The future is Brian David Johnson’s business. As a futurist at Intel Corporation, his charter is to develop an actionable 10 to 15 year vision for the technology of tomorrow. His work, called “futurecasting,” uses ethnographic field studies, technology research, trend data and even science fiction to provide Intel with a pragmatic vision of consumers and computing. Along with reinventing TV, Johnson has been pioneering developments in artificial intelligence and robotics and the use science fiction as a design tool. He speaks and writes extensively about future technologies in publications including The Wall Street Journal and Slate, as well as for IEEE Computer Society, the world’s premiere organization of computing professionals.
Johnson has contributed to both science fiction and non-fiction books, including Vintage Tomorrows (2013), Science Fiction Prototyping: Designing the Future with Science Fiction (2011) and Screen Future: The Future of Entertainment, Computing, and the Devices We Love (2010). He is a professor at the University of Washington and the California College of the Arts and lectures around the world. He appears regularly on Bloomberg TV, the Discovery Channel, Fox News and PBS, and has been featured in Scientific American, MIT Technology Review, Forbes and Popular Science. Johnson has also directed two feature films and is an illustrator and commissioned painter.
An interview with Brian David Johnson
Do you consider yourself a designer? If so, what kind and why?
Yes! I have a dual background as an engineer and a designer. I come from experience design and use that every day in my work as a futurist. The futurecasting process explores what it will feel like to be a human living in the future. It enables us to imagine possible futures based on fact. We can decide which futures we want and which futures we want to avoid. We all design the future.
What role can citizens play in the redesign of their own futures?
The future isn’t an accident. The future is built everyday by the actions of people. Every person on earth will design their own future, the future of their family, their community, their church, their country and even the world. But we have to ask ourselves: what kind of future do we want? Then we have to make a decision, imagine it and then go and build it. Nothing amazing was ever designed and built by a human that wasn’t imagined first.
We are living in a time when we have the science and design tools to build anything. In fact, the one tool that is holding us back in our design thinking is our imagination. It’s what is holding us back in our inability to see a far better future than we have today.
Is it true you actually held the job of “zombie hunter”?
I did! It was my first job out of college. Back in the day, we had these strange new things called “personal computers” and we were using these PCs to make something called a “network.” We had about 500 PCs hooked up to the network and when people turned the power off on their computer—we all used to do this because we used to do it without typewriters so why wouldn’t you do it with this PC—well when people shut their computers off, all of the programs that were running got their heads cut off. The program was “dead” on the PC but it was still “alive” or “undead” on the network.
500 computers running five applications a day made a lot of zombies! All those applications wandering around the network and moaning—okay, they didn’t moan but they did suck bandwidth and the processing power really messed up the network. So it was my job to hunt down the zombies and kill them. So yes, I was a zombie hunter… Yeesh, I’m a nerd.
What impact can a “futurist” have?
As a futurist, it’s my job to model what future life feels like. I’m a pragmatic futurist, so I generally only look 10 to 20 years in the future. As a technological futurist for a company like the Intel Corporation, I model how people will act and interact with computers a decade from now. That’s because it takes Intel about 10 years to design, develop and deploy the chips. So it’s of vital business importance today for Intel to know what people will want to do a year from now. I’m a principle engineer at the company and my day job is to write a design specification that starts our hardware, software, silicon, investing and IP road maps.
More broadly, as a futurist it’s my personal mission to radically change how people imagine, design and build the future. I work with government, militaries, universities, trade organization and even small startups to help them imagine their future based on my futurecasting process. They are the experts. They are the ones that will build the future. It’s my job to help them synthesize a massive amount of disparate data and turn that into a vision. Once they have that vision, they can start taking the necessary steps today to bring it about.
My humble challenge to all designers is to use the skills and platforms available and not only design amazing things but strive to make people’s lives better. We can make people all over the world healthier, happier, more entertained, more sustainable and more connected… And we can still design awesome stuff, but if we set the bar that much higher and strive to make people’s lives better, then we will accomplish so much more.
How does one get the job of “futurist” (and where can we apply)?
Being a futurist is a funny thing. Most people don’t call themselves futurists. It’s a title that kind of gets stuck on you. People walk up to you, their faces tense with skepticism, and they say things like, “OK futurist, tell me about the future of…” or “So, you’re a so-called futurist. What do you think about…?”
Futurism isn’t so much a job as a way of thinking, especially about the world. It’s all about having a vision for the future, being able to describe it to people and having the tools and skills to then go build it. Find people and organizations who have to make big bets today that will need to pay off in the future. There you will find a futurist or someone who needs one. But be careful what you wish for: My family says that I spend my life 10 to 15 years in the future and only commute home on the weekend.