Arnie WeissmannThe first time I heard a futurist speak was in 1980. What impressed me most was his confident prediction that in the future, our wristwatches would not only tell time but would monitor our health in myriad ways, keeping tabs on our temperature, blood pressure, pulse and whatever other life indicators might be detectable skin deep.

So I was interested to try Fitbit, a wristband device purporting to monitor various physical activity levels, when it debuted a few years ago. The product ultimately disappointed me; I simply lost faith in its accuracy.

But it reminded me of that one simple prediction and the maze-like quality of forecasting. To make an accurate prediction is akin to entering a labyrinth and getting to the other end in the most direct route on the first try. With forecasting, make one wrong assumption and you're heading toward a dead end.

Even my futurist's most basic assumption -- that upcoming generations will wear wristwatches -- is now questionable.

Futurists today are much more likely to speak of possible scenarios rather than specific predictions. I recently heard a fascinating explanation of how big businesses prepare for the unknown by Sheryl Connelly, Ford Motor Co.'s staff futurist (or, in today's jargon, "corporate forecast practitioner").

"Travel agents are futurists," Connelly said. "When planning a trip, they're making decisions based on assumptions about how the future is going to play out."

And, like the leadership of a large corporation, a travel adviser creates plans that attempt to maximize positive outcomes and minimize risks.

But agents have an advantage. Most trips occur in the relative near-term, so there's less time for the introduction of factors that might lead a planner down a blind alley. For long-term corporate strategic planning, complexities abound.

The biggest challenge is to understand one's own underlying assumptions, which, Connelly said, "are often so deeply rooted that we can't articulate them. No one can predict the future, so my job is to prepare people to expect the unexpected."

Looking to past experiences is a poor guide, and predictions based on how things are trending are generally wrong. "Competition comes from unexpected sources," she said. "Who would have thought that Google would build cars?"

Nor does Connelly put much stock in SWOT (Strength-Weakness-Opportunity-Threat) analyses. "The conversation usually goes, 'What are our strengths, and how can we continue them?' But we don't get to define our strengths. They're defined by consumers, and that can change on a dime."

She recalled how, after 9/11, SUV sales began to plummet, exacerbated by a linkage between environmental concerns and religion. "What would Jesus drive?" became a rallying cry against gas-guzzling large vehicles in the Deep South. Until that moment, she said, SUVs had been considered a strength for Ford, but in a relatively short time, their commitment to developing and producing that class had become a liability.

She looks for shifts in deeply held values and practices in technology, social institutions, macroeconomics and policy that can influence behavior and change the landscape.

"I end up with multiple versions: future one, future two, future three, future four. If I write a utopian story, I must also write the mirror image: social upheaval and societal collapse. I don't advocate for either, but if I have a plan for anything on the spectrum, I will have a plan regardless of what happens."

The key is to keep asking questions. "What if oil hits $300 a barrel? Who will benefit? Who will suffer? What technology will come out of it? How will policy-makers respond? All of these have multiple possible answers. Don't start with, 'What will happen to my business?' Begin with the big global picture."

Shifts in demographics are frequently Connelly's starting point. The projected 50% rise in global population by 2050 has massive implications for the availability of resources. Who will support aging populations in certain countries? What will result from accelerating urbanization (of particular concern to Ford as it tries to imagine transportation in tomorrow's congested metroplexes)?

As regards current trends that should be of interest to travel industry practitioners, she notes that "one size fits nobody." Even identifiable segments of consumers -- baby boomers, for example -- are not monolithic. Many consumers tend not to trust businesses and rely heavily on word of mouth and social media. Price, quality and convenience are top of mind, but consumers want to know what a company and product stands for. Ethical consumption is important.

Perhaps this trend is not so new, since it's what blindsided Ford when SUVs were protested. What might have changed is that today it wouldn't be wise to joke, as Connelly did then with concerned car dealers in the South, that they could say, "What would Jesus drive? A Ford Expedition. It's large enough to carry him and all the apostles."

My prediction? For some time going forward, it will be unwise for a businessperson to say anything less than 141 characters in length without first considering how it might come across as a tweet.

Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter.

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