How to be a food futurist?

Probably, the question that I have been asked the most in all my years as a food futurist has been “What does a food futurist do and how and you do it?” Of course, being a food futurist is just like any other business. There is no one-fit-all approach. Different people and organizations have different needs and different expectations. As a food futurist, I have had to define my niche. That said, the term futurist is used in many ways and can cover very different activities. In the food and agriculture sector, the theme of the future of food and farming has actually shifted more and more as a marketing gimmick for many organizations. It has lost its role of foresight to just be another term for what used to be new product development. Personally, I do not use the word futurist to be a consultant under a sexier and trendier name. I focus on the future in a way that I described in my article What future do you want? Although the futurism market is segmented, just as any other market, I see a number of characteristics that make a futurist truly add value.

Accurate predictions

In my opinion, this is the number one key performance indicator of a futurist. Since the job is about what is not here yet, what the futurist says as to be a prediction, in the true sense of the word, with the prefix pre, meaning before, and diction being what s/he tells. A good futurist is someone who tells the future accurately before it happens and before everyone else. Accuracy is of course essential to spot a good futurist. Someone who consistently predicts accurately is of course highly valuable. If the futurist makes predictions with a low rate of accuracy, someone’s time is being wasted. As far as I am concerned, in my career. Often, I met skepticism or disbelief but generally speaking, my predictions came true some time later. The same thing happened with business strategies. In particular, since I started this blog, I made many predictions in my articles and in my books. I also made many for my customers. Most of them are out there and I leave it to you to decide whether you think my predictions have been accurate. I have my own opinion on the subject. As a teaser, I have compiled a number of them in my page Some of my past predictions.

An actual futurist

As I said earlier, there are many ways to be a futurist. The way I look at it, a futurist must present the future before it happens. It is the result of research and analysis, and the vision that comes out has to be substantiated with strong arguments. Since it is about the future, it cannot be about what already exists. Writing the present in the future tense does not make it a prediction. Many futurists, especially those who like to focus on technology tend to stick too much on presenting catalogues of what is already in the works. To me, this is not a foresight job. It is a journalist, a story teller and/or a student’s job. Similarly, presenting the future as a way to sell particular products categories or advocate for some production systems, whichever they might be is not a futurist’s job, they are sales rep’s, advocate’s, activist’s or a lobbyist’s jobs. Personally, I never advocate anything. I do not let my feelings or opinions stay in the way, either. I just present arguments to weigh in favour or against, so that my customers can decide for themselves. Actually, this way of working sometimes made me change the way I looked at the future myself.

A good futurist must be ahead of the pack, which can be lonely, and come up with an original angle. If it is not original, then it already exists and then the story is not a prediction anymore. In such a case the futurist is more of a follower than a leader. A good futurist anticipates. If there is a requirement to carry out a thorough rational and objective analysis, being a futurist requires a strong intuitive side and a strong sense of anticipation. People who have rational and analytical skills combined with intuition and a “sixth sense” are quite rare. Usually, most people are strong on one side only. Having both is a gift, for the futurist of course, but especially for the customers.

Independent and candid

Good futurists must be objective. They must be able to present a vision of the future that is not biased. This is where things can become difficult. Often, the futurist wants to please the customer and will emphasize the bits that make people happy and avoid the topics that are sensitive or even controversial. Yet, in my view, useful futurists will tell things the way they see them, regardless of whether the customers likes what they hear or not. Being candid allows telling the full story. I see resisting candour as actually short-changing the customer by holding some bits of the future. It might be tactically useful as customers who love everything might be more inclined to have repeat intervention for the futurist, but they might miss much other beneficial information. Sometimes, it is the other way round. The customer is the one who does not want to hear about certain topics.Then, I wondered why they would pay someone while applying what is a form of censorship. I have no interest in such assignments.The future has to be a bit shocking and disturbing; otherwise something is missing in the picture. The future should trigger resistance and requests for further explanations. After all, futurists are not oracles or gurus, although sometimes people seem to like seeing them that way. No, a futurist presents a vision and from there, a conversation must follow. Especially, it some bits of the vision strike a nerve, it is essential to go to the bottom of things and understand what substantiates the vision. This dialogue is critical to get the full value of a futurist. Otherwise, it is no more than a flat presentation, often quite entertaining, but with limited staying power. I guess I can say I have staying power since I have been doing this since April 2009. I have seen many others venturing as food and/or agriculture futurist but choosing the past of least resistance and they lasted a couple of years at the most. If I were to pinpoint a frustrating part of being a futurist, I would say that it would be the lack of this getting to the bottom of things. I find people are not curious and inquisitive enough, or perhaps they are too nice and do not want to engage in a passionate dialogue. They should because the vision is just the tip of the iceberg. The future encompasses much more that the vision and customers should dive deep to see the entire iceberg. At least, I wish they would. This why I always organize my schedule to have plenty of time available for my customers after my presentations. Often, informal after hours conversations are more conducive than formal stage time for good conversation.

