Forecasting: They have seen the future - and it works for them: Big business harnesses an art honed on the game boards of the Cold War

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The Independent Online
FUTUROLOGY - the science, some say art, of predicting the future - is fast becoming a multi-million industry in the US. From corporate clairvoyants such as Faith Popcorn to one of the country's best-selling authors, Alvin Toffler, such prognostications are big business.

And futurology is not restricted to America. In the UK, there are a growing number of academics, clairvoyants, so-called futurists and consultants, who plot the future for corporate and governmental clients. It is a disparate field, serving environmental, defence, social and commercial interests. Only recently, for example, the Henley Centre for Forecasting forecast that the 'rave' music scene would cost the drinks and leisure industry pounds 2bn per year in lost revenue; and Shell has long practised scenario planning.

According to Paul Kennedy, a British historian now resident in the US, futurology has its roots in Malthusian prophecies of population growth and environmental disaster. The collapse of defence industries and Eastern Europe's fragmentation have given new impetus to the movement.

Many former defence scientists, redundant since the Cold War ended, have designed models to advise governments and international organisations how to react to this rapidly changing environment.

In addition, popular related areas such as 'change management', and the use of chaos theory and fractal mathematics in predicting share prices, have become million-dollar industries in their own right.

In one case, Dave Dusik, a weatherman at Kansas City's WDAF television station, enlisted his own forecasting by betting on heavy rainfall when buying soya bean futures, to make a 250 per cent return in just one month.

Is it really possible, however, to predict the commercial future? Scientific futurists argue that companies must select the type of future they want, then act.

Susan King, a corporate clairvoyant, reasons slightly differently. As a benign pusher for businesses unwilling to make difficult - perhaps ethical - choices, she offers her intuition. Her speciality is advising recruitment managers on the suitability of potential employees. This approach seems to be taken particularly seriously in Japan, where she acts as a consultant to an impressive number of leading companies.

Ms King agrees that the image many have of corporate clairvoyants is 'a load of old crystal balls', but she believes that intuition will be recognised as an important business asset in future.

She cites a survey of America's 10 most important men: 'The object was to find a common denominator. The only one they came up with was that they used their intuition - their sixth sense - more than anything.'

Whatever your opinion, Ms King insists that her blue-chip clients 'come back time and time again for more'. In addition, several oil exploration companies have used the alleged divining abilities of Uri Geller, the famous psychic, in the search for black gold.

Many commercial futurists, such as Christine MacNulty, one half of the team that runs Applied Futures, would scoff at corporate clairvoyants like Ms King.

Describing herself as a 'corporate consultant', Mrs MacNulty runs sessions for senior managers during which clients are encouraged to extend the boundaries of their 'mental maps'.

It is an interactive programme, in which the managers must imagine extreme scenarios and then plan how to reach the most favourable outcome.

Mrs MacNulty's husband, Kirk, stresses that Applied Futures adopts a 'demand pull' rather than a 'tech push' vision of the future, unlike management consultancies that rely on extrapolating trends. Like many futurists, Christine MacNulty's background lies in the US military (the Navy), where she first learnt scenario-development techniques. She was one of the first to apply them to a corporate environment.

Although they sometimes sound more like super sales people than futurists, with their talk of 'process drives' and 'predictive futures', the MacNultys have spent several years researching a 'paradigm shift', which they believe is currently under way in the West. 'We are currently bound into an era of profound change, a move away from an industrial society which had its first glimmerings in 1860,' says Mrs MacNulty. 'The shift will be complete by 2010.'

Central to this theory, and to Applied Futures' philosophy, is 'inner-directedness'. Inner- directed people - trend-setting, creative types, more interested in nurturing psyches than a bank balance - will lead the future. They are said to compose 37 per cent of the current population, although it is unclear where this figure comes from. They are expected to double in number by 2010. By contrast, Mrs MacNulty says, the countries of the Pacific Rim are increasingly outer-directed.

In this, she is supported by mainstream opinion, which suggests that the West's working population will drop, with remaining jobs concentrated primarily in the information technology sector. The futurist authors James Robertson and others convey the recurrent theme that a new way of looking at the world - economics in particular - is overdue.

In the caring 1990s, futurists might be expected to turn their skills to the environment. But Richard Woods, a consultant at the Henley Centre for Forecasting, insists this interest has faded. 'Back in 1988, we tackled this sort of concern, primarily as a result of the Green Party's success. We were looking at the effect of consumption patterns on the UK economy. But there doesn't seem to be the same call for this any more.'

Mr Woods believes that the term 'futurology' is a foolish and misleading one. At the Henley Centre, which is possibly the most well-respected and established organisation providing a forecasting service, great store is set by market research. Clients have included corporations - such as United Distillers, which was helped with its pricing policy and a re- evaluation of consumer values - and public bodies, such as the European Commission.

With multi-disciplinary teams drawn from a vast range of industry and academic backgrounds, Henley concentrates on anticipating and evaluating strategic implications of change. The company has produced market forecasts, pricing strategies, market segmentation data, aid-in-policy development, corporate restructuring, brand building and analysis of client-supplier relationships.

It is client-driven, with a number of European and worldwide reports and services also offered. For example, the 'Frontiers' service, designed to assess the impact of consumer change in Europe, has been produced annually since 1990. It is a successful business - Henley makes a pounds 4m operating profit annually.

In summarising, however, David Boyle, editor of the journal New Economics, says: 'In a way, the clairvoyants, the psychics who believe in intuition, are right. By listening to our own inner fears and hopes, we can find the conviction to act.'

Or one can quote the 19th- century prime minister Lord Melbourne, who said: 'What all the wise men promised has not happened, and what all the damned fools said would happen has come to pass.'

(Photographs omitted)