Alexandra Whittington is a member of the Future of Business team at Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), where she helps clients navigate the complex and uncertain world of tomorrow. As a lecturer at the University of Houston prior to joining TCS, she taught undergraduate courses in Foresight. Alex has also co-authored and co-edited several books on the future, including A Very Human Future, Aftershocks and Opportunities, and The Future Reinvented. She is a TEDx speaker and was featured as one of the world’s top 50 women futurists by Forbes. Alex is passionate about empowering people to imagine and create positive futures for themselves and their communities.
Recently, in an exclusive interview with CXO Outlook Magazine, Alexandra shared her journey to becoming a futurist, insights on the biggest challenges faced by IT leaders today, significant career milestone, personal sources of inspiration, future plans, pearls of wisdom, and much more. The following excerpts are taken from the interview.
Hi Alexandra. Please tell us about your career path and areas of interest. How did you get to becoming a futurist?
I got my start as a futurist through a classic career path: education. I’m one of the members of a growing generation of futurists who were exposed to Futures Studies, also known as Foresight, through college courses. These days there are dozens of colleges and universities around the world offering such courses but 25 years ago it was pretty rare! The one I took was called The Study of the Future, which was taught at the University of Houston by one of my anthropology professors. Some 15 years later I would come back to teach the course myself as an adjunct, so education is really a big part of my journey. I was studying anthropology at the time, and I thought it was a perfect fit for my interests spanning history, human evolution, innovation, technology, society, and philosophy. I integrate anthropology and foresight with my take that the future is socially constructed through technologies, science breakthroughs, and culture. Like anthropologists, we futurists are storytellers, except rather than tell the story of an ancient civilization or some isolated tribal community, we envision what life might be like for people in the future.
What do you love the most about your current role as a Futurist?
The futurist profession is a perfect fit for me because I get to be creative and strategic at the same time. I like my current role on the Future of Business team at TCS very much. It’s great to be in an organization that really values foresight and is truly committed to a positive future. We serve a diverse range of customers and communities as an organization, and I thrive on variety. Every day involves something new and exciting! What I love most is that the company places a lot of emphasis on learning. This meshes so well with me because I view research and education as vital to my role as a futurist. And, I have wonderful colleagues who inspire and support me, both at TCS and in the wider foresight community.
You help clients navigate the complex and uncertain world of tomorrow. Are organizations more excited or apprehensive about this type of work?
I would say that organizations are apprehensive about the uncertainties that surround us and I think that’s a very normal, natural way of feeling. Uncertainty is unsettling. It’s ambiguous. It causes anxiety. Experiencing an event or period of time where you don’t know what it’s going to happen is not fun! In fact, it can be PTSD-inducing at worst and an unpleasant way to live at best. So I find that most people are quite enthusiastic about engaging with a foresight team like mine by having us at a speaking event, hosting a workshop, or commissioning us to do a foresight study. Ultimately, most clients are really excited to engage with a futurist and the feedback often tells us it is rewarding. It’s not that we have the answers, but we tend to put things into a new perspective for audiences in a way that is empowering and proactive.
You delivered a TEDx talk on ‘The Museum of the Future’. Can you please brief us about the topic and your experience as a TEDx speaker?
I had an amazing experience as a TEDx speaker. My talk is titled “The Museum of the Future,” because it puts forth the idea of visiting a museum in the future, say a history museum, that features exhibits depicting our present era of the 2020s. It’s a mental time travel storytelling journey meant to give audiences a new perspective on the way that we live today and allow us to step back to reflect on our time and place in history. Especially since it took place during the first year of the pandemic, this concept struck a chord with my audience because we were aware of living in an historic moment. It makes sense that our experience could end up cataloged or exhibited in a museum one day. In the presentation I flipped the script on history by referring to a “future history.” That means putting the present moment into a future context to reflect on what our legacy means to future generations. This is a very popular, longstanding foresight device and I think it’s an engaging way of pulling audiences into an immersive experience.
What do you feel are the biggest challenges IT leaders are currently faced with?
