Understanding where the world is going next is critical for businesses, but predicting the future is notoriously difficult. Dr James Bellini explains how he ended up as a futurologist and the skills needed to succeed
The first thing to know about academic, broadcaster and futurologist Dr James Bellini is that he doesn’t want you to ask him who is going to win the 3:30pm horse race tomorrow at Kempton Park.
“I don’t predict. I offer people a range of options,” he says. “People say: ‘So, how many of your predictions do you get right?’ The fact is that making predictions is silly,” he admits.
As Bellini explains, his job is not about making predictions but understanding where the world is going next. To do that, he reads widely and studies the media to help him identify trends that might shape the way we live and work over the next five to 10 years.
In spite of spending most of his time looking forward, Bellini is a historian by trade. He did a Master’s degree in Law and History at Cambridge and a PhD in military strategy and politics at the London School of Economics, before taking on his first job as an international relations lecturer at the University of Birmingham. Although he found the job “pretty boring”, it did equip him with many of the skills he uses today.
“I describe myself as a ‘historian of the future’,” he says. “I do find the lessons of the past are an interesting pointer.”
It was his background in military history that first set him on the path to futurology, when he was recruited by American thinktank the Hudson Institute. Founded by military strategist and systems theorist Herman Kahn, it initially focused on the issues of scenario planning and nuclear war.
“The fact is that the early years of futurology were actually very much to do with military and defence matters,” says Bellini.
The institute opened a European branch and, in 1972, Bellini became the Paris-based thinktank’s first British member. There, he worked with a range of people - from mathematicians to economists - to look at the future from a range of perspectives. This work would come together as books, reports and conferences, all focused on the near future.
“I really found myself being sucked into the whole idea of thinking about the future - and it stuck. It’s parallel to academic work in the sense that I read very widely. It’s a very holistic discipline, you have to include everything from arts and science to geography and sociology.”
In fact, when he’s not using the lessons from the past to examine trends for the future, he is thinking about people. “Increasingly, I regard myself as a sociologist of the future because one of the most important impacts on tomorrow’s world is changing attitudes.”
At the Hudson Institute, Bellini’s work was normally conducted in small teams of mixed specialists, but he now works primarily on his own. “The substitute for not being in a team is reading loads and loads of stuff by other people,” he explains.
This “stuff by other people” can be found in national newspapers, in reports by consultancies such as McKinsey and the Boston Consulting Group or in essays by the likes of Nassim Taleb, author of The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. The futurology business has always involved this breadth of reading, but Bellini believes the manner in which he reads has changed.
“If I see a nice article or come across a book that I think is genuinely insightful I keep it, but I don’t read it after about six months. I regard that as out of date. You have a constant process of renewal and it’s getting faster and faster,” he says.
To mitigate against this pace of change, Bellini has four tools he uses when exploring possible futures. The first is the ‘scenario’. Borrowed from theatre, the term scenario initially meant the sketch of a plot for a play, but this way of formulating hypotheses has proved useful for business too.
First used by Shell Oil, scenario planning was employed to help work out whether the company would need more refining power, more oil fields, or a different strategy altogether. It is this approach Bellini takes when assessing the probabilities of the future.
“There is no such thing as a realistic scenario where one size fits all,” he says, but he does believe that having such a framework gives a baseline to work from.
The second tool is: demographics. Wearing his ‘sociologist of the future’ hat, Bellini examines how the world’s population is changing and the potential ramifications of that for future generations.
The third tool Bellini describes as “inspired imagination”, or an ability to observe the world and pick up on what he calls “weak signals”. He likens it to the old trope from Hollywood Westerns, where a Native American scout would put their ear to the railway line to assess how far away the train was by the vibrations it made in the tracks.
“Those are the things you’ve got to spot, because weak signals are really going to give you a clue as to what life might be like 10, 11, 12 years away - or five years away - but not tomorrow,” he says.
The final tool needed is the ability to consider the opportunities for so-called Black Swan events. “These are wild cards - the stuff that’s not in the plan, such as 9/11 or the Great Recession.”
When it comes to the most recent Black Swan event - the pandemic - being a futurologist definitely has its upsides. “On 4 January last year I started getting some very funny weak signals from China, and so I went out and stocked up on cans of soup.”
He believes he has an “antenna” for weak signals, informed by his sense of historical context. “There was a sense of ‘Oh, this feels familiar,’” he says.
“I picked up very early warnings of a potential pandemic coming out of China - there were rumblings doing the rounds in December 2019, if not earlier. It seemed obvious to me that this would be a ‘big one’. A truly global, constantly mutating Black Swan event.”
Having the skills to prepare for these events is certainly one perk of the futurologist’s job, but there are others. A major one is independence. “Nobody tells me what to say or asks me to look at specific things. It’s a great deal of freedom - and the freedom not to speak rubbish, but to say interesting things.”
Another element that Bellini enjoys is the opportunity he has to shape how business leaders think. “If I can send away a delegate - or delegates - from a conference thinking ‘wow, I never thought of that. I’m going to take a closer look and possibly start doing things differently’, that’s one of the great rewards.”
His desire, he says, is to have a meaningful effect on decision-makers at every level. He is often asked to focus on the issues keeping them awake at night, from the shape of the future workplace to disruptive technologies such as quantum computing and artificial intelligence.
So, what skills does a futurologist need? Again, Bellini emphasises the importance of reading as widely as possible. “I regard [futurology] as a very holistic activity. You need as much wide reading as you can. Nothing should be ignored.”
A breadth of reading will help to shape the next crucial skill: a talent for picking up on trends. Keeping a metaphorical ear to the ground at all times will help any budding futurologist learn what might be important. “It’s sort of a sixth sense,” he says.
Finally, a good futurologist must not only pick up on trends, they must be able to share them with people - be that through writing papers, leading workshops or speaking at conferences. Bellini believes his background in broadcasting (working on shows such as The Money Programme, Newsnight and Panorama) has shaped the way he communicates.
“In broadcasting, the emphasis is very much on simplicity and clarity of language. That is the opposite of the academic or thinktank world I had come from.” He describes the unwritten rule in broadcasting that you ought to rely on a vocabulary of no more than 800 words so that as many people as possible can understand you.
The most important thing to remember? “The future is a very, very big place,” says Bellini. And for those who are interested in pursuing a career as a futurologist “it’s a question of how you approach it and package it up.”
He recommends choosing the most relevant trends and elaborating on them, backing up any assertions with evidence. And when it comes to sharing findings - don’t be dull. “I never give the same talk twice. The future is constantly renewing itself, there is always plenty of new stuff out there.”