Pondering the Future

Communications expert emphasizes the importance of keeping an eye out for what's ahead

27 July 2011

Belonging to the world's largest technical professional association, IEEE members by definition have a keen interest in the future. But few of us engage in the creative thinking that allows us to envision possibilities that transcend the mental boxes that often confine our thoughts.

History has shown that organizations and individuals who think long term are more resilient and successful than those who manage only for the short term. In the new competitive order that emerged from the recent recession, as described in Fortune magazine's 13th annual ranking of the "World's Most Admired Companies" [21 March], organizations at the top were those whose "leaders managed in the boom so that they could dominate in the bust." That is, they thought long term.

Those companies' success calls for futuristic, inquiring minds that envision targets that others do not see. Leaders who practice futuristic thinking bring fresh insights to problems, are willing to risk failure, and do not succumb to criticism. Most important, they have the courage to persevere.

They take responsibility for their future, act with purpose, set realistic goals, and position themselves to capitalize on future opportunities. Their careers do not plateau, and their skills do not become obsolete. They neither limit themselves to one particular area, nor do they assume the job they have now will still be there in a few years.

That level of foresight, or what I call future consciousness, means being able to think realistically about the future while maintaining an awareness and respect for what came before. It is the set of processes, abilities, and experiences that we use when thinking about the future. Such future consciousness facilitates a person's character development, leading to courage, wisdom, self-control, risk-taking, freedom, self-consciousness, flexibility, and overall higher-level thinking.

No one can predict the future with certainty. Remember the paperless office and the videophone? It is important that our imagination be sparked in childhood and continue to be fueled through our adult life. Systematically scan your local, national, and global environments to look for unmet needs and opportunities where you might make improvements. Challenge existing beliefs and technology. Consider alternatives, take calculated risks. Analyze authoritative scientific information. Network with visionaries, then synthesize the information into a vision of your own based on scientific principles.

We all can develop abilities that enable us to envision the future. Futurists forecast events using a number of techniques including monitoring, analyzing and projecting trends, brainstorming possibilities, analyzing history, polling and interviewing others, and developing realistic anticipatory scenarios and analyses. Develop a global focus by learning from other cultures. Above all, pursue learning and networking opportunities and life experiences that challenge you.

IEEE stands ready to help you develop futuristic thinking through its societies, councils, technical committees, standards development, publications, conferences, events, professional development, and career resources. The IEEE Technical Activities Board, via its Future Directions Committee, focuses on emerging technologies through technical, professional, and educational activities, and searches for opportunities to engage the engineering community and the general public. It all serves as a catalyst for supporting new technologies, incubating emerging technologies, and introducing innovative applications of current technologies.

One example of IEEE's focus on the future is the IEEE Technology Time Machine conference, held in June in Hong Kong. Sponsored by the Future Directions Committee, the event brought together thought leaders from industry, government, and academia to discuss revolutionary technology platforms bound to change our lives in the next decade.

For a range of futuristic views, read Michio Kaku's book Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100 [Doubleday, 2011], which provides a vision of the next 100 years. Based on interviews with more than 300 of the world's foremost scientists, the book is considered by many to be the most scientifically accurate vision of where we are heading.

Another helpful resource is the World Future Society. Founded in 1966, it is a nonprofit educational and scientific organization that serves as a neutral clearinghouse for authoritative ideas. Through its conferences and publications, it provides valuable information.

As we each journey through life, an opportunity to affect the future might come upon us only once, if at all. At least take the time to develop a future consciousness so that you can shape your own future. Such "futuring" imbues us with optimism because it permits us to face reality with the fortitude to make things better. Recognize opportunities that others do not envision, then courageously take risks. Seize the moment. The benefits for your professional and your personal life will be substantial.

Terrance Malkinson, an IEEE senior member, is a communications specialist, business analyst, and futurist. He is an international correspondent for IEEE-USA Today's Engineer, an associate editor for IEEE Canadian Review, and a member of the editorial advisory board of The Institute.

IEEE membership offers a wide range of benefits and opportunities for those who share a common interest in technology. If you are not already a member, consider joining IEEE and becoming part of a worldwide network of more than 400,000 students and professionals.

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