Thornton May: 'Future' as a verb

Ray Bradbury (1920-2012), the science fiction pioneer and poet laureate of the Space Age, once remarked, "I'm not a futurist. People ask me to predict the future, when all I want to do is prevent it."

I, on the other hand, am a futurist, and I contend that the future is not something to be prevented, but something to be understood and prepared for. More than that, I would like to put in front of the switched-on, hardworking Computerworld readership the premise that they should think of future not as a noun (that is, a place or thing), but as a verb -- a mode of behavior.

In executive development programs at Ohio State University, the University of Kentucky, Florida State College at Jacksonville and the Olin College of Engineering, I frequently invoke the metaphor of the "New World" to get senior executives thinking about the future. In doing so, we inevitably end up discussing Christopher Columbus, the uber-New-Worlder.

On at least one dimension, Columbus serves as a positive role model for those who would use future as a verb rather than a noun and who contend that the future is not something to be prevented and/or accommodated. Columbus believed that the future existed and that it would be fundamentally different from the status quo. This is Futuring Skill No. 1: future awareness. The inverse of future awareness (belief in a future that is different only insofar as it is better than the present) regresses IT executives to a medieval mind-set mired in perpetual sameness.

To drive this point home, I ask executive education audiences whether they think Ronald Reagan's "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall" speech of 1987 mattered. I don't do that to explore geopolitical power dynamics of the past. I do it to highlight the critical role leaders have in putting ideas into play. Prior to Reagan giving voice to the idea that the Berlin Wall should come down, Western leaders generally accepted the Soviet Union's domination of Eastern Europe. Reagan, one East German said, "changed our consciousness," giving people real belief that "things could be different."

The future will be different. It is up to us to determine the shape, trajectory and pacing of that difference. More than just being aware that there is a future, those who would use future as a verb need to have a preference for the kind of future they want to experience. How do you want the future to be different? This is Futuring Skill No. 2: future preference. The organizations that will prosper in the future are led by people who have imagined a future they want to live in.

This kind of "let's imagine the future and make it happen" thinking does not get much coverage in the press. Being utopian (or even modestly upbeat) is very much out of favor these days. For example, Simon Ings, managing director of the new digital quarterly New Scientist, and Sumit Paul-Choudry, the e-magazine's editor in chief, darkly commented, "We don't know where we're going, and we don't know how we'll get there. There are no maps, the brakes don't work, the driver's blind and the doors have no handles. Enjoy the ride." Equally bleakly, Robert Zoellick, the outgoing World Bank president, recently told Charlie Rose, "There's no shortage of things that can give you insomnia."

These people are making my point. It is time we in IT stop wallowing in nightmares and start delighting in dreams. The future that just happens (future as a noun) is not pretty. It is up to us to use future as a verb to imagine and then create a world we want to live in.

Thornton A. May is author of The New Know: Innovation Powered by Analytics and executive director of the IT Leadership Academy at Florida State College in Jacksonville. You can contact him at thorntonamay@aol.com or follow him on Twitter ( @deanitla).

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