what are these signals? Marina Gorbis of the Institute for the Future—one of my heroes—says signals are often found at the margins of life. 

“They are the things that grab your attention and make you ask: ‘Why is this happening? What’s going on here? A signal can be anything. It could be a technology, an application, a product/service/experience, an anecdote or personal observation, a research project or prototype, a news story, or even simply a piece of data that shows something different,” Gorbis wrote in “Five Principles for Thinking Like a Futurist.”

Futurists help make sense of the signals and seek out ways to share insights. For example, I meet regularly with a bunch of government nerds to share signals we’ve picked up. It gives us a chance to connect the dots, anticipate what the signals are suggesting to us and ask deeper questions.

You can hone your personal radar by developing a few important habits. Read widely and deeply. Talk frequently with people younger than you. Put your phone down and be present with what’s happening around you—humans have good ideas in the shower because they’re alone in there.

Here’s another tip: Stop watching national political news. Some of you may be freaked out at that prospect, and you are the ones I’m concerned about. The algorithms have turned you into junkies. Switch out of your ravenous news consumption, which has the potential of further dividing our nation. Instead, start noticing.

Build some routines. I find these practices to be especially helpful in creating a futurist’s mindset:

Sit for five minutes, with your phone turned off, and notice what happens in your body and brain when you slow down enough to pay attention. 

Keep a noticing journal. Cartoonist Lynda Barry offers a “16 things” daily journal that prompts you to chronicle seven things you did, seven things you saw, and one thing you heard, and asks you to draw one thing you saw. 

Notice with friends. Start a “Signals and Sensemaking” panel with people who care about the same domain as you to help you widen your point of view and help you notice more.

Futurists also think deeply about what’s coming and help clients prepare to shape the futures they want by figuring out what’s coming. I call this strategic foresight

Strategic foresight is different from strategic planning in several important ways:

  • Strategic planning starts with the past (usually a SWOT analysis of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats), and is often based on current reality, budget and past experience. Strategic foresight, on the other hand, starts with the future. What social, technology, economic, environmental and political trends will shape your future? 
  • Strategic planning focuses on three- to five-year plans, while strategic foresight looks at  10- to 20-year horizons—and sometimes longer—before developing plans.
  • Strategic planning focuses on a hoped-for future, but foresight considers several plausible futures—ranging from challenging to surprisingly successful—to select and prioritize robust strategies.
  • Those in the C-suite generally do strategic planning with a trained facilitator. My team recommends engaging a blend of leaders along with a group of contrarian thinkers who respectfully ask tough questions—and overall, a broad mix of participants who vary in terms of area of expertise, generation/age, years of experience, gender, and workgroup or authority levels.
  • Strategic planning is most useful for managing risk in a well-defined context, while strategic foresight is most useful to mitigate risk and leverage opportunity.
  • Strategic planning helps you navigate changes when you know the game’s rules and variables. Strategic foresight helps you thrive when the game rules get changed and you don’t know what they are yet, and when your success is interdependent on other influential actors and forces. Strategic foresight also empowers you to catalyze change, to make new rules, to disrupt.

One component of this foresight is scenario planning that explores the future in three zones: (1) challenging, (2) expectable and (3) visionary. 

I recommend exploring a plausible challenging future first, anticipating external and internal events and missteps and considering what else might happen to make the future seem bleak. 

Then, imagine a future that falls within a zone of conventional expectations. For example, how did society react to the Great Recession? We can probably expect a similar response to current and future economic crises.

Finally, there is the visionary future, where more things go right than wrong. 

Organizations use strategic foresight during crises to anticipate what changes might still be looming. Communities use it as a community visioning process. Cities use it before they start long-term master planning processes.

Future-ready organizations share some characteristics. Their leaders are visionaries, and are sometimes seen as “weird” because they lack a herd mentality. They can adjust on the fly. They are constantly investing in people, training and technology. They are genuinely interested in varying points of view.

Importantly, they know that “watch and wait” is not a viable strategy.

The strategic foresight process is not a crystal ball. Done correctly, it has guts. And lots and lots of data. And heart. And meat. And creativity. And compelling calls to action.

Faced with that, some organizations freak out, saying, “I don’t have the time to do this!” I always push back and ask: “You don’t have the time to prepare for the future? You’d rather just do what you’ve always done and hope for the best?”

Futurists care about our futures. We share a commitment to leave the world a better place for coming generations.

Register now for the Wisconsin Economic Summit to hear Ryan’s keynote address and take part in the conversation about Wisconsin’s economic future.

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