Artificial intelligence (AI) is clearly top of mind for leaders across industries. IT leaders have a good grasp of modern technologies, which is an advantage, but we shouldn’t think that just because we’re in the technology industry that we are any better prepared. Because AI is an issue that we’re facing on a societal level. It is really beyond organization and enterprise and even the industry. It’s a cultural issue and by that, I mean it’s capable of changing our way of life. AI could have many important, meaningful implications on relationships, employment, climate, natural resources, and of course education. Because it will touch so many areas of life, it’s something that we will all contend with in the near- and longer-term future.
According to you, what will successful leadership of the future look like?
In my view, successful leadership of the future needs to be extremely wise by drawing on three traits. The first one is information gathering. Information is, of course, plentiful in the information age. We are buried in information. So, it’s not so much about finding the information as much as sorting through it and analyzing it to take away what matters. Futurists do that through something we call scanning, a technique for constantly monitoring the environment and understanding what’s now and what’s next. Being able to detect signals and distinguish them from the noise is a leadership trait we need. Another one is intuition because sometimes we use subtle cognitive processes, such as intuitively picking up on patterns and how certain things are changing. Leaders need to tap into their intuition and be able to communicate big picture patterns to lead the future. The third trait I would like to see is someone who trusts instincts because at the end of the day we are a very advanced primate who, as the anthropologist Jane Goodall noted, are the only species to destroy its own habitat. We aren’t being careful with the place that we live in and in doing so, we put ourselves in danger and I think at an instinctive level we understand this better than at an intellectual or even informational level. I think these three traits will support strong foresight in facing existential crises. I am optimistic that existential threats can be overcome, but not with the same logic and mental models that got us to where we are now.
What is it that motivates and inspires you in your everyday life?
I’m really inspired by people; I think we are fascinating. Young people especially inspire me, and I’m very impressed by Gen Z and Gen Alpha. They’ve shown so much strength and maturity already in their lives and unfortunately, they’re going to have to stay strong through the coming decades. I’m inspired by the fact that they manage to remain human in such a high-tech world and I’m inspired by what they create and how they embrace life even on such difficult days. I’m very inspired by young people, and my own children in particular are absolutely my biggest motivation.
What are you particularly proud of in your career?
I’m really proud of the fact that people reach out to me for advice on becoming a futurist. Strangers, often students but sometimes experienced professionals, when thinking about pursuing foresight or future studies or becoming a futurist sometimes come to me for direction. Being asked for career advice tells me that I have established myself as someone that, most importantly, is trustworthy and secondly, capable of helping people figure out how to navigate the rather mysterious futurist profession. When I’m asked to share career insight or support, I’m proud of my reputation as a professional in the field of foresight.
Where do you see yourself in the next 5 years?
I am staying on my trajectory of learning and growth so in five years I hope to reach a higher level of foresight expertise. For example, I would like to have published my book, a passion project I’ve been working on for some time. My manuscript puts forth my theory of the future, so to speak, and I hope it will help audiences explore meaningful questions and take action on their insights. It was really important to me to share my thinking through the narrative of my personal foresight journey, so the book is not just how to think about the future, but how I as an individual arrived on this path. I plan to reach a large audience with my book and further cultivate my thought leadership as a futurist. By combining my personal story with my professional experiences, the book answers the questions I am most commonly asked, like “How do you become a futurist?” and “What does a futurist do?” I really look forward to its publication because I think it will shed new light on the career path of a professional futurist.
What would you recommend IT Leaders start taking action towards to prepare for the future?
A good place to start a foresight journey is booking a futurist speaker for your group or meeting. In the meantime, start scanning. Learn to tune into the pulse of change. Put out feelers, learn what dings your radar. Look for new developments, shifts in the zeitgeist, technological breakthroughs and so forth. Form an educated guess about what the future holds and test it frequently against what you detect by scanning. Most importantly, embark on an unlearning expedition, which involves questioning the status quo and deeply entrenched behaviors. The more flexible and curious you are, the more successful you will be at navigating the future.