by Jeremy Nulik
The most significant feat of architecture in the United States is the entryway of the Augusta High School in the hamlet of Augusta, Kansas. There is a caveat to the previous statement: The mantle, “most significant,” is from a Ronald-Reagan-era version of me.
However, imagine you’re me in 1987, and you are a passenger of a mid-size car driving south through rolling hills of wheat and cattle when a triangular structure teases your horizon. The building’s roof line resembles something out of a science fiction film — like a Robot Mothra had descended upon an otherwise pastoral scene. As the car nears the building, the zenith of the roof plunges to nearly street level. Then severely back up again. Because the windows follow suit, it seems like some kind of strange invitation, a smile from another world.
“Why did they make the building like that?” I ask my father.
“I don’t know,” he says. “It was like they were trying to make something that looks futuristic.”
“Is that what buildings are going to look like in the future?” I ask.
“No,” he says. “That is what buildings look like right now.”
And, perhaps without knowing it, my father uttered something fundamentally profound. The future, as I had characterized it in 1987, does not really exist. I had been under the assumption, as so many of us are, that the future is this opaque thing. It’s out there. And, often, when thinking of that “out there,” anxiety is triggered: What is going to happen?
Thankfully, this understanding of the future is erroneous. As indicated by my father more than 30 years in the past.
As we’ve come to understand, the future is not some single dimension or point toward which we are marching in lockstep. The thing that we call the future is all around us. It makes itself known in through the mental (and sometimes tangible) artifacts and images that we have in the present moment. As the science fiction writer William Gibson said, “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.”
The signals of what is to come are among us all the time. The challenge for most of us is our fitness in registering which of those signals or trends will most likely impact and shape our multiple futures. And yet more challenging is deciphering or making decisions on what impact we hope to have in shaping futures.
Today (with the pandemic, unrest, volatility), it feels like we have been getting a force-feeding on uncertainty and disruption. The questions that we typically ask are ones that sound like, “Is this what our world will be in the future?” The answer, oddly, is yes and no. The world has always been and will continue to be rife with uncertainty. But the future will not be a linear continuation of today. It is being expressed, right now, in the decisions you are making and in your ability to look for signals or images of what could be.
Here is a non-anxiety-inducing method for looking forward now: Horizon Scanning. This is a weeks-long asynchronous challenge that you can take as an organization. Horizon Scanning does not require sophisticated understanding. All that is required is curiosity and diligence. Gather your team and agree that you are in search of the signs of where your industry may be heading. It can start with something as simple as Googling, “The future of .” Get past the top headlines. Look for patterns. Look for outliers. Create a shared document and reconvene to have conversations about what you found. You will get to know the future when you become more curious about your world today.
Jeremy Nulik (email@example.com) is evangelist prime at bigwidesky, a human business consultancy, in St. Louis, Mo.