If you were to imagine an ideal future for yourself 40 years from now, what would it look like? What kinds of interactions might you have? Do you imagine yourself zoned in on the latest immersive game with friends both A.I. and human, or conversing solely through digital gesticulation? Are you connecting with friends in similar ways as you do today? What would your environment look like? What values or ideals does the 2057 society embrace, and are they different from 2017’s?
No two people who go through this exercise imagine the same future—which is exactly how it should be. If we all were destined to live the same futures, we’d be living a scene out of Kurt Vonnegut’s short story “Harrison Bergeron.”
As a futurist, it is my job to imagine many possible scenarios about how the future could unfold. A key word here is could. Because many futures are possible, we need to create a wide range of different future scenarios.
But there are limits to my industry’s imagination. It’s no secret that, like Silicon Valley’s tech scene, futurism/foresight/strategic foresight/futurology (this field has more names than popular breeds of poodle mixes) is male dominated. Of the 510 members of the Association of Professional Futurists, only 194 are women. I am not the first to bring this up and hopefully will not be the last.
You may not realize it, because much of our work is behind the scenes, but futurists hold influence. (I’m biased, of course.) They are increasingly important to corporate operation, whether in-house or as part of a contracted firm. At companies like Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, and Google, they help to develop long-term plans, digital interactions, and even vernacular. One of the most influential futurists of our time is Ray Kurzweil. In 1990 he forecast the rise and adoption of the internet, which was rarely reliable outside of military and academic uses at that time. Kurzweil has helped shape how many industries and companies plan for possible futures. He’s now working at Google, and while specifics are kept under lock and key, he appears to be a key strategic influencer.
As influential as Kurzweil has been and continues to be, the question remains: If only one kind of person is thinking about what kinds of products or experiences we “need,” the result will look lot like today—a future in which engineering, design, and other decisions fail to consider major swaths of people.
Just as recent studies have proven companies with women at the helm are more successful, we need to examine what future success might look like given a different perspective than what we are used to. By incorporating a variety of different perspectives—particularly of women and minorities—the process of working toward possible futures might look a bit different. A more diverse futurism industry could provide the alternate modes of thinking and experiences that are necessary for us to enable both true innovation and our own human survival.
One of my graduate school professors told my class of futurists-to-be that while “the future” seems far off, once we get there it will feel like Tuesday. The idea is that once we get there, the future will feel familiar. But given the current political and social climate, I increasingly find myself asking: “Whose Tuesday are we talking about here?”
This may seem like a trivial question, but let’s consider for a second how our world has come to be the way that it is. How have all the products, services, experiences, and behaviors in our life come to be? Why do we organize society in the way that it is now? Why do we swipe right to accept a date (and now colloquially refer to acceptance of social activity as swiping right), or stress our thumbs by typing on a miniaturized computer keyboard that has been downsized and digitized for our phones? The creators of the products and experiences people use daily hold incredible power to shape the way we engage with the world. A now well-known example is Apple’s initial launch of its Health app. While it included daily distance covered and a plethora of other health tracking features, it missed something that has a huge recurring impact on over half the U.S. population: There was no a feature to help women track their periods—something that has a monthly effect on the physical, social, and emotional state of millions of Americans. How could Apple miss such a market? It’s a fairly simple answer: Period tracking simply wasn’t a metric that a male design team held top of mind.
While this is an easy example to point to, and has since been rectified, it is not an outlier. In 2015, Google Photos incorrectly identified two black people as gorillas. Facial recognition software is often trained using white faces. These examples point toward huge social ramifications of a homogenous group designing our future.
Earlier this year a group of colleagues and I were conducting a workshop to look at possible cyber futures on the 10-year time horizon. We gathered together experts from academia, government, military, and industry. A few colleagues and I quickly noticed that of the almost 50 people present, only six were women. At the end of day one, a female attendee stood up and said: “Can I ask the group a question? Is the future male?” Her point resonated. Heads turned, surveying the room. Not until then did the larger group realize the homogeneousness around them.
That awareness had an effect. While scenarios created on day one were rich in future themes, those created on day two were notably more conscientious about who was involved: Women! People outside the United States! Issues not typically felt by those privileged enough to be in the room! The scenarios on day two also imagined what kinds of challenges diversity can pose, such as possible cyber-relations between developed and developing countries, or A.I. medical systems not knowing about diseases specific to particular populations. Simply calling attention to the lack of diversity in the room helped the group expand their areas of focus. Imagine what kinds of conversations, scenarios, and decisive actions in the present could be possible with not just a callout, but an inherently more diverse group. Since that work session, my colleagues and I have worked to make sure that future groups are more diverse. Just this month we held a follow-up session consisting of 30 percent women. While this is a huge jump, there are still many more measures of diversity we are working toward including as we move forward.
Afrofuturism offers one example of how we can begin to combat a singular-perspective future. Afrofuturism is a vision of future societies combining African history, science fiction, magical realism, and fantasy to create a conversation confronting the Western-centric depiction of future possibilities. Afrofuturism addresses the themes and concerns of modern black people and shifts the conversation about possible futures by reframing historical events. This movement champions a voice that has been absent from much of the “classic” science fiction of our past and reframes toward more representative visions of what imaginative, realistic, and inspiring futures can look like.
We need more non-male, non-white, non-straight voices to be involved in creating possible visions for our futures. We need a wider variety of voices to be involved in building those diverse futures. Just as a tenet of future studies is to imagine a wide variety of futures to best comparison plan and make decisions in the present, a tenet we need to begin championing is the inclusion of diverse inputs—divergent industries and trends, yes, but also divergent people crafting the futures we want to build. Let’s have our futures reflect our whole population, not just those who have had the privileged to be there in the beginning. It’s time to evolve our futures process so that we don’t end up living in someone else’s Tuesday wondering how we ended up there.