Career Path Q&A: Futurologist
A graduate of Northern Ireland's Queen's University, Pearson came to his current career while employed as an engineer for England's BT Laboratories. In 1991, he began conceiving long-term progress trends in business and technology, and his job title accordingly changed to that of "futurologist." After parting ways with BT in 2007, he went solo to found Futurizon, offering his expertise to a multitude of clients through consulting services and seminars. Dr. Pearson was kind enough to discuss his work, his rate of error, and his competition with a tech-savvy daughter.
Vault: When did you first become aware of the field of futurology, and how did you come to make it your career?
Ian Pearson: Well, I started my working life in design of far future missile systems, doing computer modeling and stuff (based on my Maths and Physics degree), then moved on to far future telecoms, and obviously in all that kind of work you have to spend some time thinking about the market you are aiming the products and services at, not just designing the technology itself. It was only later while in far future network planning in 1991 that I discovered that I could write about the futures bits all the time without my boss telling me to get back to work and get on with the engineering. I didn’t realize it was a proper profession till about 1993 when the media started calling me a futurologist. Much more fun than ‘executive engineer’, so I stuck with that title ever since.
V: Describe the general process you employ to conceive your theories. How much of your time is spent researching, versus the time you might spend purely brainstorming?
IP: I worked in computer modeling for a decade, so of course my first toolset for futures stuff was also computer modeling, but I soon found it was of limited use because you never know all the variables or equations, so it is better to use your brain, which is good at working with vague values and vague interactions. It helped that I was trained as a systems engineer and had a broad engineering background already when I started, so now I just use common sense, logical clear thinking, and occasional calculations. About a third of my time is reading and other research, a third thinking it all through, and a third sharing results with people.
V: Other than the inevitable misconceptions of being akin to a "soothsayer," what are some typical false impressions of futurology that you've encountered?
IP: The most common one is that it can’t work—no one can predict the future. Ergo I must be an idiot and wasting their time. In fact, many things are quite predictable, such as progress in technology, and many of the impacts of that technology are pretty obvious too when you think about it. So actually although you can never get it 100 percent accurate, 85 to 90 percent accuracy over a 10-year timeframe is certainly achievable.
V: You're most often credited with the invention of text messaging. When conversing via text messages, do you ever have the urge to tell the other party "You're welcome" (or, more fittingly, "U R welcome")?
IP: I try to avoid using short-forms, much preferring proper words and sentences, but I rely on my iPhone to put in the apostrophes automatically, I’m not that fussy about it. I like to irritate my daughter by being more up to date with tech than she is, and especially talking about future fashion and areas that teens think are their territory. But actually, though I am perfectly able to use new tools, I still much prefer email to texts or IM.
V: Since leaving BT, you founded Futurizon and began offering your services via consultation and speaking engagements. What motivated you to strike out on your own? Do you prefer engaging different clients to working in-house for a sole employer?
IP: There comes a point where you outgrow your office, like a bird thinking the nest is looking a bit dull these days, just before it learns to fly. I started doing lots of things outside BT and got to the point where my interests didn’t always run hand in hand with BT’s. Eventually, both of us decided it was time for me to go. And I’ve never looked back. I much prefer the freedom to work with different clients every day, sometimes several in a day. It never gets dull, and I never have to do corporate admin. But I think the feeling is mutual. I don’t think anyone would want to employ me full time now.
V: According to the Futurizon site, your predictions have a remarkable accuracy rate of about 85 percent-but that still leaves 15 percent unaccounted for. What do you consider your "misses?"
IP: Easy—I predicted in 1992 that by 2000 we’d be spending far more time in VR than watching TV. I also thought that by now we would have made far more progress in AI than we have. Most of the other misses were minor technology details like uses of reconfigurable logic. I won’t bore you, but I do happily admit I get it wrong up to 15 percent of the time.
V: Finally, how would you describe the career track for becoming a futurologist? Do employers expect standard levels of education and experience, or is it a less orthodox path?
IP: The ones I know have all taken quite different routes, and that’s fine. You can do a degree in futures studies, but I personally think it is more about thinking skills generally than any formal techniques, which work fine in nice tidy theoretical worlds in academia, but don’t work well in the real world, which is far messier and really doesn’t lend itself well to rigid use of tools. Experience in a field is essential; then, with clear thinking, you can figure out how that will develop. Gradually, you can broaden your remit until it covers a decent part of the futures landscape.