Five Characteristics Needed for Future-focused Sensing
An exclusive extract from 'How to Future' by Scott Smith with Madeline Ashby
"There is no shortcut; there is no algorithm. If all you do is track what's trending, then all you'll ever know is exactly what everyone else already knew. To discover, you have to dog." - Rob Walker
What's the first thing you do in the morning, or whenever you start your day?
Check my phone.
What are you looking for?
I want to see if I have any messages, and find out what has happened overnight.
When we're in a classroom or workshop setting, teaching or talking about the value of futures, we almost always start with this question, and the fictional dialogue above reflects the large majority of responses we get. This hardly varies, whether we’re in Amsterdam, Singapore, Abu Dhabi, Malta or Helsinki.
US data from 2017 aligns with our own anecdotal evidence: just under 50% of respondents said they looked at their smartphone while still in bed (rising to 66% of millennials), and an additional 28% check their phone at breakfast.
Although the environment we currently live in is very different from our predigital age, modern humans, like our premodern ancestors, are driven to stay aware, to take in signals – the fragments and indicators of change or stasis – or what French historian Fernand Braudel called ‘thin wisps of tomorrow’. We survive and thrive based on knowing what’s happening on our landscape of choice. Having a sense of which signals of change are important, be it a 10-second video on TikTok or a small item in The Straits Times, is a wholly different question. We’re not here to judge value, only to expand the point of view.
Most of the messages we pay attention to involve keeping up with what’s changed professionally or socially for us personally, whether in a chat message or company directive. These signals – that is to say, all dynamic information – are at some scale changing quickly or slowly, confirming the status quo, supporting an additional data point or signaling deviation from an assumed norm.
What matters is whether we choose to pay attention to the signals, and how we frame and sort them. Sensing – finding new meanings, relationships, patterns and implications – is the fuel that drives the engine of futuring.
Just as scoping and framing prepare us to better understand the where, for whom and how long, sensing and scanning explains how we find ingredients for the what. It’s important to make a distinction between the two. In discussions of strategic foresight, experts tend to focus on the technical practice of scanning, which this chapter will address as a process – a discrete research activity with semi-defined boundaries that feeds information into a sense-making activity of some kind.
But first, it’s important to touch on what we refer to as ‘sensing’ as a capacity. Where the former can be thought of as an activity that mostly happens in a professional setting on weekdays from nine to five, the latter is a more personal, internal habit of mind that makes for richer awareness for effective futuring as an ongoing practice, and supports the development of higher-quality, broader-spectrum information and resources in the scanning process.
Sensing as anticipatory capacity
The constant firehose of news, data, media, advertising, personal communication, ambient messaging, environmental signals and other inputs that most humans receive on a daily basis can lead to desensitization. Unfortunately, information avoidance cuts off our ability to use sensing constructively and erodes our ability to make sense of futures to come.
What’s needed is a practice that enables the capacity to constructively sense-change – tuning into the signals that usefully inform our dynamic picture of the present and point to the continuation, shift or evolution of trends, forces and conditions over time. This is a latent capability that nearly everyone possesses, but it needs practice, plus a means of collecting and sorting the information in a useful way.
As with most skills and talents, some people find sensing a more natural ability than others – especially people we think of as information omnivores, pattern recognizers or polymaths, or even those to whom we attribute some kind of attention-deficit. However, with a bit of practice and calibration of the lens (or lenses) of attention, anyone can start listening and looking for inputs and observations that provide meaningful insight into the changes that are happening all around.
When we think about the distinctive qualities of people who are good at future-focused sensing, five characteristics come to mind.
1. Active noticing
Good sensors stay ‘switched on’ as a continuous, reflexive behaviour. While it may sometimes come at the cost of focus, good sensors maintain a fairly consistent state of active noticing, of monitoring their environment and the inputs that come across their path, even down to the smallest details.
This can mean catching the news crawler on the television in a foreign airport lounge, picking up and flipping through random publications nearby, grabbing bits of conversation in the environment, noticing a new product at the supermarket, or – from a respectful distance, of course – observing faces, habits or fashions in the street or on public transport.
Active noticers may be good primary generators of observations, but they’re also good consumers of other people’s perceptions. Design professor and anthropologist Nicolas Nova writes about this background awareness as ‘peripheral ethnography’, or paying attention to ‘marginal practices, peculiar behaviors, curious rituals, odd appropriation/repurposing of technologies, little things that people talk less about, situations in which technical objects age, things that do not fit, intriguing artifacts’.
2. Staying with the flow
Good sensors revisit the stimuli that interest them on a regular basis. You can find more about sourcing below, but a good sensor tends to circulate regularly through their sources of insight, staying engaged when others might switch off due to information overload.
3. Maintaining curiosity
A good sensor will continue to seek new signals. Diverting attention to discover new or untapped sources is a sign of healthy curiosity. Seeking contrarian analysis, testing new forms of communication or platforms for delivery, genre grazing or spending time in environments with people of different experiences are all useful ways to expand your attention universe.
This stimulation and source switching helps keep sensing active and fresh.
4. Strong insights, weakly held
In their book Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction, Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner list a number of traits that they believe make the best forecasters so good at what they do.
While futuring is decidedly not about linear prediction, directed sensing, based on informed assumptions, feeds good forecasting. One key attribute Tetlock and Gardner identified is the ability to learn from previous forecasts – your own and those of others – and to consider other points of view in the process of refining one’s outlook about possible futures.
Tetlock and Gardner offer this precis of their findings on this topic: ‘Beliefs are hypotheses to be tested, not treasures to be protected.’
5. Keeping a safe distance
While good sensing is very much a subjective art informed by the personality, mental models and interests of the sensor, there’s also great value in maintaining a level of objectivity and distance from the topics and materials that provide sources for sensing. This means being aware of when interest starts to drift towards advocacy or attention capture by one or two primary sources alone.
Staying abreast of what’s happening in, say, artificial intelligence by reading technology news, browsing research journals or subscribing to several experts’ Twitter feeds differs from signal-boosting particular thinkers, consistently favouring one school of analysis over another, or advocating for the next breakthrough innovation. A balanced diet of inputs, and a willingness to refresh both ideas and sources, can help maintain objectivity and provide important analytical turning space.
In our practice, we view our roles as discerning and describing possible futures as they take shape through sense-making, not as advocating for particular futures that we favour. Maintaining space between yourself and the signals is important for clarity and a sense of scale.