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LA Futurists Have a Future: A Few Words w/ John Smart

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As an avid listener and devotee of Coast to Coast AM, I'm riding a fine line between "end days" thinking that's making its way all the way into mainstream pages while at the same time embracing the future like the kid at the top of a roller coaster. The scariest part of the way up is the clack - clack - clack sound right before you go soaring, stomach in throat, all the way into the void. That's the kind of energy that fuels futurists - people united not by an urge to predict, per se, but rather look at the future as a philosophical construct. LA has its very own group of prolific futurists who have been meeting for seven years.

As John Smart leaves his tenure as moderator for the group, I decided to see what drives the future by asking a few questions. The bottom line: "Like to meet cool, forward-thinking folks like this? It’s simple. Join the LA Future Salon Yahoo Group. Come to the next Salon in Santa Monica. The future is in your hands!"

LAist: Tell us about the LA Future Salon - What does it mean to be a futurist?

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John Smart: A futurist is someone who looks to and provides analysis of the future. There are many ways to do that, and everyone who has ever wondered about tomorrow or planned for the next week is a futurist at some level. The people who study these things have identified twelve common types of futures thinking. You can also think of them like stages. We each tend to start out in the simplest stages (preconventional futurist, personal futurist, imaginative futurist) and learn to use other stages/levels as well, over time. You can find a listing of these types here.

I started the LA Future Salon in Santa Monica back in January 2001 as a way to find a local community of friends who are seriously interested in thinking and talking about where the world is going, and to better understand our options for personal and social change. At a typical Future Salon, in the first hour we do article sharing on “surprising” new developments in the world and give brief updates on our lives, then for the next two hours we have a speaker and a Q&A, or have a discussion around a topic of interest. Then we go for coffee and dinner, where we discuss our insights from the Salon, and our personal plans for the next month. Attendance is free, and promotion has been primarily by word of mouth. That’s the basic structure.

Our first meeting started with six attendees, and we’ve gone up from there. We’ve had as many as 150 attending for popular speakers (Syd Mead, Kevin Mitnick, etc.), but tend to average around 20 to 40, depending on the topic. There are 640 people on our Yahoo Group, who get email notice of our monthly (usually) meetings. You can join the meeting notification list.

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Our Salon homepage is here. You can see our list of past speakers and topics there. We originally met in Santa Monica, moved to UCLA for the last two years, and are now moving back to Santa Monica. After running the Salon for six years I am leaving LA for the Bay Area, as my girlfriend Iveta Brigis (who I met through the Salon three years ago!) just got a job at Google. I am leaving the Salon in the very capable hands of Bino Gopal and a group of salon moderators. Would you like to help moderate our Salon? Are you a social and future-oriented person? Join the Moderators group. The more people we have helping to find interesting speakers or proposing good discussion topics, the better the experience is for everyone.

Since starting the first one here in LA, fifteen other Future Salons like ours have emerged around the country. Two are in the Bay Area, so Iveta and I will have plenty of future-oriented friends to meet when we get there. You can find the full list of Future Salons at: http://accelerating.org/futuresalon.html. Would you like to start your own Future Salon, perhaps in Pasadena, Orange County, the Valley, or the South Bay, to complement our Santa Monica Salon? We’ve made a PDF (at the previous link) which shows you how easy it is to grow your own local community of futurist friends. There is also an active discussion group you can join, for the whole North American Future Salon Network.

As Salon moderator I tried to practice what I call “whole futurism,” the practice of thinking about the future broadly, using a plurality of perspectives and skillsets. We tried to emphasize topics and speakers at five different systems levels: personal, organizational, national, global, and universal futures. We tried to balance four general topic areas: science, technology, business, and social change. Finally, we discussed four different types of futures: possible (what might/could happen), probable (major trends and convergences), preferable (advancing particular sets of values), and positive-sum (outcomes that tend to make things better for everyone, but to varying degrees). There are of course different ways of dividing up the “whole,” but the important thing is to try to cultivate a broad and balanced understanding of the Big Picture, to get a sense of where we came from, where we are going, and why we are here.

I think one major advantage of cultivating whole futurism is that you can use it, along with a practical understanding of the past, to become balanced, happy, and at peace in the present. I believe only when you are aware of both where you and the world have come from, and where you appear to be going, can you fully appreciate and be empowered in the here and now. Another advantage of futures thinking is it helps you imagine, plan for, and create the future you desire, rather than the one you get if you keep on simply reacting to the present moment, without hindsight or foresight. The future can be a mix of what we plan for and what the universe gives us, but people who don’t think about and who don’t work hard toward particular futures are giving up their power to make a better world. Finally, in a world of accelerating change, you can be sure your work will change many times over the course of your career. As a whole futurist, you’ll be much more adaptive and responsive and resilient, able to keep learning and risking and thriving in the turbulence of life. We only have one life to live, and if we want to be truly conscious individuals we might as well live it with a view to our own future, and that of our descendants.

One could argue that although Silicon Valley is where the seeds of many recent technologies have begun, Los Angeles continues to be an important hub for technology thinkers - What makes LA uniquely equipped to incubate these thought threads?

