- Interview with Laurel Cutler
People often refer to you as a futurist. Yet there was one quote I found that said something along the lines of: “I’m not really sure what people think a futurist is, but it’s either really easy or we’ve been really lucky.”
Yes, I absolutely said that.
May I ask you to reflect on having been called a futurist, and what it means to you now?
That’s a very good question and very provocative. I have to start by telling you that my grandson did my bio for his senior-year English assignment. Of course I spoke to him more frankly than I could ever speak to you or anyone. “What is a futurist?” he asked. “In my mind, it’s a fortune teller.” And that’s brilliant because it is something you do on the basis of intuition, imagination, feel, gut, whatever you want to call it. It’s certainly not data because there is no reliable data about the future. So, even in a data-driven world, progress and innovation and invention come from taking an imaginative, creative leap into the future. The key is to hypothesize first. This is also, of course, the scientific method. This is also, of course, not at all new. But it is absolutely absent from the world of business, which is driven from the data that doesn’t exist about the future, so they don’t think about the future.
So hypothesize first, then rigorously test the hypothesis to the degree that you can, again in the absence of data. How do you test it? By rationality, by argument, by all kinds of Hegelian methods: “If the reverse were true,” “What would be different,” etc., etc., etc. And rigorously test it, re-hypothesize, and move on. That is how art is made, that is how books are written, that is how science is done, but this is what a futurist does: It is how you go when there is no data. That is not how it began, but that is my definition.
That’s a very provocative answer.
As good as fortune telling?
The fortune telling is very good, but so is the statement that there is no reliable data about the future.
There is no data about the future, reliable or unreliable. And it’s impossible to get any. So, in the absence of data, one is left with one’s imagination, creativity, history, hunch, nerve endings, gut, whatever you want to call it.
Right. But now my dean, who talks all the time about “big data,” would be saying, “Well but there’s all of this big data out here.”
That data is not about the future, it’s about the past. It is doomed to be about the past if it is data. Now, the past is an excellent predictor of the future. But it’s not the only predictor of the future. And there are various tricks to it. Now I’m not the only futurist in the world, there are others and some of them are very, very good. I have no idea how the rest of them function; I just know how I function. But my five-year and 10-year predictions were good enough that I was invited by many of America’s largest corporations to refresh and to do a new one for the next 10 years. That’s how I went to Chrysler. I was used to doing this on a five-year schedule. I would predict the consumer marketplace five years out, and they asked me if I could do it ten years out. My partner, Stanley Katz, who’s gone, said, “No, we’ve only done five years out.” I said, “I beg to differ with you Stanley because the predictions we made 10 years ago and 15 years ago turned out to be quite right for ten years.” He said, “You’re absolutely right.”
Stanley was my indispensible partner in doing this work. He was the one who believed in me and in the whole process. I never...