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Interview with Bob Johansen


For today’s #WhoWeAreWednesday, we feature an interview with AI&F Advisor Bob Johansen, a distinguished fellow with the Institute for the Future (IFTF) in Silicon Valley. For 50 years, he has worked as a professional futurist to help organizations around the world prepare for and shape the future, including large corporations, universities, and nonprofits. Bob is the author or co-author of thirteen books, the most recent of which is Office Shock: Creating Better Futures for Work and Living. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.


Michael: When people ask you what you do for a living, do you say you are a futurist?

Bob: I do call myself a futurist. It took me a while to accept that term, because in the early days it was a crazy field and not really an academic discipline. There were a lot of people talking about personal helicopters and the Jetsons and the like. I did not want to be too popular or too academic. I used to call myself a forecaster. Now I am happy to call myself a futurist, which is basically about being somebody who focuses their work on the future. I am not an expert on the present. I like to focus about ten years ahead, sensing overall waves of change and thinking futureback.

Michael: Thinking futureback is a key concept in your work. How does this approach help us think about the future?

Bob: Futureback is a mindset that different forecasting methodologies feed into. I wrote a trilogy of books, beginning around 9/11, to try to figure out how to lead in what the Army War College calls the VUCA world; that is, a world that is volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. I started with skills, and I wrote a book called Leaders Make the Future (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2012) that identified 10 future leadership skills. Then I realized it is not just skills, but also what I started calling literacies or practices or disciplines. I wrote a book called The New Leadership Literacies (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2017), and the core literacy is futureback: thinking backward from the future rather than from the present-forward. I realized working with that mindset was important, so I wrote a book called Full Spectrum Thinking (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2020). This book argues for resisting the temptations of categorization, labeling, and certainty and to think about the future across gradients of possibility. It is very hard to label or categorize the future since it has not happened yet. The futureback perspective frames an approach that focuses first on foresight, next on insight, and then on action.

On Forecasting

Michael: You have been thinking about the future for a long time. Have futures you predicted come true?

Bob: The first question you should ask a futurist is, “Have you outlived your forecasts?” I have five times over. But I do not use the word prediction. Nobody can predict the future, and if somebody tells you they can predict the future you should not believe them—especially if they are from California. You can make a forecast and then track whether that forecasted future happens. Whether or not a forecast happens, however, is not how you evaluate a futurist. That is how you evaluate a fortune teller.

The way you evaluate a futurist is by asking, “Does the forecast provoke insight and action in the present?”. For example, some of our current forecasts at IFTF right now are on climate disruption and climate change. I hope our current climate forecasts do not happen. It will be a success if they do not happen. I hope that what we are forecasting will help people avoid what we are heading toward as a society.

The Future of Work

Michael: In your most recent book Office Shock: Creating Better Futures for Working and Livingyou and your co-authors explore future possibilities of where, when, how, and even why we may work. In what ways do you expect AI to be integrated into the future of work?

Bob: I wrote this book with a workplace architect, Joseph Press, and an information scientist, Christine Bullen. We started this book after the CEO of a large, creative, high-tech furniture company in Switzerland (USM) asked us about the future of offices beyond the shutdown of the COVID19 pandemic. Our book does not tell people what to do, but serves to guide your choices. We identified seven spectrums of choice to help people make decisions about the future of work. Many people were asking when we go back to the office. That is a good question, but for us it is number 6 out of 7. The first question is, “Why an office at all?”. That is the purpose-driven question. Then you ought to ask about outcomes, climate impacts, belonging (which includes diversity, inclusion, and equity), augmentation, place and time, and agility.

Michael: In addition to your human co-authors, you also wrote Chapter 8 of Office Shock with GPT-31. There is also a chatbot for the finished book. How has this technology augmented you as a writer?