California leads the US in many ways, and I believe the US should be setting an example for the world. LA is a large, fascinating, and very diverse city, so generalizations only go so far. But as the entertainment capital of the US and to some degree the world, LA has a unique opportunity to help the world become a better and more future aware place through the stories it generates. It is my opinion the entertainment industry has largely missed that opportunity to date, going for the big dollar and the primitive instincts rather than the small dollar and the hearts and minds, which is normal for most industries at this early phase of human civilization. But I have hope for the future, particularly as people are beginning to get their entertainment from bottom up and independent media through the internet, as well as from traditional corporate platforms, and as the corporations themselves become more socially responsible in coming decades, at the insistence of an increasingly enlightened citizenry. I recognize that it may take many years, perhaps even generations, before our entertainment is also something that edifies (inspires, improves, enlightens) us, and before we have a global citizenry that wants both entertainment and edification at the same time, but all big tasks in social change are never easy.

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Read Al Gore’s new book, The Assault on Reason, for a beautiful description of some of the difficulties of this early 21st century era, which will eventually pass like all other eras before it. Or listen to it on audio book if reading is too much of a chore, as it is for most Americans these days. Social change happens in cycles, with a few steps forward followed by a few steps back, but I believe there is a very positive long term vector, which indicates much better times ahead. Disagree? Come to a Salon and tell folks what you think, both the kind of future you expect, based on present trends, and the kind you want, based on your own and others initiative.

What are some of the most compelling issues you've moderated during your tenure over the salon?

Like I said, we have tried to discuss science, technology, business, and social change in roughly equal proportions. That means about half of what we talk about is “sci-tech,” which can be challenging for nontechnical folks but I believe must be done as a service to our community, because science and technology are the fastest moving, most powerful, and most pervasive forces in the human environment. We need to “garden” our sci-tech, and make sure it creates the kind of business and social futures we would like to see. With regard to technology, we are clearly in for some very fast, very interesting times ahead.

Is the future here? How do you define the future of LA?

The future is everywhere that people are, and the future of LA is in its residents hands, to define as they please. I’ve been very fortunate to meet a number of amazing, inspiring future-oriented Angelenos.

For sharing their insight, passion, and friendship with me during my time here, I’d like to thank Bino Gopal, Alvis and Iveta Brigis, Marlon Rojas, Troy Gardner, PJ Manney, Norman Gilmore, Alex Lightman, Jeff Thompson, Jef Allbright, Brent and Nolan Bushnell, Jason Brancazio, Mike Korns, Gilda Cabral, Peter Voss, Louise Gold, Raahul Srivasinan, Paul Grasshoff, Lisette Sutherland, Kate Nelson, Michael Leventhal, Johann Gevers, John Spencer, Steve Potter, Michael Eastwood, Jason Schissel, Rich James, Rizwan Kassim, Wayne Himelsein, Ron Freshman, Farsam Shadab, Roland Lee, Rion Snow, Steve Scher, Jessica Benton, Todd Huffman, Natasha Vita-More, Max More, Peter Dimitrioli, Lily Xie, Hank Murdock, Greg and Fred Wendt, Dave Harris, Regina Pancake, Chris Colquhoun, Alexis Baker, Karl Martin, Eli Regwan, Heather Vescent, Sponge Nebson, Steve Coles, Joyce Schwarz, Elle Martin, Lorraine Zecca, Larry Silverman, Tim Allen, Gregory Wright, Brian Rowley, Tad Daley, Dan Mapes, Jay Dubin, Jeannie Novak, Pete Markiewicz, Andrew Breese, Lisa Tansey, Curt Steindler, Rob and Starr Fitzgerald, Pierre Baldi, Evan Reese, Anita Phillips, Bob Lloyd, Peter Russell, Sandra Russell, Adrian Stoica, Mark Pesce, Ari Requicha, Bart Kosko, Syd Mead, Carlo Montemagno, Fiorella Terenzi, Kate Nelson, Eric Gradman, William Poundstone, Marcos Novak, Peggy Dubois, Allison Dollar, Marlea Welton, Seena Sharp, Jack Nilles, Wayne Radinsky, Josh Kirshchenbaum, Richard Mason, Steve Bankes, Yosi Bar-Cohen, Doreen Nelson, Jerry Paffendorf, Tanya Jones, Maja Mataric, Doug Thomas, James Au, Lewis Johnson, Lili Yang, Tom Lombardo, Greg Cole, Xeni Jardin, Mark Fruenfelder, Deborah Estrin, Don Hoffman, Dave Blackburn, Skip Rizzo, Barnabas Takacs, Jim Underdown, Wally Rippel, Bruce Cordell, Reichart Von Wolfshield, David Ellerman, Terry Tamminen, Miguel Aznar, Ethan Lipton, Jim Dewar, and Mark Pritchard. My apologies to anyone I’ve left off this very incomplete list of the dynamic, practical, and optimistic community of futures thinkers who have enriched my life in this great city.

Top photo via transhumanism.org, middle photo by lacandenzafied via flickr