Experience and specialization

There are futurists who will talk about the future of everything. It can be done but it depends for which purpose. Like anything else in life, there is a trade-off. I chose to focus on food and agriculture only. The reason is simple. I want to spend my time to deepen my expertise in this field. A person has only so much time and if I tried to do the same quality of work for all sectors of life, I would have to cut the time I can allocate to each of these sectors. It is the old joke of being a generalist vs. being a specialist, the generalist being someone who knows less and less about more and more things while the specialist is someone who knows more and more about less and less. In a way, I have specialized in food and agriculture, but I see myself much more as a generalist, though. Of course, my personal and professional background help me, although my experience and using my critical mind through my education and professional experience also help me a great deal to know what works and what does not. I do not see my work as a food and agriculture futurist as a continuity from the past. On the contrary, I want to look at the sector with new eyes all the time. Otherwise, I would be like many futurists/consultants who are trying to recreate the old jobs they lost. I do not have any particular interest in this approach. Even though I have chosen to focus on food and agriculture, I do follow everything I can outside of food and agriculture. If I did not, I would not be good at what I do. I spend a lot of time following other sectors of activity and even economy, politics, history and philosophy to be able to understand all the interconnections that will shape the future. The future of food and agriculture will not originate from food and agriculture only. In a way, I probably could talk about many other sectors as well, but it would be at the cost of my in-depth analysis of all sectors. There, too, I would have a feeling of shortchanging the customer. Let’s say that I am a specialized generalist. I know less than specialists in their areas of specializations but I connect the dots and have the full 360 picture of the sector, and they cannot. I believe that this is a good approach, as my customers’ feedback tells me. But once again, the market is segmented.

Connecting the dots

The ability to get the big picture both within and outside the food and agriculture sector, together with the understanding of how all the interactions affect what can happen, where, when and how is a major asset in the work of a futurist. Nothing and nobody is on an isolated island. Just like my jiu-jitsu teacher used to say “it is all about action and reaction”. Even if certain things seem to have nothing directly with each other, I look at our world as a huge set of gears rotating together, or sometimes getting stuck. It is amazing how our world, present and future, is shaped by many events often far way and taking place at different times. It is better to keep your eyes and ears wide open. In particular, with food and farming, we are dealing with life, which is a nexus between the Earth, the air, the water and energy. Life is all about ecosystems and ecosystems evolve on equilibriums. This is what makes food and agriculture so interesting and so dynamic. The systems constantly have to maintain themselves and function in a delicate balance between many elements. The many levels for life to sustain itself make it powerful, yet vulnerable.

Critical thinking

Since the work of a futurist consists of a lot of research, it depends on the work of many others. Some are reliable and others less so. When browsing for information, it is essential to be able to sort out what is solid from what is not. To do this, it requires some serious critical thinking, as well as knowledge and experience. Not everything that is out there is true. It is important to know where reliable sources are and it is at least as important to know which sources are not. Personally, I do not care if what I read or watch -and I do a lot of that on a daily basis- comes from an expert, a Nobel prize, a high-rated university professor, an social media influencer (beware of those!), a billionaire or a celebrity. Even those who are considered in the know do not always say sensible things. The amount of useless stuff that I come across is quite impressive. In particular, the amount of myths, misinformation and fallacies that are carried around by people who either do not even read the stuff or do not have the knowledge to assess if something is true or false, or do not make the effort to do some critical thinking would really surprise you. Or maybe it would not. I am glad that I am naturally equipped with a seriously critical mind and I also am lucky that I have been in an education system with teachers that fostered this quality. Critical thinking is essential to a futurist. With a lack of it, the futurist can end up looking like a fool.

