Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Learning the trade: the futurist's apprentice

I'd like to propose an idea for the futures community. The idea is that each and every professional futurist consider taking on an apprentice to mentor through to independence.

Not a new concept, I hasten to add -- as far as employment is concerned, it's one of the oldest ones there is, dating back to the late middle ages. It is not even a new idea for the futures community. There seems to be plenty of talk about "mentoring" in a broad sense, and many of the futurists I know can name one or two people that taught them "everything they know" -- or at least, most of what they knew at one time -- and with that, the inspiration and example which allowed them to go on to carve their own niche. There may even be future-oriented organisations that have a more or less established mentoring or apprenticeship system. I can't name any, but such may exist, and if this is the case, more power to them.

What I'm suggesting is that this be developed as a more habitual, and more widely known, mechanism for getting into the field -- because assuredly, at this time, getting good training in futures is not easy. And it needs to be easier, in the sense of lowering barriers and providing opportunities, if it is to catalyse the culture-changing work that needs to be done.

I've been contemplating this in light of the recent discussion of "The future of futurism" which suggested to me both that serious futurists aren't getting their message across to journalists and, by extension, the general public as effectively as they might like; and that certain people who are marketing themselves (in some ways more effectively) as futurists are simply making it up as they go along. (The predictive mode is almost antithetical to learning, because if it were really about learning, one of the first things it would have learned is that prediction doesn't work very well.) The upshot is that mechanisms to teach and learn real futures still require our close attention; which is the proximate reason for this piece.

As suggested above, then, mentorship is already a key part of accumulating practical experience in futures. To the extent they're not self-taught (the default situation) many futures practitioners can trace the steepest part of the learning curve to university courses like those at Houston, Swinburne, or Hawaii. Some win their spurs in organisations like GBN, Futuribles, or Royal Dutch/Shell. Some just attend conferences, do a lot of reading, and figure the rest out for themselves. The optimal situation for the neophyte would seems to be to experience a mixture of these. But the sine qua non of doing futures well appears to me to be lots of experience (generating, elucidating and pursuing future possibilities), and lots of conversations with people who know what they're talking about.

This gestures back to the long-standing discussion over whether futures is more an art or a science. To my mind, there's no longer much usefully to say on this: it's a mixture -- try to fit it into one hole exclusively and you miss the other. Is it a profession or a trade? Again, it strikes me as a bit of both. (I'm doubtful that it's worth getting hung up on the distinctions, which can detract from actually doing anything useful. In this regard, I often think of Canadian futurist Ruben Nelson's observation at the 02005 WFSF conference in Hungary, to the effect that "future studies isn't 'the work'; improving the world is the work, and futures is a means to do that").

But the field, to the extent that it's still not entirely consensually clear to itself what kind of enterprise it is at heart, can certainly stand to learn from comparison to more established activities. Take the practice of law, for instance. In law, the principles and content (the stuff you can learn from books) are important, but simply to master this corpus at an academic or intellectual level does not a lawyer make. There's a certain emphasis on content mastery in law -- lawyers are in large measure the gatekeepers of a parallel universe (perhaps I mean a microcosm, although it sure can feel like a parallel universe) ... one of arcane language and complex procedure. But, where lawyers are expert tour guides, who interpose themselves between the client and render safe the incomprehensible-or-even-dangerous unfamiliar surroundings, futurists are more like expedition advisors, because they co-navigate and map with their clients terrain that no one has ever seen. Yet, if they do it well, in the process they'll impart some of their skills. It's more of a collaborative learning process. In law, the lawyer may learn, but as a content "expert" it generally behooves her to keep that ignorance a secret. Lawyers' repeat business is predicated on the unspoken notion that the law is far too complex, and the stakes too high, for regular people to be trusted to do anything much for themselves. Navigating change, while being both as complex and as high-stakes as anything imaginable, is however something that in my experience, many futurists would really like to teach the world to do. A highly desirable scenario for the future of futures may be, I think, one in which designated "futurists" are no longer necessary. (Come to that, so would a scenario in which lawyers are no longer necessary -- but that's another story.) A wise culture, or as Slaughter puts it, a "social capacity" for foresight, would obviate most of the need for a futurist specialisation: but that's some time off yet.

Meanwhile, my point is that aspiring lawyers, who have relatively more content-mastery emphasis than futurists (for whom process is at least as important), are required, in Australia and the UK at any rate, to undergo a period of traineeship or clerkship before they are licensed to practice in their own right.

Now, someone else might like to use this to make an argument for registration and regulation of the futures profession, but that's not my point. I'm suggesting this because it seems to me to be a rather crucial step in "learning the trade". If, as I would argue, futures is more about process than content, but structurally provides fewer opportunities for aspiring futurists to learn process (from example, on the job), then a major chance is being missed. On the other hand, if practising futurists as a group were to put this realisation into practice, the whole field could benefit from making that kind of semi-formal learning opportunity more common.

