Why you should stop mistaking innovation for futurism

Futurism and innovation are both great and essential -- but very different, writes Grey's head of creative tech.

Some of the world's most celebrated businesspeople – think Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos – are being positioned in the media as prophets. And they may well be. They anticipate the future, they create for that future. In doing so, they end up deciding our destinies as well.

But wait: "Why do these people get to decide my brand’s future? I’m also innovating!" See, that’s the problem: you’re mistaking innovation for futurism, and it’s costing you the chance to decide your own path forward.

The aforementioned leaders are considered futurists for specific, differentiating reasons. They use highly speculative mindsets to chart their companies' strategies. With visions of 30, 40, 100 years from now, they create products that fit their long-term vision and by doing so, a self-fulfilling prophecy occurs. The prospect they preach starts to feel more tangible for their audience, and they spur new industries – in part because tech titans share loud and clear what their prospects of our future are. Aside from bravery, this does take time, attention and money – beyond what’s being invested in innovation practices.

Professionals in creative businesses have never been more eager to build the future of their industries, and often lean on innovation to propel their progress. Chief innovation officers are tasked with leading the march toward the future, anticipating where an entire industry will go. But a lot of practices and roles labeled with "innovation" focus on new uses and applications of what’s available now – and they often do so to solve immediate business challenges.

Disruptive futurists build toward their expected forecasts, by anticipating the future and using scenarios to develop their innovation pipeline. That’s not the same as tapping existing partners, resources and technologies in new ways to foster innovation.

Futurism and innovation are both great. They’re both essential. But they are very different. And you’re probably only capitalizing on the latter.

By adopting futurism and extrapolation practices, you can explore paths for long-term planning. It demands imagining potential futures to anticipate the steps required to shape potential realities.

Borrowing from the futurist toolkit, you can delineate a clearer path of action. Let’s take a look at some motivations for doing it:

Futurism is a compass for innovation.
Futurists need to look for weak signals constantly – murmurs of possibility in culture and behavior – then trace the potential trajectory of those threads in the future. Combining our present and infusing it with probable scenarios in long periods allows us to imagine the different outcomes in each situation. Then we can start asking questions like: What might it feel like to live in this future? What might we see, hear and touch 10, 20, or 30 years from now? By identifying new areas of opportunity, the steps required to get to that long-term vision become visible. Finally, your innovations have a long-term direction.

People want to see the future – so they can join you.
By illustrating long-term goals and communicating them with our audiences – in the way that true futurists do – the path of immediate innovation becomes a clearer one. And this happens more collaboratively and effectively when we give people the opportunity to align with our shared vision of the future. Our innovations should then look like a path of breadcrumbs guiding us towards the delineated tomorrow outlined in our futurist vision. In a world of eternal flux, companies that share strong, plausible visions of forthcoming realities have the opportunity to represent something bigger – and rally more participants around their vision.

We can't allow a technocrat monopoly on the future.
When you study Musk, Bezos and the futures they present us, they offer a single-minded vision, one built by an individual and not by the collective. When analyzed, it becomes apparent that we need the participation of a wide range of companies, governments, NGOs and individuals to challenge the perception of the near future with their unique voices. In order to portray not just one future?–?the one being sold to us by the moguls –? we need many different types of prospects, melting elements of the various narratives and points of view to explore.

We should actively envision scenarios we want to live and work in, to identify and create paths toward those worlds. We need creative storytellers spinning alternate narratives, acting like "archeologists of the future" – crafting stories, objects, and experiences that let us peek at what's to come in order to start to understand the consequences.

How? First, identify signals. Look for current behaviors changing in your audience, identifying the "what" and "why" to spark curiosity. Then, extrapolate to inspire creative thinking. Think of futures where those given signals have become the new norm. Exaggerate, and imagine the preponderance of that behavior in society. Finally, bring it back. Think of artifacts, products, services or experiences that would be a necessary step towards the speculative future. Then make them.

Companies that develop creative tools connecting our present and our future selves will become active participants in shaping a future we want: ?a future that works for all.

Start exploring, investing and creating.

Mauricio Ruiz is the head of creative technology at Grey. 

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