Futurist Glen Hiemstra studies current trends to help organizations understand the challenges and opportunities facing them in the decades ahead.
Will the future be a scary, dystopian place, where societies are fractured and technology is out of control? Not according to Glen Hiemstra, who looks into the future for a living. He is decidedly more optimistic than that.
“To be optimistic about the future is a choice one makes,” he admits. “But the fact is that when things get bad, the human race has generally proven its ability to step up and solve the issues threatening us. True, we often wait until it’s almost too late – but we do it.”
And anyway, he says, while there are undoubted challenges ahead – including how we deal with global warming, the one thing that does keep him awake at night – there’s much to be positive about. “We’ve cut poverty in half in just 10 years,” he notes, “and there are now more middle-class people on the planet than in any time in our history. We’re approaching full literacy and we’re probably within a decade of everyone having high-speed internet access. More connections lead to more inventions, which lead to more progress and development. So there are lots of hopeful signs.”
As a futurologist, Hiemstra is someone who disseminates information about the future to help organizations and industries in effective strategic planning. While some of his peers might only look a few years ahead, Hiemstra will take a company decades into its future. His is a long-term view.
“I help them answer three questions,” he says. “What is our ‘probable’ future? Our ‘possible’ future? And our ‘preferred’ future? The probable future means looking at where current trends could take an organization. The possible future entails investigating the direction an organization might take if it did things differently. The preferred future is looking at the strategic direction of an organization, based on probable trends and options.” This last one is his specialty.
Hiemstra believes that “If you listen carefully, you can learn what the future is telling you.” But what does he mean by that, exactly? “I’m saying that by standing in the future and looking back at today, we get a strong sense of what we should be paying attention to in the present,” he says. “For example, take the issue of climate change. If you put yourself 50 or 150 years ahead, you can look at the world and understand what it is we have to do today to either prevent global warming, or get ready for it.”
Being able to see into the future certainly has upsides. For instance, Hiemstra’s foresight enabled him to register his website, www.futurist.com, in the early 1990s before the internet took off. “My motivating force is constant curiosity,” he says. “It’s what every futurist uses for fuel. I’m a vacuum for information. If you’re interested in finding out about new things on a continuous basis then future studies is the perfect area for you, because there is always something to learn – and staying ahead of the curve is so important in our field.”
What are the most interesting trends you’re noticing now?
The first is the so-called internet of everything, where machines, devices, buildings and vehicles communicate with each other on either a continuous or frequent basis. To me, that really is a significant change because it has the ability to make things like manufacturing, transportation and logistics much more intelligent. The internet of everything is going to be the largest engineering project in the history of the world.
The second is the continued improvement of artificial intelligence, where machines become capable of assessing information in real time and helping humans make better decisions. The third trend is the combination of biology, nanotechnology and artificial intelligence to help us better understand biological systems and extend healthy human lifespans.
Then there’s the rapid development of solar energy; plus space development. The number of companies and startups involved in the latter is astonishing. By the end of the century, living in space will be a viable option.
How will logistics develop in the years ahead?
Infrastructure will become smarter and, within a decade or two, we’ll move towards more autonomous transportation systems. This has implications for efficiency and also for the changing nature of employment. Generally, I’m not as worried as some about technology replacing humans – I think we’ll adjust to it because it will happen more gradually than people think. The other major transportation development worth watching is the Hyperloop technology popularized by Elon Musk. If we can move goods at 600 or 700 miles an hour between cities, that would be hugely significant.
What do you see as the main challenges and opportunities for organizations in the future?
We need to build a culture of innovative thinking that will help us overcome challenges: becoming more sustainable – more energy-efficient and carbon-neutral; how to take advantage of machine intelligence and smarter systems; and dealing with an older workforce. Opportunities include taking advantage of big data for more efficient delivery systems, and using young people in the workforce. That’s because they are so capable with information technology and there’s a huge opportunity to leverage their knowledge – 75 percent of the workforce will be millennials by 2025.
How can companies best ready themselves for the long-term future?
By turning the future into a continuous conversation, rather than something they look at every five years. A company shouldn’t say: “OK, we looked at the future – now let’s all get back to work.” Instead, it should make the future part of its work. — Tony Greenway
Published: February 2017