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Why world needs more women futurists

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Merle O’Brien

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Merle OBrien

WE DON’T gaze into crystal balls, but do have well-developed counter-intuitive abilities, with strong imaginative faculties to create concepts no one else has thought of before, writes Merle O’Brien, one of the world’s few qualified African women futurists. She leads foresight and innovation for Lacuna, a global boutique innovation management firm with clients such as Porsche, BAT, Distell and Nedbank.

Barely 20 years ago, it was unlikely for an African woman to lead strategic foresight and innovation for global brands. But in the creative, digital age with new geo-political alignments, today more are at the forefront of shaping the future.

To study as a futurist in South Africa, a Master’s of Philosophy in Future Studies degree can be obtained via the Institute for Futures Research (IFR) at the University of Stellenbosch Business School (USB). The two-year post graduate programme includes modules in foresight research, demographics, systems thinking, technology, scenario planning, trends forecasting and strategic management. This culminates in the writing of a thesis which explores a specialised subject field.

In my case, I explored the future of creative intelligence through the lens of African, Indian and Chinese philosophy. I was curious to discover what the world would be like in 2030 when we reach human-machine intelligence parity in a world of unbridled creativity. At that time, about eight years ago, my specialisation puzzled my male classmates. “How will you ever earn money with that knowledge? Who will pay you for knowing that?” they asked.

What they could not see was how the convergence of Brics, coupled with the resilience of the creative economy to outperform the industrial world after the 2008 crisis, the shift in value from services to experiences and the exponential growth of digital technology into the internet of things would create a new context for my work to grow in value.

Once I graduated in 2008, I was like a Formula One driver without a car, as management consulting firms in South Africa did not yet incorporate creativity, digital and design in their practice. As a result, I pursued doctoral research into creative lifescience and started Creation iLab as a transmedia and design innovation lab to serve as a test-bed for my ideas. I also lectured brand innovation at Vega School of Brand Leadership and pursued my passion for Indian classical dance. I knew I had to pace myself for the day my work would become more relevant when the local economy matured into the innovation space.

Day to day, I now work with a team of trend researchers, management consultants, analysts and technology specialists. As one of the world’s leading Front End Innovation (FEI) firms, Lacuna’s presence in South Africa builds our local capability to compete globally. We have researchers around the world, across America, Germany, India, China, Russia and South America – tracking emerging trends and technologies that may disrupt our clients’ business or enhance their innovation portfolio.

Using a cloud-based trends technology platform, trends are mapped with regional profiles across relevant industries and sectors. Currently, I am leading our African trends radar project; focusing on South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya and Ghana. Over the next 35 years, Africa has the potential to grow its $1.3 trillion (R17.2 trillion) in wealth 10-fold. This presents a significant opportunity for innovators to contribute to wealth creation on the continent, but the risks are high. By using a trend-based approach to innovation, this radar could help increase the success rate of African start-ups.

This year, we are also sponsoring three innovation summits – in Los Angeles, Berlin and Copenhagen – where my foresight and thought leadership contributes to papers, new industry frameworks and global conversations.

I spend a lot of time answering the “What if?” questions, developing scenarios and exploring ways to address unmet consumer needs. After digesting tons of research data, I enjoy taking a mountain jog, dancing or yoga to let my subconscious mind take over. It helps to have an active imagination to find novel solutions to problems and the resilience to not give up through the stage-gates of innovation.

I also enjoy reading and learning about different cultures. Proximity, empathy and cultural sensitivity is key to the absorption of an innovation in a new market. Here, women futurists have an edge in the way we blend cognitive abilities, personality traits (such as collaboration and empathy), an eye for design aesthetics, emotional intelligence and our intuitive faculty – into a holistic way of knowing.

I am inspired by women innovators such as the late Donella Meadows (author of Limits to Growth), and Professor Amy Smith, the founder of MIT DLab and driving force behind IDIN, the International Development Innovation Network, of which I am the only South African member.

The future studies profession began in the 1960s and gained global attention in the 1970s with Shell’s use of scenario planning to lead its foresight. At that time, the (male) futurists aligned the field with economics, mathematical modelling and technology. As a result, the “softer” elements of foresight – such as demographics, social development, sustainability, family dynamics, anthropology and design subsumed to hard science, tech gadgets and economic data.

According to Amy Zalberg, chief executive of the World Future Society (WFS), the global professional body of futurists, this was because the term “futurism” also came with a reputation that still lingers a bit today.

Quoted recently by The Atlantic, she says: “Like magicians, crystal ball gazers, sort of flakey, that’s the reputation that followed for a while. Because the field itself had to struggle to be taken seriously, that put more pressure on folks to demonstrate that they were scientific. And it was coded masculine.”

She says this is one reason there are so few women futurists in the world, as well as so few women in science and technology. Innovation is a high performance space where high risks mean high rewards. For women, this means being courageous and agile enough to go beyond the existing ceiling of competency; especially in the context of South Africa.

We have to evolve ourselves out of the story which history wrote for today’s women. If we want products and services to meet our growing unmet needs, more women will need to become futurists, design innovators, scientists and inventors. Being a futurist is not a nine to five job, but a lifestyle rooted in a deep and abiding commitment to create a preferable future for the world.

Recently, I was selected by MIT D-Lab (the design innovation lab of the world’s No 1-rated university) as one of 25 global scholars for the International Design and Development Summit held in D’Kar, Botswana, in August. In two weeks, we designed and prototyped innovations to help a San community deal with their sustainability challenges, under the direct guidance of Professor Smith.

Africa has a 100 000-year history in design innovation as research proves at Blombos Caves in the Western Cape, where ancient stone artefacts, pigment pots and shell necklaces lay buried. I was humbled to spend Women’s Month by helping San women improve the time it takes to create a shell beadwork necklace from two days to two hours and a mobile app to sell their art globally. I see a new future for Africa rising where we unearth the old to make better sense of the new, especially since Africa’s creativity has been locked up for hundreds of years.

Last month, I also spoke at the Open Design Festival at the V&A Waterfront with Jona Repetshi, the global co-ordinator of IDIN, based at MIT, which is co-funded by the US Global Development Lab and USAid. We are a network of 600 scholars using innovations at the forefront of research to change the lives of marginalised communities.

I am inspired to be a part of the collective, global efforts to see Africa become an innovation leader of the 21st century.

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