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Glen Hiemstra
Glen Hiemstra, the Seattle-based founder of Futurist.com, basks in the red glow of a corridor at the Seattle Public Library during the Association of Professional Futurists’ gathering. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

Professional futurists are gathering in Seattle, for the second time in 15 years. But don’t expect to recognize them by their business cards.

Many modern-day futurists tend to call themselves something else – for example, foresight specialist, which is Jonelle Simunich’s title at Arup, an engineering and consulting firm based in San Francisco.

“I tell people I’m a futurist, and they say, ‘So, what, you’re like a psychic?'” Simunich told GeekWire today during the 15th-anniversary gathering of the Association of Professional Futurists.

The annual gathering is structured as a series of seminars for about 40 futurists, rather than your typical trade convention. The group that became APF had its first gathering in Seattle in 2002. “It didn’t even have a name yet,” Cindy Frewen, who chairs the association’s board.

This year marks “the first time we have ever been in the same place twice,” Frewen told attendees at the Seattle Central Library.

One of the Seattle-based organizers of the event, Glen Hiemstra, isn’t shy about the “futurist” job description. In fact, he owns the internet domain name for Futurist.com. Hiemstra acknowledges that APF’s members use a wide variety of job titles, but he insists that being a futurist has a special cachet.

“The simple way to describe it is, No. 1, help people anticipate the future, and second, help them design and envision the future.” Hiemstra told GeekWire. “People call futurists when they want to look further ahead than they usually do.”

But when it comes to looking further ahead, even futurists need a little help sometimes. That’s the aim of this week’s gathering:

  • Experts from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the University of Washington, talked about initiatives to boost global health in the developing world through wider immunization, better sanitation and more advanced medical information services.
  • Later in the day, pioneers in building development, land conservation and ocean science shared visions for a more connected, sustainable ecosystem.
  • And at the Museum of Flight on Saturday, aerospace executives will focus on frontiers beyond Earth, and science-fiction authors will speculate on long-term visions for humanity.

Tom Frey, founder of the Colorado-based DaVinci Institute, said being a futurist isn’t just an exercise in navel-gazing. “We spend a lot of time being thinkers and doers, and not just talking about it,” he said.

For example, Frey has been working a concept for micro-colleges to train workers for high-tech jobs ranging from coding to drone maintenance in a matter of months. The first such micro-college, DaVinci Coders, has been in operation for five years.

Health panel
Sarah Chesemore (left) and Brian Arbogast (right) of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation discuss global health trends with University of Washington health policy researcher Jan Flowers (center) during the Association of Professional Futurists’ gathering in Seattle. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

So what’s the future of futurism? One clear trend is the synergy of entangled trends – for example, how pandemics could be made worse by climate change. “That is one of the things that is actually going to make this harder,” said Sarah Chesemore, the Gates Foundation’s senior portfolio officer for vaccine delivery.

Another example has to do with the rise of autonomous vehicles and its potential effect on the health care system. Frey said his calculations suggest that self-driving cars could reduce health care expenses by more than 15 percent. “That’s half a trillion dollars that now gets spent repairing people after car accidents,” he said.

The rise of big data is another biggie. Traditionally, futurists have not used a lot of “algorithm-based forecasting,” Hiemstra said. But today’s bigger data sets have so much predictive power, for issues ranging from crime patterns to disease outbreaks, that they’ll have to become part of the futurist’s toolkit.

And what about the future of Seattle? At GeekWire’s urging, Hiemstra took a swing at predicting the future of what’s currently a tech boomtown.

“It’s hard to imagine this boom continuing beyond 10 years, but it’s very clear we’re going to be a denser and still an economically vibrant place,” he said. “That’s going to mean that we have to be not just environmentally sustainable, but environmentally productive as a city. What that means is, moving from sustainable buildings to buildings that produce more energy than they use.”

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