Skip to main content


The Burdens of Seeing the Future

Andy Hines doesn’t use a crystal ball, because futurists don’t use magic — they use science

Andy Hines
Andy Hines

The first thing you should know about futurists is that we don’t practice futurism. “Futurism,” as Wikipedia can tell you, refers to a 20th-century, Fascist-Party-adjacent artistic movement in Italy. Don’t worry; that’s not what futurists do. What we do, to put it simply, is try to make sense of change.

Futurist history, like all history, is worth knowing. The first official futurists started popping up after World War II, at first to assist in a more systematic approach to military planning. From there, futurists spread to the corporate sector. It wasn’t until the ’70s that futurists entered academia, aided by none other than my very own University of Houston, which in 1974 launched the Master of Science in Foresight program — the first of its kind. That’s where I studied the subject as a student and where I teach it today.

Like most futurists, I didn’t grow up wanting to be one. I didn’t even know the job existed. But I did spend lots of time thinking about the future — a natural pull toward the discipline that many of my peers experienced, too. During my undergraduate years, back when you had to stand in line to select your college classes, I got to the front of the pack and picked a course titled “History of the Future.” I’m not sure why I picked it, but the decision was serendipitous. It would prove to be the spark that lit the flame.

Planning for the Future

Perhaps you are wondering how I couldn’t have seen it coming. But that would lead me to the second thing people get wrong about futurists: that we’re fortunetellers. We’re not, and we don’t pretend to be. We are simply informed by the past and read the trends of today to get a grasp on what the future could hold. The goal then becomes about bringing it back to a set of practical — key word — recommendations for present-day action.

Here’s an example. Around the turn of the millennium, when I worked with Kellogg’s, we started to see the groundswell of a movement toward “natural” foods, and we convinced the company’s leadership as much. Two decades later, I can say that’s one we got right. Point, Team Futurist.

Businesses and other organizations have slowly but steadily wised up to the value of these insights. About 25% of the Fortune 500 now have futurists on staff. They’re commonplace at government agencies as well as nonprofits. We’ve also been making the news in headlines of journalistic publications more often as of late. (That’s been a double-edged sword, though, as it has marked the arrival of self-proclaimed “futurists” who don’t necessarily have the credentials.)

Back to the Future

The impacts of the pandemic have been fascinating material for us. Our master’s program at UH saw a huge surge in enrollment, mainly from students wondering how in the world society couldn’t have seen this coming. In that way, it wasn’t too different from the surges we experienced after other world-altering events like 9/11, or even nonevents like Y2K. Isn’t it funny how these things point our collective thoughts toward the years ahead?

"We are seeing Americans embrace a wider view when it comes to what’s important in life. There is greater emphasis on sustainability and wellness."

Of course, many futurists (not to mention epidemiologists and other strategists) had been saying the world was susceptible to a pandemic for years. But in our field, saying it and inspiring action tend to be two very different things. Organizations simply can’t prioritize everything. The million-dollar questions now are around what the lasting effects will be.

When it comes to the booming trends toward virtual work and education, I would expect that we will eventually settle into a new normal, one that is significantly more virtual than that of 2019 but far less so than what more radical forecasters have declared. The crowded scenes unfolding lately inside our airports are beginning to prove this point. People want to be in the room with other people. They crave it. It’s human nature. It’s not going away.

What the Future Holds

Nearly every industry is experiencing dynamic change, but one that has especially caught my futurist’s eye is construction. They are dealing with historical labor shortages — accelerated in the aftermath of the pandemic — by steering hard into automation. There is no doubt this will continue at full speed. But for years, our work has identified the need for this industry to embrace a circular economy and to take extreme measures to eliminate waste. Only recently have we started to gain traction. It’s easy to view construction as all hard hats, brute force and machinery, but in a future that will only become less friendly to environmental slackers, the industry will have to find a softer touch.

"No doubt there are still some bumpy years ahead, but I don’t need a crystal ball to tell you the future will be worth it."

Education is another interesting one. The rise of badges, boot camps, certificates and other cheaper forms of post-secondary education are forcing universities to evolve, and we will see more and more of them consider their role in these still-developing spaces. Society seems to be grappling with the sky-high costs of tuition, giving rise to a new set of options to sit alongside traditional higher ed. Today’s smartest institutions are preparing as such.

Of course, these industries are reshaping against the backdrop of an extremely divided country whose tribalism is reaching a troublingly historic level. It’s hard to see things improving in the short-term, but I’m finding reason for some optimism further along the road. Aligning the U.S. to a dataset that has measured value preferences in over 100 countries through the years, trend lines show that our country is inching in a direction that would get us beyond this tribalist deadlock, toward more civil waters.

More good news: We are seeing Americans embrace a wider view when it comes to what’s important in life. There is greater emphasis on sustainability and wellness. Participation in government and self-expression are on the rise. In my book, these are changes worth tracking and accelerating. No doubt there are still some bumpy years ahead, but I don’t need a crystal ball to tell you the future will be worth it.

Andy Hines is a professor at the University of Houston’s College of Technology, the founder of Hinesight and an expert on integrating foresight into organizations. He is close to finishing his next book, “Imagining After Capitalism.”