So why do I make this suggestion? My motivation is largely my own experience of trying to become a futurist. I first encountered the field formally at the World Futures Studies Federation biennial conference, in Brisbane in 01997. It was my final year of high school. I wound up studying for a BA (history and philosophy of science) and an LLB concurrently at the University of Melbourne. Richard Slaughter was unfortunately no longer there, and so there was no opportunity to study the field formally with an experienced academic futurist. In the final semester of my arts degree, I persuaded a lecturer with an interest in the sociology of technology to supervise me in directed reading on futures studies, however my efforts were rewarded with the lowest grade I received throughout the whole degree. It wasn't so much that my essay was awful, although it probably was -- but the lesson I gleaned was that working within a different paradigm is like swimming upstream. It's hard work. Support is as rare as it is valuable.

I attended another WFSF conference, in 02001, and Budapest Futures Courses in 01 and 03, and worked in two futures related projects in England the following year -- on the first, I was a futurist lone ranger in an education-oriented organisation; in the second, I had the privilege to be working alongside Wendy Schultz, an exceptional academic and consulting futurist whose mentorship during the project was invaluable.

It was not until last year that I had a chance to start learning "the content" of futures formally, in Hawaii (which was is no small measure due to Wendy's encouragement and support). But in fact it wasn't so much the content I came for; I had already discovered that this can be learned independently. What I came to Hawaii for was the chance to build on the kind of mentorship I'd briefly experienced in that role in England -- to spend time in a community of philosophically rigorous, alert futures-oriented people, with whom I wouldn't have to patiently explain the basics of futures, and field an hour of questions every time, before getting into deeper discussion. (Working with the unintiated is an indispensable part of the job, but it gets lonely.) So that's what I went to Hawaii for, and that is what, to my delight, I have found; not simply a community, but one interested in improving itself and delving more deeply into the many questions opened up by the unique Datorian perspective on the world.

At the same time, though, I have come to believe that by far the most important part of the learning process occurs in "doing" futures (rather than just reading or talking about it, though these are also essential); ideally under the supervision of someone who's been doing it for much longer. I've been fortunate to find that in Hawaii; but there are so few comparable opportunities, that a broader solution is required. Hence the apprenticeship suggestion. Of course, the problems to which I've alluded are well known, but it sometimes seems that everyone's so busy trying to make a living that they don't necessarily have much time left over to address the structural reasons that make it difficult for them to make a living!

The reasons I see for a more regular futurist apprenticeship scheme are, then, in sum:

- Academic courses don't necessarily involve hands-on work, which I see as self-evidently essential to being a useful, effective consulting/community futurist. (We're upscaling our activity in Hawaii, partly in recognition of the fact that this is the kind of experience students are hungry for).

- Apprenticeship is a sensible pedagogical arrangement, given the commercial in-confidence of much crucial futures work. With a junior futurist present to support the senior one, even in circumstances of confidentiality I believe "the futures field" would learn more effectively, retaining and transmitting "stories from the front" longer and better. Post-client debrief is also one of the best learning experiences for the junior futurist. Without one there, the opportunity to have that vital conversation is, quite simply, passed over.

- Futures consists of a relatively small number of workers, widely distributed around the world. Good quality futures courses (academic or otherwise) are few and far between. Many countries have no such thing, although most would at least have a few consulting futurists: why not capitalise on the learning opportunity that does exist, and thereby help compensate for the relative paucity of university futures programs? This is a sound response to the distribution problem.

- Practising futurists, especially those that don't teach, ought to find some way to at least "replace themselves", without which they may risk becoming an endangered species. The field needs them to do this, and so does the world in general.

- The apprentice would get a chance to absorb the philosophy and practice of a fully fledged futures practitioner, and in so doing, hone their own sense of the field, the dynamics of change, the methodologies, and grow their own priceless reservoir of applied experience.

- The reputation, work and personal qualities of the practitioner play a large part in this line of work (as Peter Hayward, Director of the Swinburne Masters' program in strategic foresight, pointed out in a futures salon given in Hawaii earlier this year). At this point in time, people don't tend to hire "a futurist" generically the way they might hire "an accountant" (nor am I implying that they should -- just observing that they don't). It's a rare enough position, and particular people are usually sought by name. Training with established individuals is a way for the field generally to leverage and broaden the "equity" in their work and reputation.

- It would help legitimate the field, and pass its learning down through time.

- From the senior futurist's perspective, an apprentice would be far more useful and rewarding than simply having a personal assistant. They would need to be paid, of course; but not a vast amount, on-the-job training being the focus of the relationship.

So, who could take it forward? This is an idea that might be benefit from the considered attention of the Association of Professional Futurists, but would undoubtedly touch on the interests of people in the World Futures Studies Federation, the Institute for the Future, the World Future Society, and so forth. Again, I'm not suggesting that there aren't elements or examples of this already afoot -- there surely are, which is a reason to consider making it more widespread and well known; a conventional mechanism to advance an unconventional field.

Details remain to be worked out (the "indentured servitude" model, for example, may not be quite so viable today as in times past; and the traditional seven year period seems like rather a long time) but the essential idea remains viable as it has been for centuries. I'd be interested to know what others make of this.

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