Bob: I wanted to experiment with GPT-3, so I used it when we began drafting the augmentation chapter. It also helped us think through the structure of the book, and helping us create the seven spectrums. We close the augmentation chapter with some poetry influenced by GPT-3, and I love how it ends with a provocative question instead of an automated answer. The bookbot was an idea we had after the book came out. All it knows is Office Shock plus some things we taught it.

What stunned me is that it sounds kind of like me, but at times it is better than me. If I am still going to be writing large audience books ten years from now, I am going to have to be augmented—partly because I am getting older, but also because every good author is going to be augmented ten years from now.

For me, the hardest part of writing books is doing the first draft. I love creating the outline, and I love thinking a book through and polishing it. I can give GPT-3 an outline and ask it to help me draft first paragraphs.

The Future of Faith

Michael: How does faith relate to your work as futurist?

Bob: Let me start with a quick family story. When my dad died, my mom said, “I have faith. I don’t know what I believe, but I have faith.” I thought that was really helpful in trying to understand the concept of faith and the distinction between faith and belief. As a futurist, it is very much like the distinction between clarity and certainty. Faith includes questions, and clarity does not predict. Neither is clarity certain, but it does have a directional sense to it and a lot of flexibility within it. As a futurist, I am always in search of clarity. As a futurist, I am very aware of the dangers of certainty. Certainty is brittle and brittle breaks.

I am not an advocate of any brand of religion, but I do have Master of Divinity degree from Crozer Theological Seminary, where Martin Luther King, Jr., went before his PhD at Boston University. I studied with some of his professors, and that was the first introduction I had to this notion of clarity. From his professors (Kenneth W. Smith in particular, his Christian Ethics professor) I learned that King’s clarity was in pursuit of social justice. I had thought his clarity pertained to civil rights alone, but it turned out his clarity was social justice, which included civil rights. Social justice also includes poverty, his position against the Vietnam war, and his involvement in environmental issues. At the end of his life, many people close to him criticized him for getting involved in too many different issues. What he said was they are all related to social justice. That was his clarity.

Michael: What is interesting to you about the intersection of AI and faith?

Bob: There are three questions that are interesting to me:

  1. What can humans do best?
  2. What tasks do we want to keep for ourselves?
  3. How do we want to be augmented?

I am convinced that over the next decade we are going to get much better answers to these questions. I am less interested in trendy conversations about sentience and how AI varies from human intelligence. I am more interested in augmentation.

I rarely use the term “artificial intelligence” because people get stuck in a conversation about computers replacing people. Like Tom Malone says in his book Superminds 2, I think the big story is not computers replacing people, although that will happen in some limited ways. The big story is humans and computers doing things together that have never been done before. What interests me are the unprecedented futures of augmented humans.

I am convinced that ten years from now most of us will be cyborgs. Most of us will be augmented in some way. The question is how we want to be augmented. And how can we extend that question to better understand the future and, more importantly, make better decisions in the present.

I do not think augmentation is going to replace faith. I think faith is still going to be important, and I think faith links closely with hope. Hope is positive faith, when you imagine a better story about the future that you want to create. As a futurist, I am not making the future. I am imagining the future. But the reason I am imagining the future is because I hope there is somebody out there who is going to take my imagination and make better futures.


A big thanks to Bob Johansen for taking the time to carry out this interview. Thanks also to Michael Paulus, who hosted the interview, then prepared and edited this conversation.


Malone, Thomas W. Superminds: The surprising power of people and computers thinking together. Little, Brown Spark, 2018.

  1. GPT-3, or Generative Pre-trained Transformer 3, is a popular large language model available through OpenAI.

Michael Paulus

Michael Paulus is the Dean of the Library, Assistant Provost for Educational Technology, and Director and Associate Professor of Information Studies at Seattle Pacific University. Michael’s administrative, teaching, and scholarly interests focus on the future of information and communication technologies, especially their impact on higher education, libraries, work, and ethics. He is co-editor of AI, Faith, and the Future, a collection of essays by an SPU faculty study group reflecting on Christianity and artificial intelligence published in 2022.

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