Columbus Futurists gather to anticipate what might be ahead

By Marc Kovac
The Columbus Dispatch

Can the far-off future of Columbus or Ohio — or the entire planet for that matter — be accurately anticipated by studying the far-off past?

That was the question that a group of central Ohio’s deep thinkers recently tackled over beverages and bagels as part of a regular gathering focused on things yet to come.

Members of the Columbus Futurists — more information can be found online at ColumbusFuturists.org — meet monthly at a Bethel Road restaurant for a couple of hours of discussion on "the future that could happen," said David Staley, associate professor of history and director of the Humanities Institute at Ohio State University.

He founded the Columbus Futurists 15 years ago and serves as its president. About 150 people are connected to the group, with more than 15 usually on hand for monthly meetings.

Participants include corporate executives, retirees, academic types and others who are interested in studying demographics, technology and other trends to consider what they could mean for the future, both locally and worldwide.

A couple of months ago, the topic of the evening was blockchains, the technology undergirding bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies that has potential applications in education transcripts and other areas.

Closer to home, the group has covered autonomous vehicles — the state is positioning itself at the forefront of driverless technologies, with public dollars supporting research and development at locations in central Ohio.

Futurists consider such issues and the potential cultural, economic, social and other changes that could occur in decades to come.

Take artificial intelligence, for example. Will robots someday have legal status, like people?

"That’s not science fiction," Staley said. "That’s stuff we’re going to to have to wrestle with."

It’s not psychic stuff, either. Staley said that "futuring" is an academic endeavor, with facts and figures and data and analysis to back assertions.

"I don’t think the future can be predicted," he said. "I think it’s too complex to be predicted, but we can anticipate it."

The November discussion focused on "Big History," a means of considering the past, from the beginning of the universe onward. It involves studying thresholds of history — the emergence of life on Earth, the development of agriculture, etc. — using a combination of mathematics, science and other academic disciplines.

David Staley, an associate professor at Ohio State University and founder and president of the Columbus Futurists, leads a discussion on Big History during the group's November meeting. [Marc Kovac/Dispatch]

"I think of it in terms of highway signs," said Rich Bowers, a member of the Columbus Futurists. "If I’m going down the highway, I can look and see where I have been, because the signs say threshold one, threshold two and so forth. Looking ahead, I can only see the backs of the signs in front of me, but I know that there are thresholds there. So the question is, we can’t look at what the thresholds are in the future, but maybe we can come up with some alternative scenarios that might represent what they are."

There was a measure of skepticism voiced on the subject: It's hard to wrap one's head around the effect of the Big Bang on Columbus five years from now.

The integrated approach of Big History has some potential benefits.

"The exciting thing about Big History … is how it brings many disciplines together," said Rod Chu, chancellor emeritus of the Ohio Board of Regents, who attended the November Futurists meeting.

"One of the things I think we need to do is figure out how to be more holistic in our education and thinking and bringing it together. When you look at the monumental changes, to be able to see them, you have to have this broad … perspective of things that we keep moving away from."

Columbus Futurist meetings are open to anyone interested in participating in the discussion.

"We want to be very open and inviting," Staley said. "I like the public conversations that we’re having. They’re so rare today."

Subscribe now

Like what you're reading?

Stories that inspire. Coverage that informs. Investigations that affect change. This is real news just when it's needed most. This is The Columbus Dispatch. Subscribe today.