There are interesting things to learn from a professional futurist. Especially one like Brian David Johnson, who says, “The future of libraries is awesome.”
Brian David Johnson is a futurist. For Intel, which makes computer chips that take years to design, build, and incorporate into everyday objects, Johnson looks out 10 to 15 years and projects how people will live their lives and, especially, how they’ll interact with technology. Then he helps Intel figure out how to build the technology to make that future possible.
When your next product won’t become viable for more than a decade, you have to think forward or you won’t survive. If you were designing a new library that wouldn’t open until 2025, you’d try to learn as much as possible about the world it would serve, right? You’d want to understand today’s world, imagine its evolution, and take steps to create the most desirable tomorrow. Johnson calls this “futurecasting” — not predicting the future, but creating a vision of what tomorrow might look like. An informed vision that we can begin to work toward.
I love librarians. (Who doesn’t love librarians?) You talk to librarians and they want to know, What’s the future of libraries? And I say, The future of libraries is awesome. Libraries aren’t about books, they’re about communities and a place for people to get together, and technology and publishers and authors are all knit into that.
There are some interesting things to learn from Johnson’s work.
The future doesn’t just happen to us. We can affect it.
“I’m a firm believer that everybody needs to be an active participant in their future,” explained Johnson at O’Reilly Media’s 2013 Tools of Change for Publishing conference. “So may people think about the future as if it’s this fixed thing on the horizon that we’re all running toward, helpless to do anything about. And it’s not. The future is made every day by people. And the way you can affect the future is to actually have a conversation about it…. get ideas, get visions for the future out there, and get people talking about it.” One of Johnson’s favorite techniques is to prototype ideas through science fiction stories. When we get people engaged in stories, envisioning a future we’d like to live in, we take a step toward seeing that future as possible and turning it into reality.
Focus first on the human experience. Then on the technology.
Johnson’s approach to futurecasting is “all about people,” he told The Street. “Everything I do is based upon humans, first and foremost. We don’t study markets; we don’t study countries; we study people.” Johnson works with ethnographers, cultural anthropologists, and other social scientists to understand how people live today and how culture and lifestyles are evolving. Because the the path of the future follows “what people want,” he believes, you have to understand human needs, values, and desires before you can figure out how a computer chip (or an ebook or a smartphone or anything else) might make people’s lives more productive or fulfilling.
Want some insight into the future? Find a 13-year-old mentor.
In many ways, today’s young people are already living in our future. “When you grow up with a smartphone in your pocket, it’s very different from growing up with a book in your pocket,” Johnson told Inc. magazine. And it’s true. “The perspective of someone who has grown up with computing power in his pocket, always being connected, is fascinating. And at 13, people are just starting to form their own vision of the world and have the language to communicate it.” Ten or fifteen years from now, those kids who grew up online will be working adults, young parents, and voting citizens. Their approach to life will affect businesses, schools, and governments. Get to know them at 13, and you may catch a glimpse of the future.
And what of the future of libraries, books, and publishing?
They’ve already been evolving for centuries, and change will continue, Johnson told publishers at the Tools of Change conference. “People are always scared of change because they’re not exactly sure what’s going to happen,” he says. “But the reason why the publishing industry has been so vibrant, the reason why it has literally affected our present and will affect our future is because it can change… If the publishing industry continues to change, to engage people, then [the future] is very bright.”
You could say the same of libraries: If they continue to change and to engage people, then their future is also bright. Has anyone got a 13-year-old mentor on the strategic planning committee?
The Tomorrow Project. Intel’s Tomorrow Project “explores our possible futures through fact-based, science-based fiction and video conversations with scientists and science fiction authors, legends and world-renowned experts, passionate advocates and everyday people. Science fiction gives all of us all a language so that we can have a conversation about the future, and these conversations make dramatic changes.”
“What Three Tech Trends Will Affect Our Lives in 2020?” An interview with Brian David Johnson, by Reena Jana. Design Mind, Issue 17 (2013).
“Intel’s Futurist Brian David Johnson: Don’t Let the Future Happen to You,” a Singularity One on One interview by Nikola Danaylov (August 2012). 54-minute video or podcast.
“I’m a firm believer that everybody needs to be an active participant in their future.” —Brian David Johnson