WASHINGTON — IN a lather of zeal, the World Future Society (WFS) recently concluded its sixth general assembly here at the Sheraton Washington. For five days, some 2,800 badged and earnest students of everything that hasn't yet happened poked into scores of sessions with titles like ``Futuretecture: Outer Space and Inner Space'' and ``Beyond Abundance - The Opportunity Revolution.'' They heard Russell Peterson, former president of the National Audubon Society, call for a new breed of ``professional generalists'' to tackle complex problems. They heard Sen. Albert Gore Jr. (D) of Tennessee lament ``a willingness on our part to tolerate global environmental vandalism.'' They bandied about terms like ``conscious co-creation'' and ``synoptic idealism.'' Who are they? During the 23 years of its existence, the WFS has struggled with that question. What, after all, is a futurist? On one hand, the name is regularly appropriated by cranks, flakes, and nuts with mystical visions of tomorrow. At the other extreme are those whose computers generate narrow, rock-solid, and rather yawny economic and demographic forecasts. Between them, however, are the real futurists: those who see the present through a sufficiently wide angle of vision to provide some intriguing futures, while grounding their observations in careful calculation and trend analysis.
``Real'' futurists? There is, in fact, no true discipline (in the academic sense) known as ``futurism.'' Yet in an uncertain world desperate for assurances, there's lots of money to be made by ``futurists.'' So how can you tell the real thing?
One of the most thoughtful discussions of the week took place around that very question. Joseph F. Coates, coauthor of the newly published book, ``What Futurists Believe,'' noted that serious futurists don't try to prophesy or even predict. Rather than focus on ``what will happen,'' they lay out ``alternative futures'' based on a range of assumptions. The objective, he pointed out, is to ``identify a set of futures and do your planning against them.''
For Clive Simmonds, an analyst with Futurescan International Inc. of Ottawa, another defining characteristic is the use of ``multiple perspectives'' to comprehend the interrelatedness of the world. William Ascher of Duke University noted that real futurists work with ``metaproblems'' - asking themselves ``what problems should I be looking at?'' rather than examining what everyone else assumes to be ``the problem.''
And what are the fundamental assumptions of the futurist? Theodore Gordon, founder of The Futures Group in Glastonbury, Conn., noted a number: the recognition that the future is not ``preordained'' but can be ``shaped'' by human activity; the conviction that the shaping is driven by hundreds of actions, large and small, rather than by a few that are easy to measure; the necessity for distinguishing desirable from undesirable futures; and the willingness to admit that the world is highly complex.
To these, I suspect, should be added another: something Gordon has elsewhere called ``a reverence for the future.'' Too many people, afraid of tomorrow, shrink from the task of engaging it and mastering it.
It's a bit like downhill skiing. When you lean back timidly into the hill, you fall down. To succeed, you have to lean resolutely forward into your motion. If futurists have a broad purpose, it may simply be to encourage us all to lean forward - interested, confident, and eager for what's to come. If they can help us do that, long may they prosper.