A world where people can work, travel or live freely seems like a far-fetched dream now.
The coronavirus has upended daily life around the globe – governments, business leaders, and even futurists are grappling with accelerated changes in real-time.
Professor of Foresight at Georgetown University, founder of Prescient, author and former CEO & President of the World Future Society, Amy is a prominent speaker at world’s leading forums such as Forbes Mexico, Seoul Global Leaders Forum, TEDx, Atlantic Council Global Strategy Forum, Global Reporting Initiative, and G20 Young Entrepreneurs Alliance.
Huffington Post recently named her as one of the top 7 futurists of the world.
In this exclusive conversation with The Blue Circle, Amy Zalman talks about her journey as a futurist, the accelerated uncertainties during the covid-19 pandemic, and how certain tools can help to gain foresight.
Journey as a futurist
Amy was unaware of the term ‘futurist’, neither did she know a career of this sort existed.
She grew up in a second-generation American home that exposed her to the complexities of the world, and that’s how she decided to carve her niche in this space.
“Growing up, the immigrant story that we can all write, the story of our own future, was powerful. When I worked in and with large organizations, it became obvious that traditional strategy tools are not robust enough for the complexities of our world. Strategic foresight was a natural progression from those insights.”
Decoding communication strategy
“My experience taught me that it is critical for any organization today to recognize that they do not hold a monopoly on their own story.”
In the wake of the 2001 Al-Qaeda attacks, the U.S government was asking how it could “tell its story better” to the world. Why not? During the Cold War, the US. could broadcast to a captive world of radio listeners behind the iron curtain.
In 2005, the world was different. Governments had lost their captive audience. We now had the Internet, satellite television, and the seeds of social media – twitter, and Facebook. The U.S. could not assume it was the only one telling an inspiring story, or a story of democracy.
“As a result of that insight, I founded Oryx Communications, a consultancy, that created communications products for US defense clients, and developed a framework for how to shape a compelling narrative in a transparent communications environment. That Strategic Narrative framework is still one that I use today with clients.”
Preparing clients for future
At Prescient( called the Strategic Narrative Institute, for its first year), which she founded in 2017, Amy helps clients anticipate change, so that they can plan effectively in uncertain conditions, prioritise resources and stay ahead of the competition.
“Firms can use uncertainty to their advantage. If everything stayed the same, you could never gain competitive advantage. Seeing potential change which others have not predicted gives you an advantage. Is there a market others have not seen? Do you foresee a risk that you can prepare for?”
Amy helps executives achieve that vision, strengthen their mindset, help them gather the right information, and transform insight into action.
The Covid-19 pandemic has shaken the world, and if there’s one aspect the world is struggling to deal with today, it is uncertainty. It is important to recognise and acknowledge uncertainty as a fact of the human environment to plan better.
Fortune is said to favour those with foresight, which is why it is critical to equip businesses with a strategic foresight toolkit. While there is always a challenge of not exactly predicting what disaster will erupt, yet it helps companies widen their aperture to envision a wide range of potential events.
“Using foresight tools, they can narrow that wide list to those that are most likely to affect them with greatest impact. At that point, they can develop scenarios of what these would look like.”
The scenarios could be laboratories, and companies could use them to prepare for a range of potential disasters, even without knowing what will happen or when.
“Rehearsing your encounter with a different disaster, such as a flood or terrorist event, can help prepare for a pandemic. Even though your specific needs will be different, you will need the same mindset, many of the same coordination and communication tools, and the same approach to leadership.”
As CEO and President of World Future Society from 2014-16, Amy led the transformation of the largest and longest-running global membership organization for futurists.
“Many non-profit organizations, by the time they reach fifty years old, are in need of transformation. World Future Society was created in the mid-20th century. At that time, it had a near monopoly on distributing information about future trends with its audience.”
But by the early 2000s, the communications landscape had changed, and was more competitive. That’s when Amy initiated transformation of the organization – from a publishing model to a modern membership ecosystem, and left it with a positive bank balance and positioned for renewed global impact.
Amy also Chaired the Information Integration at the National War College where she introduced new ways of understanding “information” to future senior leaders.
On female futurists
While the number of female futurists has grown over the years, Amy feels that women’s voices should be better represented in shared visions of the future.
“The story of the future tends to be written through the lens of the powerful, which perpetuates existing power structures. To build a fairer world, we need a much wider range of voices.”
The pandemic, Amy said, will intensify or speed up existing trends. Some of these have to do with work and economic systems. Long before the pandemic, people were asking what the future office will look like.
“Because of the necessity of teleworking, people now realize it is possible, and sometimes even preferable. Teleworking and telemedicine will not disappear after the pandemic.”
The pandemic has also boosted the surveillance of individuals. The use of the human body as an object of surveillance or identification has been on the rise for twenty years.
“Facial recognition, fingerprint and retinal identification, and wearables that provide data are now normal parts of our world. The new need to check temperatures or human proximity will add to the surveillance toolkit available to employers and governments.”
Amy admits, “There is much that we still cannot say about what might change as a result of the covid-19 pandemic. It will take time for us to understand the long-term effects of the psychological trauma, or the reduced access to education for many children.”
“The situation, and the changes it is causing, will continue to emerge and surprise us for the next few years. People may stop shaking hands, but will the innate human desire to connect and to be with other people fade away? I doubt it.”
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