Connie Blumenthal

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Flynn's Harp: For futurists tomorrow may be decades away

Although he grew up in a household in which his newspaper-editor father kept the focus on current and past events, Christopher Kent has built a career looking ahead at events that could happen. He's a futurist, meaning he peers sometimes decades into tomorrow to advise clients on things that might occur and how they could possibly affect the outcome of those events. Kent, 42, who was born in Olympia and spent some of his early years in Yakima where his father was the editor of the daily newspaper for a time, is one of a group of seven friends who formed the Washington, DC based Foresight Alliance in 2009 after being downsized at about the same time a year earlier. They are among an estimated 100 or so professional futurists around the Beltway and about 2,000 to 4,000 around the world.

Because when people find out he is a futurist they usually want to ask about a specific event or outcome, like who'll win the presidential election in November or what the market will do next week, Kent is quick to make it clear that he doesn't predict the future.

"While we don't predict the future," says Kent, a graduate of Marquette University who did graduate studies in Toronto. "We help clients understand the range of futures they face and what they can do to achieve the most beneficial and successful future."

But sometimes clients may not want to look into the future, as when he had a client in the housing business near the beginning of the economic crisis. "We said we need to talk about the housing bubble and they told us they didn't want to have that in any discussion or planning."

"Some clients are just superstitious that if they talk about something, it might happen, so they don't want to discuss it," Kent says. "So if we know there's something the client doesn't want to deal with, we try to find ways to circle back to the topic."

"For too many people, the future is the next quarter," says Kent, "but we try to force our clients to look out five to 10 years and present them with four or five alternative scenarios. That forces you to look past the trees to the forest."

Kent says that when people learn he is a futurist, they usually want to know the outcome of something specific, like an election. Adding "that's not what the future is; there is no single outcome to foresee."

An example of how far ahead Kent and his cohorts can be called upon to explore the possible futures was the Food 2040 in-depth look at the future of agriculture, food and consumers in East Asia, using Japan's emerging economy as an indicator for emerging economies.

He sent me an e-mail a few weeks ago to see if I was interested in that recent Foresight Alliance project, which stirred my curiosity because of possible implications for the agriculture industry and economy of this country.

Food 2040 was described as "an in-depth look at the future of agriculture, food, and consumers in East Asia, using Japan's mature economy as an indicator for the emerging economies of East Asia, especially China."

Results of Foresight Alliance's year-long study under the sponsorship of the U.S. Grains Council were presented to the Japan Business Foundation, offering what Kent emphasized were insights "not meant as predictions, but rather as plausible futures. They were designed to help stakeholders uncover new opportunities for food and agriculture."

Although the findings related to and were presented in Japan, they offered some interesting information of potential value to agricultural interests and consumer businesses in this country.

Two I found particularly interesting. One, under the heading "Whatever China Wants," suggested that by 2040, Chinese preferences will heavily shape the global food and agriculture market.

The other, headlined "Asia Without Kitchens," could well have relevance to this country as well. The report suggested that in 2040 "more than 70 percent of food expenditures in Japan could be for food prepared outside the home."

"Consumers will rely on trusted brands, stores, and food-service outlets for most of their food, a majority of which will be processed or pre-prepared," the report noted. "This trend will spread across other parts of urban East Asia as well, especially the cities in China, Taiwan, and South Korea."

Kent, who presented key parts of the report, emphasized the trend will be toward pre-prepared foods, not fast food. "It will be fast on convenience, not fast preparation."

I was also interested in whether their look at the food future took into account the apparently growing global backlash on genetic alteration of food, but Kent said their research shows that, in a number of countries, the concern is diminishing.

"Our research is showing that the case is starting to be made that none of the doom and gloom collapse of genetically modified (GM) foods has come about, and the next generation of GM crops is starting to have traits that are beneficial to consumers."

As a one-time political writer and ever-since political watcher, I couldn't help but go back to politics and possibly spur him to predict the outcome of this year's elections.

"Who might win the White House in November is not our thing," he replied. "But the political feeling and will of the country reflected in a election are our thing in looking at the future because who controls the country is important long term."

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Mike Flynn is retired publisher of Puget Sound Business Journal who now has a consulting firm, Mike Flynn & Associates LLC, and writes a weekly column called Flynn’s Harp. Contact him atMike@emikeflynn.com if you would like to be added to the list of those receiving it via email, or to see previous Flynn’s Harp columns, go to emikeflynn.com and click on blogs

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