A Q&A with Nicola Millard, a BT futurologist

Clint Witchalls: What are futurologists and what role do they play at BT?

Nicola Millard: People ask if I have a crystal ball. I do, but it doesn’t work, so I have to work slightly harder for my living. Put simply, a futurologist is someone who simply studies the future. I’m a psychologist by background so I’m used to developing theories then testing them in present-day situations. But futurology isn’t a normal –ology, so you can’t do that. Ideas will only be proved right in the future. I met a futurologist the other day who called himself a ‘trend DJ’ and I think that’s a nice way of describing what futurologists do. We gather trends and try and figure out what’s going to become big and what’s going to die out. Then we ask: what if this does happen? What would be the impact on business?

CW:  Do most big companies employ futurologists or is BT unique in this respect?

NM: No, we certainly aren’t unique. There are quite a number of companies that employ futurologists. But few do far-future speculation. The rational behind that is companies don’t tend to think much beyond three years. You will find independent futurologists and academic futurologists who are thinking maybe ten, fifteen or twenty years ahead, but if you look at big companies that are employing futurologists, they tend to focus short to middle term simply because that’s the timescale that matters most.

CW: So you can’t do Nostradamus-type predictions and tell us what’s going to happen in a hundred years time?

NM: I don’t think any futurologist can predict that far ahead and any futurologists that claims they can are either deluded or mad. As you get beyond five years, predicting anything with accuracy is really, really difficult. The pace of change is just so fast today. You can talk about a trend and two weeks later it’s become a reality because we’re all connected, we’re all networked together and things travel a lot faster.

 CW: And how do you go about predicting possible future scenarios? What are the typical inputs?

NM: Futurologists tend to try and take a multi-faceted look at how things are developing. They look at established trends and project them forward. They look to see who has their finger on the pulse and what leading academics are saying. And they look at things going on around the world. That’s important – as William Gibson, the science fiction author, said, “The future’s already here; it’s just not evenly distributed yet.”

CW: What is your proudest prediction? What did you get spot on?   
Nicola Millard

Nicola Millard

NM: It’s one that’s coming true at the moment. Many years ago, I predicted that places like coffee shops would become places where we work. We now have what people are calling the ‘coffice’ emerging. Coffices are coffee shops that are set up so business people can work. They’ve got good wifi, mains outlets, printers, photo-copying facilities – even meeting rooms. They’re not necessarily your typical branches of Costas and Starbucks – they’re something more than that. The trend started in Scandinavia, but the number of coffices here in the UK is growing, just as it is in the US.

CW: And what predictions have you got horribly wrong?

NM: Well, I wouldn’t say horribly wrong, but I have got growth predictions wrong. We were predicting home shoring—home-based contact advisers—would be growing phenomenally by now. There’s no reason why it shouldn’t because the technology is there. You can have a contact centre wherever you are. In fact, in the US it is growing the way we predicted, but in the UK it spikes occasionally. We have events like the snow last year when a lot of contact centres struggled to get people to work. Inevitably, call volumes go up when you have things like snow, particularly if you’re a utility company. If you’ve got flooding or freezing you’ve got more calls and you’ve got fewer people to take them. We’re predicting another spike around the Olympics because of the logistics of getting people in and out of London. There’s going to be a huge amount of travel disruption and we’re predicting there’s going to be a spike in uptake of home shoring. But, overall, we’re not there yet. In the UK, home shoring is not growing as much as we’d hoped or, at least, as I’d predicted.

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