Open-mindedness

I mentioned the need for independence and objectivity earlier. It is also true that we all look at the world through a prism that we received from our parents, our culture, or teachers and our life experiences. I do not think that anyone can claim to be 100% objective and unbiased. This is where critical thinking helps a great deal, in particular by thinking critically about our own thinking (still following me?). It may sound a bit schizophrenic but with some practice it can be done without medication (just joking here). Without critical thinking, there cannot be any open-mindedness and without open-mindedness, there is no room for critical thinking. People who miss one of those or both, have no alternative than to fall in a binary world, the kind of binary world that the thought police and the political correctness brigades scourging social media try to impose. Let’s face it, people with an open mind and critical thinkers are dangerous, even subversive. They tend to scare the brigades I just mentioned. Especially, they escape their power. Yet, a good futurist must wade above that because anything that restricts our potential to develop a vision of a different world will ruffle some feathers, sometimes. Open-mindedness is essential to do this part of the work. Indeed, how can anyone think of a different world if they cannot accept for themselves first that it could be the way of the future?

Copyright 2020 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

The joy of independence and what’s in it for you

Perhaps, it has to do with unwinding towards the end of the year after a busy period, but lately I have increasingly been feeling a strong satisfaction with my activities about the future of food and agriculture. If the time of the year may play a role, I believe that it has a lot to do with the enthusiasm and the many smiles and conversations that I have had with my recent customers and audiences. They clearly feel happy about what I brought them and I feel happy about a job well done. As such, this is not a new observation, as it has been going on since day one I ventured on my own exploring how and where we will be getting which foods in the future. It just that now it reaches the level of bliss. I feel super-energized and I guess it shows. That is the kind of stuff that simply is contagious. I totally master the subject and the topics I deal with on an on-going basis. Last week, the chair of the conference for which I was the keynote speaker introduced me in about these terms: “often we get the feedback that they [the futurists speakers] don’t understand our business, well be assured that the one we have for you today, Christophe Pelletier, understands it quite well, and I am sure you are going to enjoy what he is going to say”. The presentation went very well and I guess I made many interesting points, as the following speakers made quite a few references to my presentation to emphasize their points.

You may ask where does the feeling of satisfaction come from? It is not just about mastering the subject. It is in the way that I reach that quality and to me the most important thing is my being independent, not just as a business but even more so as a mind. I do not think I could deliver the quality that I do if I were not so totally independent in my thinking. I put a lot of effort in exercising critical thinking. If forces me to be both open-minded and never take anything at face value, even (or more so especially) if the information that I review comes from so-called influencers. I am naturally suspicious of influencers. I double check about everything I read and hear. I also have a special ability to quickly do math mentally and see if all the information presented adds up. The words always sound great but when you quantify, you quickly realize that the numbers often do not support much of the story. When I was hired by BP Nutrition (which later would become Nutreco), and started my professional career, 32 years ago, I told my bosses that I had serious second thoughts on the use of antibiotics in animal production and I thought it could be dome with much less. I also expressed my concerns about housing systems for calves (boxes), for hens (cages) and sows (tethering). Needless to say that those were bold statements from a rookie to a solidly well-established agribusiness corporation to make. Well, look how much change there has been and still is on those issues. I was lucky to have open-minded bosses who were interested to hear why I thought the way I did. I was even luckier to have a boss in the pig department who let me lead a group of piglets that I would help toughen up by boosting their immunity system through tougher climate conditions. Those piglets were indestructible. They looked more grey than pink and looked rough at the edges but healthy as can be. By then, it was too early to initiate a revolution on antibiotics but I had shown the potential. Later in poultry, I also showed how the economics of animal welfare worked on profitability and demonstrated that proper animal handling was actually financially better.

