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For automakers like Ford, where cars can take three years to go from concept to completion, the ability to see what’s coming down the road isn’t a luxury, it’s a necessity.

That’s why, for the last two decades, Ford has had a team poring over data and examining trends in the social, economic, environmental, technological and political arenas.

A major trend the team identified early on was that people were living longer, says Sheryl Connelly, Ford’s manager of global consumer trends and futuring. And as people age, their vision degrades, their reaction times get slower, their range of motion becomes more limited.

As a result, car doors now open wider and seats are closer to the ground, making it easier to get in and out. Because older drivers can’t easily turn their necks to see what’s behind them, carmakers began installing rear-end cameras with dashboard displays. To compensate for slower reaction times, they invented adaptive cruise control and lane departure warnings.

It turns out that technologies to help aging drivers navigate more safely also come in pretty handy when you want to build a car that can drive itself.

“A lot of the early ingredients of autonomous vehicles were created for an aging population,” Connelly explains. “But from a marketing standpoint you’re not going to say, ‘Look at the nice car we made for old people.’ You need to come up with design solutions that work for everyone, whether they’re 68 or 18.”

Connelly’s team didn’t predict the advent of driverless cars. But by examining the data, Ford knew cars would need to adapt to meet changing human needs.

“My job is not to predict the future,” says Connelly. “It’s to prevent strategic surprise and open people’s minds to a broader range of possibilities.”

Signs point to yes

For almost as long as there has been a future to speculate about, there have been futurists. As an academic discipline, futurism is more than 100 years old, says Amy Webb, founder of the Future Today Institute and professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business.

As a quantitative futurist, Webb explores long-term strategic risks and opportunities for global 1000 companies.

“If a company ignores the signals we see in the present, what happens?” she asks. “If they make a decision to go in a particular direction, what are the potential outcomes? What are the next-order implications, and how can we reverse-engineer better outcomes to the present day?”

In the public imagination, however, futurists are often lumped in with fortune tellers, mystics, seers and oracles. That’s why many go by more sober titles like trend spotter, forecaster or analyst.

“I’ve always had an uncomfortable relationship with the term ‘futurist’ because it has lots of historical baggage,” says Paul Saffo, who teaches forecasting at Stanford University’s School of Engineering. “There are folks who call themselves futurists who are really visionaries. They tell you what should happen. A forecaster tells you what the range of likely outcomes might be.”

David Shing (aka “Shingy”) is Oath’s “digital prophet” (except when traveling in the Middle East, where he defaults to “forecaster”). His job is to look at trends, behaviors and ideas and distill them for brands and agencies doing business with the digital media company.

“Whether you want to call it forecaster or futurist doesn’t really matter, it’s the output I care about,” he says. “That output can be contextualized to say, well, this is what I think is going to happen. Some of it’s right, and some of it’s wrong. But that’s OK, because it’s all about understanding that things are changing.”

It is decidedly so

In this age of digital disruption and radical reinvention, however, every organization needs futurists, no matter what they’re called.

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