Playing the "Think Like a Futurist" Game

In her acclaimed SXSWedu 2016 keynote, Jane McGonigal critically examines a billboard from a 1930's World Fair that lured people with the promise of "seeing the future".

"This is not what a real futurist does," she warned. "A futurist does not see the future; they make the future."

Furthermore, she asks the attendees at SXSWEdu to imagine all the conceivable options the future may have in store ten years from now. She chooses ten years because it's close. We can easily envision ourselves ten years in the future: where we will be living, what our friends and family will be up to, where we will be in our careers etc.

Instead of seeing the future, Jane invites us to choose the future we want and get started working to make it happen. But how do we forecast future events. Let's walk through Jane's SXSWEdu keynote together, shall we?

Opening yourself up to signals

The creation of these imaginary futures begins with collecting evidence that Jane McGonigal calls signals. No. They are not these invisible radio waves that transmit future oracles to our passive brains. On the contrary, these signals are observations or clues that stand out to us as we go along in our day to day business. Signals are quirky trends we notice in the news or the blogs we read, they can be a term or a buzzword that keeps reappearing in our favourite Reddit feed or interesting new habits you observe in public spaces. Things that make us go hmm...

Pulling different signals together to create a forecast

Next, we need to look at these signals collectively and creatively to make a forecast. Jane implies that  forecast is less like a vision or an oracle and more like an action plan to be acknowledged, revised or discarded. She reminds us that "we're not making predictions. We're finding out what's possible."

Using her talk as a framework, I thought I would participate in her fun forecast making experiment:

To read my forecast:
My Futurist Forecast: Language Learning in 2026

In the process of creatively combining these signals, we may actually come up with a conceivable 10-year forecast that we would like to see happen. However, pulling these threads together and visualizing a forecast is not easy. Opening ourselves up to these signals and pulling them together to make forecast, we would like to see come true takes some hard work  (As it should, be It's our future we are talking about here isn't it?)

Playing the futurist thinking game with other players

As soon as I created my forecast, I started to criticize and ask questions. Is this the future I really want? How will it change the way we work and learn?  Immediately,  I needed to consult the sages--I informally presented my forecast to a group of colleagues. The teachers reactions varied, to say the least. We started criticizing the practicalities, the benefits and the disadvantages. One teacher, even passionately argued "Do we really want our students to always be wearing those oculus goggles? Won't it make them dizzy?" That's when I realized: It was all a game.

A game worth playing


The creative thinking and heightened investigation I managed to involve a few colleagues in, was a rich and playful discussion. Our reactions touched on topics such as the use (or overuse) of technology, the emotional and physical safety of our students and the benefits of professional development.  More importantly, we took the time to critically question our classrooms of the future.

I walked away from these discussions and found myself reflecting on my present practice in this strange context of an imaginary future I could choose. How could I prepare my students for this future? Which skills would they need to benefit from these not-yet-realized situations? I came to the conclusion that this reflecting and deeper thinking may be the whole point of Jane's game. A game that she is playing on a global scale with people right now.

A criticism would be that Jane makes this business of being a futurist sound a little easier than it is. I would add that in order to receive signals to be of value to our lives, we need to be conscientious observers.  We need to dig and find time in our busy lives to stay current, active and reflective.

Nevertheless, Jane's particular vantage point as a writer, researcher and keynote conqueror (Watch her TEDtalk here) makes it a little easier for her to pick up on signals that are fascinating and noteworthy enough to form the basis for an actionable plan (and a pretty entertaining keynote as well). However, in all the fun of  playing the futurist thinking game, I think there is a bigger message to what Jane is saying: "Get involved and take action of your future now".

In other words, in order to be a futurist thinker--we need to be a present doer.

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