What is a futurist? Not a fortune teller, oracle or prophet. Futurists are simply people who take foresight seriously, applying past and emerging trends to envision how our lifestyles and industries will develop in the years ahead.
But the future isn't what it used to be: What was once a field dominated by experts such as Future Shock author Alvin Toffler or artificial-intelligence guru Ray Kurzweil is now becoming one that involves more amateurs, as large-scale information and the processing power to analyze it become more accessible. And that's a welcome development to most of the pros.
"Really, anybody who has a prefrontal cortex is a futurist," says Patrick Tucker, communications director of the World Future Society. "We spend the vast majority of our time thinking about the future. This is where we plan, where we create actions we are going to commit ourselves to."
Next weekend, Toronto will host the World Future Conference, bringing together people from disparate fields to discuss how the world is changing – and how it ought to.
Next in food: Mass-produced fish and sub-Saharan flavours
Taking saltwater fish and raising them in a warehouse 500 kilometres away from the sea may not sound appetizing at first.
"But putting [fish] indoors in higher-density areas, as unromantic as it sounds, has a lot of benefits," says Josh Schonwald, journalist and author of The Taste of Tomorrow. "It eliminates a lot of the problems that have been associated with traditional aquaculture" – fish escaping and breeding with native populations, as well as unsightly coastlines and a general negative impact on marine ecosystems.
That may be how we'll get our protein, but what about the flavours of the future – what global cuisine will be the "next Thai"? Mr. Schonwald says our hunger for "ethnic exploration" will lead us to the one area that has been off the radar for most North Americans: the foods of sub-Saharan Africa, such as chicken yassa, egusi soup, shrimp piri piri, jollof rice and baobab juice.
"African fusion … [is] already happening in the UK – there's a small company called Bim's Kitchen that is introducing African-influenced condiments, like African ketchup spiced with distinctively African peppers, a curried egusi sauce and smoky baobab barbecue sauce."
Exposure to new cuisines can also alter our attractions or aversions to certain tastes, Mr. Schonwald says – such as bitterness. In his book, he profiles a man who is trying to introduce radicchio, a bitter salad green enjoyed in Italy, to Americans.
"A lot of people say radicchio … can never be as popular among Americans," Mr. Schonwald says. "Some believe that will change – that there are health virtues to eating bitter foods, which could drive more of an embrace of bitter."
Defeating disadvantage, the digital way
Most people are surprised when they find out how much innovation is happening among people who have a physical disability or a child with a cognitive challenge or who live in poor communities – people Kel Smith, founder of technological-accessibility company Anikto, calls "digital outcasts."
Companies don't usually design products for them, but they leverage technology to fit into their own lives. Mr. Smith cites a mother who designed an app that would help her autistic son communicate his desires. She had compiled a binder full of pictures and would point to each one to ask her son if that was what he wanted.
"Then she realizes that, 'Hey, I've got an iPhone and it takes pictures. Maybe I can store some and the child can bring up what he wants at that particular time,' " Mr. Smith says.
Now, Apple's online store has an entire section for apps that help children with autism learn words and social skills.
But technological accessibility is not just a niche issue, he emphasizes – it's every individual's future, as we degenerate physically and cognitively with age.
"If you design for the people with the highest degree of challenge, you're making a better product for everyone. You're designing features that will benefit you in some way later on in life."
Mirrors in the sky: Pro or con?
The idea of manipulating the environment to combat climate change is unsettling for many people, admits Ashley Mercer, a University of Calgary doctoral candidate who researches climate technologies.
"Climate engineering, as a strategy, was a pretty surprising development when it was first discussed," in the 1970s, she says. But in 2006, the scientist who won a Nobel Prize for his work identifying the ozone hole, Paul Crutzen, helped to legitimize the approach with his endorsement.
Ms. Mercer's work looks at solar radiation management (SRM), which would place sulphates in the atmosphere to reflect sunlight and help to cool the planet.
But critics have concerns: Might SRM damage the ozone layer and affect precipitation patterns? If so, would it do so less or more than climate change itself?
There are also concerns that such engineered approaches would undermine efforts to reduce carbon emissions – by mitigating the short-term effects, it might sap political and individual motivation to conserve.
"There are some unique risks to using this kind of technology. But there are also risks to climate change," Ms. Mercer says.
And that's a choice humankind will need well-developed foresight to make.
Amanda Kwan is an editorial intern at The Globe and Mail.