[Amplifying Black Voices] The Makings of a Futurist

Published Jul 09 2021 11:24 AM 716 Views

Seven schools in seven years. That childhood experience forced me to develop resilience and adaptability in the face of disruption. Even before I learned the term “scenario planning” it was part of my everyday life. As I became familiar with the uncertainty of my present, I found peace in planning for my future. I learned to reframe that uncertainty from adversity to advantage. One could say I’ve spent most of my life preparing for the role I now have at Microsoft.

 

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My name is Desmond Dickerson and I’m a futurist. Some businesses call what I do corporate strategy or innovation strategy. In academic circles this is referred to as strategic foresight. My job title sounds cool, but most folks don’t really know what it means. “Are you a fortune teller?” they ask. I don’t predict the future; I help organizations and individuals envision the future so they can prepare for it. And at my best, I equip them to actively shape the future into their preferred outcomes. I do this through a range of applications and exercises. In summary, I research to gather weak signals about a topic, then use frameworks to understand the how those signals might play out. Finally, I pressure test those assumptions through experimentation, prototyping, and storytelling. Sharing those findings helps establish Microsoft’s credibility as a thought leader in the future of work. While this skillset is useful for problem solving across all industries, it is particularly valuable in settings that contend with disruptive technologies and swiftly developing innovations.

 

Unfortunately, the niche topic area of futures thinking suffers from the same problems of homogeneity and exclusion as the rest of the tech industry. The pool of futurists advising the most powerful organizations in the world is largely white and male. Considering that these organizations make important decisions for all types of people, this represents a worrisome blind spot. This exclusion manifests even outside the workplace. Science Fiction movies and television shows seldom feature leading Black characters. While this may seem like a trivial matter, consider how many technological advancements took direct influence from media:

  • Videophones in 2001: A Space Odyssey inspired the videoconferencing technology like Skype or Teams that we all use today.
  • The Robots of Dawn introduced the idea of Artificial Intelligence to control robots.
  • Flying cars under development at Boeing and other manufacturers were first imagined in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep.

These books illustrate the importance of fictional inspiration for futuristic advancements but also reveal the lack of diverse representation in such works. A future with increasingly complex problems requires a diverse set of contributors working on solutions.

 

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As one of the few Black voices in the futures thinking space, I take particular pride in the work I do and in evangelizing the study of the topic more broadly within underrepresented communities. There is a certain agency that comes with this work. Determining your own path forward (whether individually or corporately) engenders an ethos of optimism and a sense of empowerment. Microsoft’s emphasis on empowering everyone is a big part of why I enjoy being here so much. So, in the spirit of carrying out that mission, I’d like to share a few tools YOU can use to practice strategic foresight in your day-to-day life.

 

Signal Scanning: a signal is a small or local object or occurrence that provides insight that sheds light on the future. Scanning entails looking across the landscape of your industry or livelihood to identify and catalogue signals. When grouped together, these signals constitute trends and driving forces. Signal Scanning helps you anticipate the winds of change before they topple over the status quo.

Scenario Planning: an exercise in which practitioners devise plausible future scenarios to pressure test their strategies or readiness for change. In your personal life, this approach helps you to map out how you will respond to occurrences that could happen to you. As a business leader, you can use this exercise to assess how your business landscape might be altered by the introduction of a disruptive technology or shifting public preferences. Scenario Planning should be grounded in some reality and influenced by the trends uncovered through Signal Scanning.

Design Fiction: a practice of creating artifacts that represent tools for future scenarios. The object is to create something real enough that people can have meaningful conversations about it. This could include speculative job postings for roles that don’t yet exist or an instructional manual for a futuristic product like a flying car.

 

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Futurists use these tools and more every day to navigate disruptions and make strategic bets about the future. My hope is that this post and my work more broadly both help to democratize futures thinking to a wider audience of practitioners. While I’ve applied the techniques of strategic foresight to a career in tech, others find it useful in policy making, the non-profit sector, healthcare, and the many other disciplines that require us to think critically about how our present actions shape the future. Fortunately, more diverse futurist voices are emerging. Sharp thinkers like Julian Bleecker, Sinead Bovell, and NK Jemisin have all empowered me to further hone my abilities as a futurist. Their work inspires me to remain radically optimistic about the future. And I’m heartened by the fact that my work doesn’t just end with marketing our products, but that I get to contribute to making the future of work a more thoughtful and equitable place for all people.

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