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Futurists leave ivory towers for corporate high-rises

Roger Selbert and colleague Henry Koehn think about the future . . . and get paid for it. Both men work for Security Pacific National Bank. They are two of about three dozen futurists currently employed by major US firms.

How could a bank profit by hiring someone to contemplate the future? About seven years ago, for instance, Mr. Koehn pinpointed the growing importance of Spanish-speaking people in the southwestern United States. At the time, area banks had stereotyped the Latino customer as interested only in sending money orders back to Mexico.

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''In fact, many third- and fourth-generation Latinos were, and are, living very upscale life styles, using credit cards and maintaining high-balance accounts,'' Dr. Selbert explains. Although it took a while for the message to sink in, Security Pacific became one of the first major banks to start courting the more affluent among the Spanish-speaking minority.

This contemplation of things to come - and mankind's desire to consciously influence future events - has spawned an entire discipline. Futurism, born in the 1960s and nurtured in the nation's think tanks, has gradually infiltrated government and now is beginning to make inroads into the private sector.

Though it is one of California's more conservative financial institutions, Security Pacific is one of the first banks to enlist futurists in an effort to chart the increasingly strong and erratic currents of social change.

As futurists, Selbert and Koehn spend their days scanning dozens of magazines and periodicals, interviewing people, and traveling around the country. The purpose of their efforts is to identify significant social trends before they become obvious, then to monitor and track them.

''In a sense, we serve as the eyes and ears of the bank,'' Selbert says. ''We don't try to make predictions. We're trying to identify developments that bear watching. No one can predict the future. Society is too complex for that. Instead, you must monitor what's happening very closely.''

This monitoring is necessary, he continues, because social factors have become the driving force that economics once was. Not long ago, all a businessman needed to know was the basic economics of the business: the costs of materials, production, and transportation plus the availability of labor. Today, however, people's values and life styles can have a major impact on the success or failure of private enterprises, Selbert says.

For some time now, most Americans have been employed in service and information sectors rather than in manufacturing, he notes. This transformation - ''from an industrial to a post-industrial base'' - means that Americans now work in much more diverse ways. So it is not surprising that our society has become more diverse and confusing as a result, he says.

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A popular trend that Selbert and Koehn recently have identified is the rejection of ''management'' in favor of ''leadership.'' Selbert explains:

''People used to look to leaders because they assumed that leaders had more information and knowledge on which to make decisions. Then, in the 1960s and 1970s along came the information revolution. Suddenly, people felt they had just as good information as leaders did. So, the perceived value of leadership declined. It was not a crisis of leadership. It was a crisis of followership.

''Now, however, everyone has been buried under an avalanche of information. People don't know how to cope with it. So they are once again looking for leaders, this time to tell us what information is valuable and what is not.''

Such forecasting also has its perils, Selbert adds wryly: ''For years we have been saying that the '80s will be the decade of the Latino. Now, we're telling people it might just be the decade of the Oriental instead. With their unbeatable Confucian ethic, their willingness to work, and their tight family structure, they could very well leapfrog over all the other minorities.''

The two futurists sometimes say that what they do is apply common sense to the obvious. The reason they are needed is because the obvious is hidden by that same information avalanche.

Just determining the obvious has become a full-time job. In the words of Paul Valery, the late French essayist, ''The trouble with our times is that the future is not what it used to be.''

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