What Does a Futurist Do? Derek Woodgate Explains

By Derek Woodgate
Founder and President
The Futures Lab

In the 16 years since I founded The Futures Lab, Inc., I have been frequently quoted as saying: “My role is not about knowing the future, but creating it.”

I am sure I am not the first person to articulate this concept, but it has proved to be the guiding premise on which my practice, expertise, and development as a futurist have been based.

From Data to Imagination

Every futurist needs a flexible, tightly integrated, deep-layered, multi-stage, robust future studies process, which from the outset explores, structures, magnifies, and contextualizes data and insights.

So we use a process that provides a loose framework in the early stages, in which to develop avenues of exploration, scan, hunt clues, recognize patterns—leading to what I call opportunity-hacking—in order to future-map disconnects into organizing platforms/future landscapes that provide the context from which to create the future.

However, throughout the process, and especially once these future knowledge bases and springboards are in place, the critical way of creating revolutionary rather than evolutionary futures is to apply progressive thinking techniques to the task.

In recent years, the concept of relying on hunches or gut feeling is fast becoming a common practice.

In fact, it is being applied by many major corporations thanks to the theories put forth by Malcolm Gladwell in his bestseller, “Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking,” and Gerd Gigerenzer’s “Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious,” as well as some very grounded ideas by marketing expert Seth Godin (pictured above).

Even though I’d like to think that I have a healthy dose of intuition, I am more inclined to develop and try out new thinking processes and look for unexpected influences that can achieve the goal of “think the unthinkable.”

What does this mean? Well, thinking the unthinkable has as its baseline the desire to subvert assumptions. This involves peeling away the surface of the insights; to revisit their assumed values and signifiers; to deconstruct then reconstruct their reality, paradoxes, and potential hybrid states; and to change the obvious perspective and conceptual relevance by adding events and potential wildcards.

What kind of processes am I taking about?

  • In my 2004 book Future Frequencies, I discussed and demonstrated how to apply thinking from progressive culture to future studies and business. I considered the no-holds-barred creative thinking of artists epitomized in Yoko Ono’s “Glass Key to Open the Sky” piece drawing on elements such as timelessness, constancy, and unlimited space.
  • In 2005, at the annual gathering of the Association of Professional Futurists in Chicago, I presented and discussed the concept of rhizomatic thinking and how to use it for developing future worldviews. Rhizomatic thinking is nomadic, mobile, liberated, and non-hierarchical thought, which can break and reconnect at any point—it is boundless. It implicates, rather than replicates, and has no center. Rhizomes propagate, displace, join, infiltrate, circle back, fold, migrate, converge, connect, and rupture, and offer us a perfect approach to integrate disparate areas of enquiry, which is a perfect model for connecting disconnects.
  • In 2008, at the Annual American Mensa Conference in Denver, I talked about my developmental years, exposure and integration of 1910 Italian Futurism, Dadaism, surrealism, and Fluxus in my thinking approaches to future studies. Think Claes Oldenburg’s, “I am for the art of conversation between the sidewalk and a blind man’s white stick.”
  • In 2010, at the annual spring South by Southwest (SXSW) (film, interactive, and music festivals and conferences in Austin, Texas) and elsewhere, I got to collaborate with DJ Spooky, (pictured below) who, among other notables, is currently the resident artist at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This supported my frequent conference claim that as a futurist I tend to “Think like a DJ,” which involves thinking in meshworks—nets that extend to other nets—by exploring polyphony—multiple rhythms working together, re-synchronized, simulated, manipulated, cut, pasted, and collaged.
  • This year, while presenting sections from my forthcoming book “Future Flow,” I have spoken about how developments in neural computing, brain enhancement, brain computer interfaces, implants, metacognition, neuroceuticals, up-skilling, and immersive and experiential environments and multi-layered simulation can be applied to foresight. Here, I was particularly looking at the future of imagination—enhancement and extension—which is what I meant in the last level in my reworking of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

Applying Such Techniques in the Futures Field

Creating innovative futures for clients or institutions working with societal change is very much a personal preference—one that best suits my approach to creating the future. It also seems to allow me to generate my best work and to deliver optimized, preferred futures for my clients.

To quote science-fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein, “One man’s magic is another man’s engineering.”

While thinking techniques are fluid, they need to be adaptable to the elements of the future period that I am attempting to create. They need to mirror how I project the future human will live in terms of social adaptation, interfaces, communications, work, living spaces, environmental issues, lifestyle, values, legislation, economic structure, and so much more. I always place the human at the center.

I see futurists as “concept engineers,” for we are establishing context and unexpected yet fresh directional perspectives that lead to unique future potential, whether human, product, future category, or markets. Once this potential is distilled and packaged, thinking shifts towards improving, extending, and enriching the future concepts, which are then rendered through a variety of rendering techniques that have greatly changed in recent years as visualization techniques and experience design, together with interactive narrative, telepresence, and simulation make “living the future” in the present more of a reality.

Though I cannot disclose preferred futures that are not yet on the market, I can say that these approaches have delivered:

  • The first all-glass roof vehicle, which redefines the driver’s perspective of space,
  • New programming production technologies for leading TV and online music channels,
  • Revolutionary applications for construction materials,
  • New business and cultural living spaces,
  • 3-D and holographic TV,
  • Multiple consumer electronic products, and
  • A variety of applications in education.

Want a sneak peek at what’s on the horizon? Check out these new ideas here: plutopiaproductions.com.

Great news! Derek Woodgate has joined the Inkandescent Speakers Bureau. For details about his speaking topics, and to check out his upcoming keynotes and workshops, click here.


About Derek Woodgate and The Futures Lab

Woodgate is the president of The Futures Lab, a futures-based consultancy based in Atlanta, with six satellite offices around the world. The firm specializes in creating future potential for major corporations and institutions, especially in the fields of entertainment, media, culture, communications, and new communities.

He spent nine years as a British diplomat, and 13 years as a corporate executive, and is an authority on the application of emerging and immersive technologies and the changing human in the design and production of experiential entertainment with his creation of what are termed “Sense Events.”

His clients have included Philips Electronics, Intel, Shell, Fiat, Nokia, Pemex, AKZO-Nobel, GSK, Casio, Nestle, SWB, MTV Europe, Intel, Ford, Kellogg’s, Coca Cola, BBC, WorldSpace, Nissan, among others.

To book Derek for a speaking event, click here.