Fight the future

Yesterday evening I came across a couple of job ads from Jisc and one in particular was interesting for quite a few reasons.

Let us get the obvious out of the way first. The job title. It is dreadful.

Futurologist.

What the hell? I guess the term ‘futurist’, which god knows is bad enough, was too establishment?

Now once you stop sniggering at that it is actually really very interesting and goes to the core of what I always though JISC/Jisc should/could have been doing even before the recent ‘reboot’.

A couple of key phrases in the description are;

..forecast long term future events, conditions, or developments in technology and analytics that will allow Jisc to plan, present and develop innovation in support of research, education and skills.

.. prime purpose is to track developments across the whole field of technology, analytics and society as they come over the horizon, figuring out where it is all going next, and how that will affect our customers

I do find the use of the word ‘analytics’ so prominent in the description slightly odd. Not data. Analytics. It seems out of place between technology and society.

Jisc always had an element of forward looking in its remit. Things like Techwatch were initially explicitly charged with this and there was often talk of the ‘observatory’ elements elsewhere.

Even in my time(s) at Jisc though I think we lost sight of this and the focus became much more about the now or at least the very near feature (like next semester!) and the more horizon scanning stuff seemed to fall away. Phrases like ‘return on investment’, ‘risk management’ and ‘business case’ became more prevalent than ‘experimental’ or ‘research and development’ .

I remember being jealous of the Horizon Project publication that the New Media Consortium in the US used to publish (this is before I met Alan) because it was so directly focused on this idea of predicting the direction of things. Sure I rarely agreed with it in its entirety but it gave a starting point for the conversations and got some fun discussions going.

Part of the reason it is so hard a task (I think) boils down to that famous (in some circles) quote from the author William Gibson;

The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.

Just look around now. So many things that I consider pretty established are virtually science fiction to people not so immersed in the ‘geeky ghetto’.

Look at things like 3D printing and the interest in ‘wearables’ and the ‘internet of things’. I’ve been seeing examples and reading about these things for several years and it is only now that they are starting to make a wider impact. Often it is even not about the maturity of the technology but the accessibility of it’s story.

Look at the semantic web/linked date. How many years has this been the ‘next big thing’? The reality is the technology is now well established, it has some proven use cases but it still struggles to escape from that ‘geeky ghetto’ because it lacks that ‘elevator pitch’ that people can just click with. Unlike its cousins, Big and Open, which manage to move towards the mainstream despite nobody really having a clear understanding of their definitions.

Anyway despite the dumb name I think this could be a really interesting role and one where someone is going to get the opportunity to really have some fun. It is the sort of thing I think Jisc should be doing and where it can add some real value especially as higher education faces more and more financial pressures leading to the institutions spending less time looking forward themselves.

Despite all the trials and tribulations surrounding Jisc the last year or two I still think it is in a position to do important work and has retained a lot of great people to make that happen (though clearly it lost its share as well).

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