Leading the Future: Vanessa Mason
This is the first installment of an ongoing interview series called Leading the Future: Her Point of View. It was originally inspired by Women’s History Month (March), and we’re excited to extend the celebration of women leaders outside of one month, and into ongoing conversations, reflections, and inspiration. This series is hosted by Roshen Sethna, a Partner at Exygy. Watch the full interview here.
Like all modern-day women leaders, I stand on the shoulders of those who came before me. In honor of Women’s History Month, I’ve decided to uplift present-day women-identifying technologists and activists who are moving the needle at the intersection of social impact and technology and who deserve our continued recognition.
My first phenomenal guest is Vanessa Mason, research director at the Institute for the Future (IFTF), the world’s leading foresight education and futures organization. She collaborates with individuals, communities, and organizations to help them think systematically about the future through data analysis and creative imagination.
Sethna: How did you get to becoming a futurist?
Mason: It’s a job that very few people set out to do. Like most of my co-workers, I got into this accidentally. I’ve just done a lot of different things. I’ve worked in global health. I was a biotech consultant for a while. I worked at a healthcare incubator. I did a lot of work related to designing tech prototypes, working with startups around how to design technology for vulnerable populations and how they can improve their health. And so with all of that, I have an industry focus in healthcare, which is valuable for future work. How people might use, misuse, or not use particular technology. Human behavior is one element of it.
The second element to be a futurist is to necessarily think insistently about broader context and points of interconnection that might have influence. This mindset leans towards a futures lens, but it definitely is a role that I’ve been learning as I’ve been doing it. If I had known that this career existed, I probably would have pursued it. Which is why I talk more about futures generally, because I do think that’s probably something that a lot of people will be very, very good at doing.
Sethna: What skills are needed to be a futurist?
Mason: Having a subject area of expertise. Are you a health futurist? A climate teacher? Systems thinking is important: looking for points of interconnection and where things might not just be symptoms, but rather thinking about root causes and thinking about context. The right brain and left brain aspect of this work as well. It is about data, analysis, tracking trends, and statistics. Then there’s the fundamental practice that we do: signal scanning. It’s about constantly looking for fringe behaviors, fringe innovations, and weird disruptions happening today. Ask yourself, what are the world’s problems, story opportunities, threats that have origins at the intersection of that data and information. Ultimately using creative thinking combined with structured analytical thinking.
Sethna: What is design’s role in the futurism skill set?
Mason: We have a design futures training at Institute for the Future. It’s this blend of designers and futures together. The futures contribution is vision creation, but the design contribution is the experience creation, tactile objects, and getting people to pre-experience the future to gain insight. That takes action and answering questions like: How can you embody what might be? How can you put yourself in the place of the user, the community, the organization? How may they react and what might be valuable for them?
Sethna: How does technology overlap with your work?
Mason: Technologies can be destructive. It might be the actual technology itself, or it might be the way that people are using it. One of my favorite signals that I’ve been sharing lately is the MIT Media Lab’s work in hacking dreams with software. There are interesting things that could come about, and very troubling things as well. In this case, there’s correlation and anecdotal evidence that it could be a mental health treatment addressing schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
But, there’s obviously creepy implications. Is this going to be the newest front of advertising? Is this going to be the way I’m brainwashed? Could this be unethical? If this were to make it to market, how might people discover new ways of using it? How might it change our social interactions? How might it change the way we think about sleep? Technology sparks a lot of questions.
Sethna: Has the pandemic impacted your futurism work?
Mason: It definitely has. It’s harder to have initial research conversations and dialogue that results in broader creativity because you’re not with people in the room. There’s not as much crosstalk. There’s more one-on-one or two-on-one conversations. When we have smaller workshops, it’s actually been better in a bizarre way. People get to see work in ways that they wouldn’t have been able to see before because they might’ve been at tables separately and not been part of the conversation.
Using tools like Miro to visualize and understand what the room is thinking is great because you are able to share a lot more about what you’re thinking. It also affords more opportunity for participation for folks who aren’t as extroverted, who aren’t just going to speak up. They now have time to think and prepare and write their responses. In that sense, it’s actually been more positive. But of course, this is all in the context of everyone being in “hair on fire” territory.
Sethna: You help people prepare for a future that they inherently see is unpredictable. Are organizations more excited or apprehensive about this type of work?
Mason: The short answer is both. Now that we’re a year into the pandemic, we’re definitely seeing a solid swing toward people saying that they really need to be thinking about the future. Sometimes it’s hard to think about the future when you’re under duress, though. I definitely experience it as a practitioner, both in personal life and work life. It’s like, “Oh, it’s really hard to explore and write and imagine when everything feels depressing.” It’s a natural human response to either be paralyzed or be galvanized by the unpredictable future.
Sethna: How do you tackle your work when so much of history is based in oppression that we still experience today?
Mason: We must surface oppression. Call it what it is. The United States hasn’t been calling things what they are. Shifting power dynamics to be equitable has required work on the part of many people who were not able to see the fruits of their labor. I get excited about my work because it is an opportunity to get everyone to participate in this work. We can’t limit ourselves to the weight of history. We must find ways in which we can truly do things differently.
Sethna: What resources do you recommend for people who are working to design and build more equitable and ethical futures?
Mason: IFTF’s After the Pandemic. This is a set of four alternative future scenarios with a toolkit that assists in thinking through different pathways to transforming our world in a way that is equitable and centered on the well-being of people. Another technology-focused resource is IFTF’s Ethical OS tool that’s identifying seven risk zones for people to consider when developing technology. Additionally, IFTF Futures Thinking on Coursera. We have another course coming out soon that’s focused on some of the scenarios I mentioned earlier.
Sethna: What projects or initiatives are you working on and excited about right now?
Mason: Every year with a program called Vantage, we have this huge research agenda with a 10-year forecast. My first year that I was at IFTF, it was around power and understanding how power was thought throughout the world. Last year, it was around this question of future-ready organizations. How can organizations better sense and anticipate what might be happening and be ready to act? This year, we’re looking at climate positive organizations. In the face of climate change, how can we not just become nearly carbon neutral, but how might we be improving the environment to be more stable and hospitable? I’m focusing on the social, emotional, and cultural shifts that are either going to be required or that might emerge as a result of the climate crisis.
The second thing I’m really excited about is my newsletter called the Future of Belonging. This looks at the ways we seek safety — physical and psychological safety — emotional connection to others, and spaces for meaning and sense-making in light of the huge changes that the world is going through. Imagining or creating scenarios of how work can be a place of care, a place of connection.
About the Interviewer
Roshen Sethna is a partner at Exygy with experience in organizational leadership, digital innovation, and product management. She has guided Exygy’s top civic sector clients in implementing user-centered and agile methodologies. Her clients include the Judicial Council of California, San Francisco Unified School District, Center for Effective Public Policy, and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. Roshen also led the Exygy team to design and build an open-source, digital, affordable housing platform that is being scaled across four jurisdictions in the Bay Area.