An interview with Ross Dawson
Ross Dawson is globally recognised as a leading futurist, keynote speaker, strategy advisor, and bestselling author. He lives in Australia but works all around the world.
Ross Dawson, honorary female futurist, appears here because he was one of the first people to collate and widely promote a list of female futurists. Back in 2015 he compiled the first list and got it mentioned in Wired, which sent it around the Twittershpere and got lots of people talking. But what was the genesis of this list?
"People kept asking me where were all the female futurists? And so whenever people would ask me I'd say, 'well, there's Tanya and Marie and Christine, and there's Joyce...' But these women were not seen as much as they should be. They are not as visible as they should be, so I said that I would make visible what was invisible because there are all these amazing women who are part of the community".
"I can't remember how many were on it at the start, I think about 100, and it was essentially just the people I could think of, with a bit of additional research, and then of course people very quickly pointed out the gaps, which was the intention, I didn't think I was going to get everybody the first round. And as soon as we put it up people started to fill in the gaps. So it's intended to be a resource for people who want to find female futurists in their part of the world, and discover people who they should know but hadn't previously".
It's strange that the issue of the invisibility of female futurists bubbled up in more than one place around this time. This was about the time the Atlantic article also came out, posing the question: Why Aren't There More Female Futurists? (Short answer is there are many but they just don't get seen and heard as much). Well, very many are also now in Ross's published list.
Are women more tentative in coming forward to publicise themselves and their work?
"There's been a couple of interesting pieces about this and from the women I know, it's not true, they are willing to come forward or speak or communicate, the ones I know, certainly are".
I pose the question whether it is more to do with the media and events circuit having the wrong kind of impression about what futurists do and what their real purpose is. Is it because event organisers, and major corporations, want big keynote presentation about 'predictions', about what will happen in the future? Big bold affirmations about the future tend to come from a set of futurists who in turn, tend to be men.
"It's an interesting point, because I am anti-prediction myself, so I think that point about big bold statements is probably true of some kinds of events but I want to take a step back - I don't believe in stereotypes of gender, or race, or age - or many other kinds. I believe in individuals. I think there are a very significant number of women who are very happy to be bold and assertive, and Edie Weiner is a good example of that".
"I believe in diversity of thinking. looking at the future, we need diverse perspectives, and diversity of thinking"
Ross worked in the world of corporate finance for many years, including at Merrill Lynch. He has lived all over the world and speaks five languages, so no wonder he appreciates the value of diversity. At some point he 'stumbled into' the Australian offshoot of Global Business Network, trained in scenario planning with them, and 20 years later has his own consultancy, advising numerous corporations all around the world. Back in 2000 he had already published his first 'futures' orientated book, 'Developing Knowledge-Based Client Relationships: The Future of Professional Services' quickly followed by his second book, 'Living Networks' which anticipated the hyper-connected economy and the rise of social networks. He seems particularly interested in the future of media, or rather the future world and the way in which it is becoming more mediated. And that comes through in the ways in which he talks about the role and purpose of the professional futurist.
"The role of the futurist is as sense-maker. Helping others to make sense of what's happening. My simple frameworks about the future are intended to do just that, to distill and crystallise the incredible complexity of what's out there. Simple visual communication of that is how I've become known. A professional futurist is hired because they create value, you have to shape how people think about the future, in useful ways. It is the role of an effective communicator".
It is perhaps no surprise then that one of his inspirations is Marshall McLuhan: "He was not so explicitly a futurist but he was extraordinary in anticipating our world today, he is so relevant today". He also calls out Buckminster Fuller though of whom he says: "more formally a futurist, he was able not just to be that visionary, but also take the actions and help to create and communicate that vision".
The conversation naturally turns to what's next, and Ross shares that he is working on another book, about the role of a futurists: "what it is to have a future-orientated frame of mind and to be effective when thinking about the future and shaping the positive actions."
"I'm going to be very explicitly focusing on the impact of futurists, bringing positive attention and an understanding of the futurist - of futuring and foresight - as a profession. It's important for the human race, for the world, for the planet'.
It's perhaps not surprising that Ross is making that his future aim, as he more than most will have been able to see the value that futures and foresight can create within corporations, how one can anticipate and help organisations create the right kind of change. It's a difficult task littered with obstacles, but hugely satisfying when it has real impact in the real world. That's the impression I get from Ross and I hope he gets others to see more of that too. Why else would he have agreed to get up at 8am on a Saturday morning and do a Skype call with me. So glad he did!