My Life as a Futurist

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Through the Looking GlassFor eight years back in the 1970s, I worked for a consulting firm that specialized in forecasting the future. The Futures Group was located in Glastonbury and helped businesses and government with long range planning.

We were a small group but we did consulting for big companies. I participated in studies for General Foods, Dow Chemical, United Aircraft, Pitney Bows, Upjohn, General Electric, Fuji, and others. Most of what I did was to compile lists of forecasts that had already been published. I often referred to the Wall Street Transcript with its verbatim publication of speeches made by CEOs. They were loaded with descriptions of future trends and prospects.

My bosses had a lot of contacts within the government and once in 1979 they came home from a conference in Washington D.C. talking about the threat of jihad. Most of us were not familiar with the word and thought it was just one of those low-probability/high-impact events we described in various scenarios about the future.

In gathering opinions about the future, I did a lot of interviewing on the phone and flying around the country to visit experts in person. One of my most vivid memories came from talking to energy experts in the Minneapolis area. One scientist was sure the solution to our energy problems would be the breeder reactor, which generates more fuel than it burns; and another scientist was equally sure that the solution would come from atomic fusion in which, instead of being blown apart, atoms are merged. Each of these men was dedicated to his own research, and it was questionable as to which (if either) would lead to an outcome of real life implementation.

Eventually I was given the job of forecasting sales of hospital supplies. Almost everything in forecasting comes down to demographics; beyond that, we looked for trends in medical journals and I always had a pile of them on my desk. I was enjoying articles like “The Cascade of Events in the Metabolism of Arachidonic Acid” which impacted the strength of aspirin physicians would prescribe for prevention of heart attacks. “Cis-Trans Isomerization in the Hydrogenation Process” was published well before the public got around to worrying about trans fats.

In forecasting items such as sales of sutures, I would type the past data into the computer which would form a trend line and extend it into the future. Then I would apply what we called trend impact analysis to the extension.

That meant the guesses about the future which I had culled from journals and interviews were also fed into the computer with an estimate of how likely they were to happen and how confident we were with this particular piece of speculation.

The Futures Group was started in 1971 and is still going strong. It is now based in Washington, D.C. and is far different from what it was as a start-up. The founder, Theodore J. Gordon, who is in his 80s, is still writing and publishing. You can check his list of publications on Amazon.

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