An interview with Marina Gorbis

Marina Gorbis is executive director of Institute for the Future (IFTF), a Silicon Valley nonprofit research and consulting organization. A native of Odessa, Ukraine, yet equally at home in Silicon Valley, she is hugely influential through IFTF and her research and writing, including via her book, The Nature of the Future: Dispatches from the Socialstructed World.

At the end of the last century, an organisation claiming to be 'the world's leading futures organisation' - Institute For The Future - was searching for somebody with international experience who understood the global shifts and developments in markets. Marina was starting to feel frustrated in her regional economic development work and there was a futurist at Stanford, Ian Wilson, who connected her with Bob Johansen who at the time was the President of the Institute. The rest, as they say, is futures...

During that time, so much has changed. What differences have been most striking?

"One thing I see is more women coming into the field. And I definitely see that at the Institute. It does naturally happen in organisations when the leader becomes a woman, women just see you there and it brings more women into the field. At the Institute we are probably more than half. "

"We're also living in a moment where futures thinking and foresight is very much in vogue. It's a lot like where we were fifteen years ago when everything was 'design thinking', now a similar thing is happening with foresight...people are hiring foresight practitioners, including perhaps a chief of foresight and it's kind of an amazing moment."

"But the most exciting thing is that it's no longer about an individual futurist working on their own, it's about building communities. There are huge uncertainties in the world, potentially scary scenarios, and where we are right now in this moment, people are finding futures thinking very helpful. Now it's participatory, and that really is exciting, a move towards a more collaborative foresight."

Marina sums it up beautifully as: "collectively participating in imagining possibilities. Moving from the space of prediction, to one where where we imagine and shape the future."

The Institute of course has been around for a while, fifty years in fact. And recently just digitized and donated their archives to Stanford. This seems another example of the collaborative approach that Marina is talking about. It leads to a conversation about the nature of foresight and how it is not about prediction:

"One of my journalist friends always talks about the difference between waves and tides. Waves are things you see on the horizon right there, they come and go. But what you really want to understand is what's underneath that, what's the larger force, in this case the tide that's causing that effect. It is so much less about prediction and much more about giving people tools and collectively thinking and working through that."

That may be why the Institute is famous for tackling the future on a 10 year horizon, they're well-known for their '10 years ahead' reports. And Marina explains that ten years is a safe place when doing participatory foresight because we can all more or less agree on what we want, on what the desirable future is, ten years from now. It can offer a context that's more easily shared. If it's shorter-term, say two or three years, everyone is really focused on 'their' own issues or agenda.

I briefly met Marina a few years ago when I visited the Institute which is based in Palo Alto. And I was struck by something as soon as I walked in the door, it opened into one big room, like a large foyer. There was no reception or office space upfront, the offices were towards the back of the building. It meant as soon as I entered I was welcomed into a large participatory space, expectant of a gathering. It was later explained to me that that is where they run workshops and bring people together. That moment stuck with me, so I fully appreciate the nature of Marina's passion for a collaborative approach to futures.

Another aspect that the Institute is noted for, is its visualisations. The visual trend maps and showing how all the trends interconnect is one of the most helpful assets in drawing people together for discussion because everyone can literally 'see' the same thing:

"One of many mentors was the woman who very few people know, but to me she was the woman of futures - Kathi Vian. We used to do these big thick reports and she changed all that. She started the whole practice of creating those maps. It's a unique skill because you have to be an amazing visual thinker, and a superb intellectual. She has the ability to take a lot of disparate ideas and create these meta-stories. She's had a tremendous influence on me and on everybody else in the Institute too."

"I also continue to work with Jane McGonigal who comes from games research and design and Jane helped develop the whole foresight engine platform which is our platform for participatory foresight where we put our videos and scenarios up and then we invite communities to use them, working through the implications for change."

"Lyn Jeffery another colleague is a cultural anthropologist and has really developed a whole practice of combining ethnography with our foresight and forecasts, to create views of usage patterns signalling how technologies will interact with people's daily lives, it has been an amazing practice."

Some brilliant examples of women in the field who have been inspired her to look at futures in another way, and inspired others to take a new perspective too.

And what is Marina's advice to the next generation of futurists?

"My advice would be to find communities. I really cannot imagine becoming what I have become without the community that I have been a part of. Every day I learn something new from others. And every day I get a kind of energy from that. It's not about what forecasts you can do. It's important to have good ideas and frameworks but when people come and do the training and tell us they can't think the same way again, that's transformational"

"It is very much what John Dewey was saying over a hundred years ago, education is not something that is done to you, it is something that you are motivated to do. And a lot of that motivation comes from your social community and your social setting."

And Marina often refers to social structures, social environment and culture throughout the conversation. She calls herself a 'recovering economist' partly because whilst she is well versed in economic theory and modelling, she also knows that one has to understand how that marries with power and political or social structures, in shaping that change.

It's a theme again expressed whilst discussing where the world is right now:

" Ian Morrison, IFTF President, wrote a book called The Second Curve in which he posits that in any period of transformation, you are existing along two curves, one is the incumbent curve representing how things have been done for a very long time. This shows up as established practices. Then you have the new curve that you are just beginning to surf on and it can still be shaped in multiple different ways. I believe that is where we are now, where something is dying, including some of the myths on which that incumbent curve was built, and something new is beginning. For example, the discourse around climate change is encouraging, and it's important we give people agency to think 'hey, I can shape this'. "

"BBC Futures came out and declared short-termism as the greatest existential threat to humanity, so I think this is our time. But I'm optimistic about the next ten years. It's our time, and we can shape the future. And to be frank, as a futurist in the futures field you have to be an optimist - even the notion of a future, is an optimistic notion in itself."

It’s a new decade and IFTF has identified 5 ways you can shape it. IFTF always think on a 10-year horizon so 2020 is a great year to begin to expand your thinking about what’s possible in the coming decade. Their newsletter offers 5 tools you can use to stay strong, resilient, creative, and agile until 2030, subscribe to that and to IFTF's Futures Course on Coursera here