Scott Smith Shares Insights From about new book “How To Future”

Shobhana Viswanathan
11 min readNov 6, 2020

The future is a conversation, not a declaration

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Today’s guest is Scott Smith, founder and managing partner of Changeist and co-author of the book “How to Future” — a handbook for navigating the future. He discusses his work as a futurist, guiding large organizations towards better futures by blending foresight, narrative design, and strategic thinking. H

Topics Covered: AI, AI Ethics, Takeaways from the book “How To Future”, Design Thinking, Flatpack futures

Shobhana: Scott Smith is a futurist , Welcome to the show, Scott.

Scott: Thank you for having me.

Shobhana: You’re a futurist. And I was really intrigued to see that on your Wikipedia page. can you tell us what that means?

Scott: Being a futurist means a lot of things to a lot of different people. from my perspective it means playing a sort of analytical role of a sort of observer to help people, organizations, entities better interpret what lies in front of us that could be 5 months from now it could be 500 years from now but the role is to look forward, to interpret the signals that they see and to make sense of those for other people.

Shobhana: What’s your favorite quote?

Scott: Madeline Ashby who co-wrote How To Future with me has a great phrase that your utopia could be someone else’s dystopia. Then you have to understand that the idea of a universal dystopia or universal utopia is not true.

Shobhana: This year has been a year of many changes, , especially in the U S We’ve, had COVID hit us,.we’ve had Black Lives Matter. We’ve had social unrest. The past is not an indicator of the future necessarily. And I’d like your views on the future.

Scott: The examples you gave are great because you weren’t mentioning just one thing. Just politics or just technology or just social health issues. If you think about just what the U.S. alone has experienced in the past year — that convergence, or crossing over of so many different factors that are traveling at different speeds, with different impacts on different communities and different groups, different costs in ways that you could characterize them.

All of those things individually are quite complicated, but understanding how they interact with each other in a larger system within a society, within a culture, within a marketplace, whatever the topic is — you’re talking about that kind of.understanding and sense-making and contextualizing which is central to the kind of work we do.

When we talk with organizations, they very often have a linear view, particularly if they’re working in, let’s say startups or in the technology industry that has a tendency to want to focus quite tightly on one particular objective or one particular vision that they have. People and organizations both tend to lose their peripheral vision in that process and be able to not just see but then understand how those different forces interact with each other.

There’s a great example that I’ve used talking to other folks a day back in the summer when Space X launched it’s dragon crew, that was happening just at the moment when Black Lives Matter was really starting to unfold in the streets in a kind of critical way that we saw this summer.

Just as COVID was reaching its kind of, an intensive peak in parts of the U S and you have this moment of, important kind of inflection point and technological change around say space travel happening exactly at the same time as the critical inflection point in social change hopefully at the same time as this medical crisis.

And even two of those crossing over are substantial, but seeing all of those things happening simultaneously gives us a sense of just how, interconnected and potentially turbulent these systems can be. And so that’s our role is to try to pick that apart and understand it.

Shobhana: So do you feel like the pandemic wasn’t a Black Swan event then?

Scott: It could be different signals pointing to a systemic problem. definitely. I think, just like future, as people define black swans in different ways but if you, we can take, any of those issues and talk about them for several hours, just to pull apart the driving dynamics. Clearly, people who are in a position in — let’s say global public health, were aware of the signals of the possibility of a pandemic.

We’d seen previous examples. We’ve lived through SARS recently. H1N1 had struck the United States. There were.contingency plans put in place for it. Even setting politics aside, just the rhythm of the signals that we were seeing around all of these issues, climate change, international travel, urban densification, all of the kind of driving catalysts that feed pandemics.

And, this is a specific case when I can remember flagging to a colleague on 6th of January, I think was the date. that New York Times carried a story the same week as the U S struck civil money in Iran. And everyone was focused on that direction. There was a small story on the front page of the New York Times about a mystery illness in central China.

And you read that and you realize, actually Chinese New Years coming up, there’s going to be a lot of travel. Even if we don’t know what this illness is, it has the high possibility of spreading and, that’s, and you can go on from there and realize this is going to be international travel, but just that ability to take a couple of signals and look historically what we know because the past can be an indicator.

it’s not an insurance, but it’s an indicator.

Each of those is an example of taking the issue apart a little bit to understand what drove it, what impacts it, what it impacts and where it could be headed. and by doing that more systematically across the board, you’re able to begin to. ask questions. Like what happens if these forces come together?.

Shobhana: You’re a futurist now. tell us about your journey and what you do now.

Scott: So my journey has been, not unusual, for people who work in my field, I suppose there’s several ways you can come into it. One is you can actually get a degree in this field. one of our colleagues, actually my co-author Madeline Ashby on the book of future is, has a master’s degree in foresight.

She came into it through an academic direction and it was also a science fiction novelist, which helps. I came into it through street training, if you will, practical on the ground experience, really over the past 20 years or so, plus. Understanding how global technology and regional technology has changed, how was driven both economic, but also social and cultural change. I developed a skill set to be able to think more broadly about, how the future might unfold for different topics. I was fortunate enough to find an organization who needed what I did and I needed what they could teach and joined up with him about 15 years ago.

And about 13 years ago, set up on my own to be a bit more experimental with how we go about this work. with a few colleagues.

Shobhana: What is the name of your organization?

Scott: So our group is called Changest, which actually came from a sort of inside conversation with a group of my future colleagues. we were teasing each other, whether they were now-ists or futurists or present-ists and whateve

To me, the future of the capital F is not as important as how change happens and how we make sense of it and how we understand it. so while we are quote unquote looking at the future, I think what we’re really looking at is, the dynamics of complex change and what that does.

