Richard Watson is Imperial's first Futurist in Residence, having joined Imperial College London late last year.
He works with the Imperial Tech Foresight team, who help the College’s corporate partners think about the trends and technology that will shape their future business.
He talks to Franca Davenport about getting used to the title of ‘futurist’, the value of visualisation, and why thinking about the future can actually help us reflect on the here and now.
Can you explain what a futurist does?
As a futurist, I think about the future - a lot! How one defines 'the future' is obviously a good question. I tend to focus on the next five to 15 years as to some extent this is seeable. Less than five years can be a little dull and more than 15 to 20 years tips into sci-fi, although this is itself a rather good hunting ground for new technologies. However, I also like looking to the years 2040 and 2050 or beyond. It's extremely hard, but that's why I like it.
People tend to presume that futurists predict. I do some predicting, because it's what the media want, and it's fun too, but I'm far more interested in opening up serious discussions about what might happen – and to some extent what should happen - in the sense of ethical or fair futures.
I'm also a believer in scenario thinking and looking at different ways in which the future might unfold. Apart from the laws of nature, I'd say that the one certainty about the future is uncertainty; so thinking in terms of multiple futures or possibilities is a good hedge. I guess it's about quality of thinking.
Overall, I'm not trying to get the future 100 per cent right. What I'm interested in are the discussions that prevent organisations from getting the future disastrously wrong. I find that the more individuals and institutions think and discuss the future, the more agile and resilient their planning and strategies become.
However, in my opinion, there's a little secret about futurology, which is that it's not just about the future. Thinking about ‘the Future' also gives people permission to stop what they're doing on a day to day basis and look out of the window and think deeply for an extended period about what they are doing now and whether this is right or not. This happens quite a bit in academia but within commercial organisations, it's quite rare.
What does your role with Imperial Tech Foresight involve? Can you give some examples of what you have done or what you plan to do?
I'm doing a few things. Firstly I'm working with the Imperial Tech Foresight team to help academics get their ideas across in a more open, understandable and persuasive manner. Being a non-scientist, if I understand something, then generally so will everyone else! I've helped with four presentations for the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos recently and currently, I'm working on a planned showcase of College research into High Performance Computing. I'm partly looking at content generally, but especially thinking about how to visualise and summarise what the event is about i.e. a 'roadmap'. I'm really a writer so I also have a keen interest in the development of creative material for the Tech Foresight website and I've written several posts for the Foresight blog. I'm also working with Roberto Trotta in astrophysics on an event looking at the linkages between science and science fiction for the Imperial Festival.
How did you become a futurist? Was the growth in futurology something that you predicted?
Ha. No. Nobody saw it coming! I think interest in it comes and goes, according to the level of uncertainty and volatility. Pre- 9/11 it was pretty quiet! Geopolitical events like this combined with the speed of technological change make futurology a valuable tool. I was first called a futurist when I wrote a book back in 2006 called Future Files about what I saw coming over the next 50 years. To begin with I hated the term, but I guess I've grown used to it now and I can't really think of what else to use. Writer?
Why did you want to become a Futurist in Residence with Imperial Tech Foresight?
I was asked by the Imperial Tech Foresight team to help out with some of the Davos presentations a few years ago. This seemed to work really well so we decided to collaborate on a visualisation together. This collaboration resulted in the Imperial Timeline of Emerging Science and Technology. In terms of why I wanted to take up this role, I like the rigour of Imperial. I can have lots of ideas, but they need grounding occasionally. I like the people too. There's just something inspiring in the air. It's perhaps a mixture of intelligence and possibility. There's also a diversity that's rare elsewhere.
Can you talk a bit about what the Imperial Tech Foresight does?
Imperial Tech Foresight (TF) is a College initiative that helps companies to connect with academics from across the university to explore the technologies and trends that are shaping businesses both now and into the foreseeable future. This is done primarily through events and workshops and to some extent publications. I suppose it's ultimately to do with innovation (strategy and business models as well as products and services), but also risk management.
How do you see your role with Imperial Tech Foresight developing? What would you like to achieve?
I'd like to help Tech Foresight become Europe's - if not the world's - finest 'futures laboratory' in the sense of bringing new trends and technologies to a wider audience far beyond academia. This will include working with researchers at Imperial to help project and visualise their work into the future. Ultimately, I'd like to be involved in the creation of something that gets global attention for decades to come - maybe a set of scenarios, a 'map', an essay, who knows....
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