The critical thinking and double-checking are areas in which I seem to differentiate myself from many other people in my field. I see way too much cases of copy and paste reports and way too many second-hand unchecked almost facts. My approach and my process are not opaque, on the contrary. I present it to my clients and audiences, so that they understand where I coming from when I say what I say. It allows them to also react and thus, we have a conversation which purpose really is about getting to the bottom of things. It is not about what I believe vs. what you believe but it is about what you know and what I know so that we get the best of both worlds. In a way you could say that my brain is an open source for my customers. It is not about influencing through a seductive story or a pre-decided assumption of absolute expertise; it is about convincing based on solid facts. My purpose is not to tell anyone what they should think. After all I have to walk my talk because I do not like being told what I should think, either. My purpose is to bring as many elements as possible to my customers to let them come to the most rational and sensible conclusions. I was just mentioning expertise and although I guess I am perceived as an expert in my field, I really do not know what an expert really is. My angle is to connect to the day-to-day realities of my customers and to present them with information and knowledge that is useful and practical to them. I do not do presentations that are catalogues of technologies or of trendy stuff, for better word. That is easy to do. You can ask your 12 year-old nephew to do a Google search of the future of agtech or the future of food and he will present you a list of items that would make him look like an expert, especially if it is a presentation that has a limited amount of time. Recently, a member of one of the audiences was telling me he appreciated my presentation style because it did not seem learned by heart and regurgitated mechanically like he was saying he sees happening too often. That was one of the nicest compliment I could get. Indeed, I live the future of food and agriculture and I have understood, processed and integrated all the knowledge that I share. It comes naturally. Actually, I do not have any cue cards to help me. All I do is to time my presentations but for the rest I talk in the same way I would if I had a one-on-one conversation. I also like to get eye contact with audience members. To me, it is an exchange with the audience. I maybe on the podium, but I never consider myself being on a pedestal. My mind is free. My mind tells a story that has no hidden agenda, nor does it tell what I might think the audience would like to hear or would not like to hear. It has happened that potential customers would want me not to address certain things they don’t like. That is a problem, because I am not trying to shock or upset, but I cannot add value if censorship comes in. I present objective facts for which I have background information. I welcome conversation. If you have a different opinion, let’s hear about it. Conversation is how we learn and improve, and it is true for me, too.

Being a free and independent mind is important, but having an independent business is just as important. I have no conflict of interest whatsoever. Nobody has shares in my company but me. Because I have an independent mind and I work in an objective and honest manner, I do not advocate any product, service or system whatsoever. I present my views on pros and cons, though. And I explain why I think the way I think, so that we can have a constructive conversation. I do own any share of any business I talk about, or if I did I would disclose it immediately. I do not have side function in any association and I am not on the board of any company that would influence my thinking or induce a bias in my thinking. If I did, I would disclose it immediately. That independence is what allows me to add value. My customers do not have to worry that I might be pushing any particular hidden agenda. Not every consultant can say the same, and let’s face it, it is easy to spot those who have vested interests in the story they tell. In particular, beware of organizations that include terms that imply some sort of intellectually authority such as Institute, Center, Forum, Think Tank or Foundation, or which names ends with “ity”, as those very often work for -or are part of- special interest groups, sometimes they are pro-this and sometimes they are anti-that. It does not matter on which side they are, they are not on the side of independence and objectivity. But they are a perfect fit for customers and conferences that want to push those particular agendas and/or preach to the choir, but let’s be clear about that when it takes place. Those are not my target group. The line between conflict of interest –or hidden agenda- and misleading is thin. I want nothing to do with that.

