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Explainer: Some schools already teach future studies

Full preparation for a career as a futurist may require more than a firm grounding in science or engineering

Brian David Johnson stands in front of a vintage computer at the Computer History Museum. With computers, the future seems to arrive much more quickly than it does in many other industries. It’s important that educators today train the futurists of tomorrow to think broadly and creatively.

Joe Zawadsky, Intel Corp

Before today, you may not have been familiar with futurist as a career option. You also may not have realized that future engineers will benefit from studies that extend beyond mathematics, physics and chemistry. That’s why some universities are already offering classes in future studies.

As computers move from being based solely on electronic circuits to part of self-replicating machines that rely on life-forms such as bacteria, the people who engineer them will need to be especially creative, predicts Brian David Johnson. He’s the staff futurist at Intel Corp., a maker of computer chips.

A computer capable of recognizing human moods will require a broad understanding of life and people. So an engineer who studies history, or a computer scientist who studies dance, may enjoy an advantage, Johnson argues. “We also need girls [and] people of color,” he adds, to better relate to what people of varying backgrounds will like, want and need.

Futurists who envision changes such as this are already working on every continent, notes Glen Hiemstra. He’s the speaker and author behind the futurist.com website. In addition to Intel, companies that have full-time futurists include the computer manufacturer Cisco Systems, Ford Motor Co. and Hershey, the chocolate maker.

In coming decades, futurists will be needed everywhere, Hiemstra predicts. How people produce energy will affect the planet’s climate. How people use water and other resources will determine what remains for future generations. “Futurists help people think far, wide and deep,” he says. That sort of thinking can allow society to plan how to adapt to change.

To build a team of experts to do this, some universities now offer college degrees in future studies. Among the better-known examples of schools offering masters- or doctorate-level degrees are the University of Houston at Clear Lake in Texas; the University of Hawaii at Manoa; and Regents University in Virginia Beach, Va. Many colleges also offer the occasional class in this field. These include the University of Washington in Seattle and the California College of the Arts in San Francisco. Brian David Johnson, Intel’s futurist, teaches at both.

Power Words

chemistry  A science that deals with the composition, structure and properties of substances and with the changes that they go through. Chemists use this knowledge to study unfamiliar substances, to reproduce large quantities of useful substances, or to design and create new and useful substances.

climate  The weather conditions prevailing in an area in general or over a long period.

doctoral degree  Also known as a PhD or doctorate, these are advanced degrees offered by universities — typically after five or six years of study — for work that creates new knowledge. People qualify to begin this type of graduate study only after having first completed a college degree (a program that typically takes four years of study).

engineer Someone who uses math and science to solve practical problems.

futurist  Someone who uses data, supported by science and engineering, to project what technologies, products or behaviors are likely to characterize society in the future (often a decade or more away).

master’s degree  A graduate degree for advanced study, usually requiring a year or two of work, for people who have already graduated from college.

physics The scientific study of the nature and properties of matter and energy.

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