Shobhana: You said we have to approach the future as a conversation, not a declaration. and you’ve, you’ve got quite a few nuggets in your new book on how to future. I want to delve into your book “How to Future”.

So you used that as a means of bringing all that knowledge together with the insight we collected, the stories from the ground, not so much from the ivory tower, but from, from the tabletop the hallway. and try to bring that together in a way that gave people an on-ramp to their own practice or their own consideration.

So that, that’s how the book came about. And we did a three months sprint last year and brought those ideas together. And, the book came out in September. what’s the big thing about the book. Is it a, how to, is it, is it a way that people can navigate the future? What are three things you can talk to?

Sure. I think, going back to the previous question about, the future being a conversation, not a declaration. it’s a, a tactical handbook or we call it a kind of a applied practical tactical handbook for the future. it’s not meant to be something you read once and put on a shelf.

It’s not a book of trends. It’s not a book of our predictions or forecasts. it was meant to be a manual, a sort of how to guide, that people could come back to over time and try to use it to approach different kinds of problems. it describes a process in a very broad sense.

Shobhana: Why did you name your book “How to Future”?

Scott: That’s a good question. think it comes back to the idea that exploring the future or understanding what, what the future might hold or a futures cause really it’s plural at any given moment isn’t a distant act. It’s not an act of, or something you do once a year. It’s not a drive by activity. It should really be something that’s embedded and embodied in all of us. we do it anyway. We wake up in the morning and you probably check your phone. what next to you to see if your partner’s there, open an eye and see if the sun is up, read Facebook, watch TV/

We actually have the capacity, even as individuals stepping aside from a, your organization to, to understand and process this for ourselves and make determinations and decisions and develop points of view as individuals. And if we separate ourselves from that act, then we lose the agency of determining for ourselves what we want to have happen and how that’s going to work.

Shobhana: When you say how to future, it almost appears one has control over one’s future, as opposed to letting someone decide what to do for you. So you’re drawing upon tenets from design thinking and prototyping. So it’s taking charge and having agency like you said, How do you do that when you’re within the confines of a corporate structure or society, or, you have to abide by cultural norms.

Scott: How do you have that agency? I think it needs to be understood. as a, a kind of broad sense of agency in the sense that, you wouldn’t just take on someone else’s opinion without thinking whether you agree with it, you wouldn’t accept someone else’s plan for something, at least without evaluating whether you think it’s a good idea.

Now, organizations have channels for debate and discourse and discussion and negotiation. but I don’t think it’s wrong to think that everyone should at least have a point of view, particularly when the point of view is, around issues that are, we’re facing so many issues of incredibly high stakes, a sort of existential, whether it’s, democracy, public health, energy transition, climate change. Education, social justice. we go on and on down through the list and these aren’t abstract issues. These are actually issues that we face as individuals, as consumers, as citizens, as parts of society and as members of organizations and employees in the company or leaders of the company.

And if you, without having that point of view, you have nothing to discuss and. negotiate or, come to a consensus view of what the future should be. And I think that consensus view of the future is a really important factor here. It doesn’t mean you then don’t say, the leader of this organization, the head of the startup, the head of my community has a clear vision or a vision.

I agree with. You can do that, but I think it’s important to be able to come in and say, actually, I see the future a little bit differently than you do. Let’s discuss that. Let’s use these tools, for example, as a means of, coming to a, a mutual understanding of consensus future, then we can move forward collectively rather than being a passenger and someone else’s future.

And, I’ve used the term flat-pack futures before in talks and writing and it’s an idea that kind of encapsulates this in the sense that, we’re trained as consumers in Western society to buy a lifestyle off the shelf, buy a future off the shelf. Apple just announced this next iPhone yesterday. that is a future for a lot of people. if we don’t take a moment to then ask, is this a future I want, do I want something else in this? Do I want it differently?Then you’re in a very passive role without agency in terms of accepting what’s given to you. And so in a way I don’t make the distinction sometimes between individual and organizational, and that, because I think it really needs to be built from the bottom up.

Shobhana: This book is not just for corporations, but for individuals and for everyone to have a common framework almost and common, a common vocabulary.

Scott: Exactly. And vocabulary is a good way to think about it. It’s a common grammar. if you can’t have a common basis for how you define things, then you do one of two things.

Your points of view clash, or you switch off one and let the other ones take over. and that’s not always a horrible thing, but, when someone says future, that means a lot. That’s where you’re going to spend the rest of your life and your family and friends and colleagues and everybody else.So it’s important to have that common grammar. And I think one thing we wanted to be sure of is that it wasn’t just seen only as a leadership book, only as a kind of hard-edged business book, but we wanted, especially recognizing that, many companies start as two people at a table, two people in a coffee shop or two people online.

Shobhana: And you bring up the issue of AI ethics. and how do you see AI play in the future? And in particular, the future of work

Scott: In this sort of broader scheme of future of work differs clearly depending on profession.

I think the pandemic has been an interesting case of showing what that looks like when challenges emerge, that we actually need people to do certain things that now we’re talking more about hardware, automation, more than software automation, a year ago it was machine learning.

Shobhana: Now we’re talking about objects that are machines that can lift things and move them logistics, to solve the last mile problem. Correct?

Scott: Exactly. Because now we have a serious last mile problem and, so things can change if we can, we could have, smooth out that previous theory of the future of work around AI and what it looked like.

And then we see a disruption emerge. That completely turns that model on its I just recently wrote an article on GPT three, the, general purpose neural net tool that can create writing.

Shobhana: But that’s also the process that drives us forward. Oh, we should do a podcast in two years to see, how things have evolved and changed. And. Absolutely.

Scott: And I can send my GPT for, to talk to do the podcast and I’ll just kick back.