Related imageI remember the day I started my own business, 17 years ago. It was a strange mix of feelings. On the one hand, I felt rather alone. I remember having this visual of me all alone in front of a vast deserted area. It was like I was the only person in the world with nobody around to connect. It was a little scary to say the truth, yet I felt quite Zen. On the other hand, there was this intoxicating feeling of being so free that at last now I would be the only one to decide for myself what I would want to do and what I would not want to do, to decide what goals I would set for myself and how I would want to achieve them. It was a mix of solitude and yet of full control over my life. On the professional side of my life, I chose the purpose to be happy by making my customers happy, meaning adding value to them and help them succeed. I guess I do, because all my customers have actually found me through my blog, my books, my presentations and word of mouth. I have never had to do any cold calling ever. And that maybe what gives me the most joy: what I do is useful to my customers and they notice!

Copyright 2019 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

Bright future for The Food Futurist

Christophe Pelletier speaking - Pic Talk03-4As another year is soon to end, it is a good time to look back and reflect on the future direction to take. Just as I repeatedly advise my clients and audiences to look forward, identify the changes to come and to adapt timely, it is a useful exercise that I carry out for my own business as well on a continuous basis. For the Food Futurist, 2013 has been a great year. The amount of business has grown strongly and the work of the past years is fully delivering its fruits. Venturing in a new area and starting from scratch has been quite the thrill, especially considering how much time it takes to get visibility, recognition and a solid reputation when the business is about mostly about what is in the owner’s brain and how that brain functions. My literature and the positive word of mouth have helped growing the business without me bothering organizations with cold calls or mailings. My clients have found me or heard about me in one way or another; and one thing leading to another, they decided to hire me for their projects and events. All assignments have run successfully with satisfied customers, all being very reputable and professional organizations.

I am quite optimistic about the further growth of The Food Futurist. The motivation now for me is to keep the strong momentum going and to grow further. As this business is growing, I am getting more “hungry”, too. I love what I do, maybe even more so than anything else I have done before; and the more business comes my way, the more fun I have and share with others. In my work, I always insist on the power of helping others succeed. Therefore, it is going my turn to ask a little bit of help from my friends to reach my goals. If my work can add value to you or to organizations or events that you know, please do not hesitate to contact me or have them do the same. I am always open to new ideas, I am quite approachable and I always reply to serious requests.

So what do I want to achieve in the next year?

  • An average of 1 to 2 speaking engagements and/or seminars a month
  • Between 3 and 5 small projects (max. 100 hours each)
  • Getting 1 or 2 large projects (around 500 hours each) in the areas of strategic foresight and strategic business development are well-manageable numbers for a whole year
  • Getting 2 or 3 positions of advisor on boards of organizations with focus on strategic foresight activities

So, all it would take is probably less than two dozen new interested contacts. Considering the number of events and projects of all sorts out there, that should be achievable.

Next to the usual topics of innovation, sustainability, leadership and market orientation, I would like to do more seminars on niche marketing, effective reconnecting of producers and consumers and, last but not least, reach the youth to get them interested in food and agriculture. In terms of sectors of activities, I would love to be more involved with animal protein producers, retailers and food service operators than I am today as, for different reasons, future changes are going particularly important for these them.

So far, my client base is in North America and Europe. I want to grow further in these two regions, but I would like to gradually expand it in other regions as well. I would like clients from other countries to be more familiar with my work and my vision of the future of food and farming. The list of the regions that I have in mind is rather long. Actually, it covers the whole world. Because of their current and future strategic importance, Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, Argentina, the Black Sea region, India, China and Arab countries are high on my wish list. But I would like to get a chance to also present how the math works with market orientation and waste reduction, and how it opens the door to huge business opportunities for Africa, India, Southeast Asia and South America in particular.

Ideally, the number of assignments outside of North America/EU that I would like per region is as follows:

  • India: at least 1
  • Russia/Ukraine/Kazakhstan: at least 1
  • Latin America: at least 1
  • South East Asia: at least 1
  • China: at least 1
  • Australia/New Zealand/Pacific: at least 1
  • Sub-Saharan Africa: at least 1
  • North Africa/Middle East: at least 1

If you are interested or if you know an organization that would be interested, please do not hesitate to contact me. To reward those who will bring me leads to assignments, I am willing to pay you a finder’s fee.

Looking forward to hearing from you or from the contacts you will send to me.