The photo above is of the Potekim Stairs in Odessa, Ukraine, the most known symbol of the city. Simplistic yet monumental, the stairs are designed as an optical illusion: a person looking down the stairs only sees landings, while a person looking directly up only sees the steps. Depending on where you are, elements of the world invisible. And so it is with my journey from Odessa to the Future, and of all our journeys. As we anticipate what’s ahead of us and look back at what’s behind, we can use our collective perspectives to understand the world—as it was, as it is, and as we would like it to be.
At the end of workshops at the Institute for the Future (IFTF) we often ask participants to sum up their experience in one word or one sentence. Applying the technique to myself, I would sum up my whole life in one phrase: From Odessa to the Future. Right around my 50th birthday I found myself in a position of Executive Director of IFTF, a venerable 45-year old think tank in Palo Alto, California. An honor, for sure, but an honor that for me meant many hours of reflecting on an amazing arc one’s life can take, an arc that in my case started in a three room (not three bedroom, three room) apartment I shared with my mother, sister, and grandparents on a street named after a radical and obscure left-wing German politician and historian Franz Mehring in a city most famous for its steps forever immortalized in Sergey Eisenstein’s movie Battleship Potemkin. This arc has brought me to the heart of Silicon Valley and to the most unlikely of occupations—a futurist.
Although in a funny way, my past may have given me the best training for a futurist, at least the kind of futurism we practice at IFTF. It taught me on a visceral level a lesson that we always try to impart on others: no one can predict the future. If you asked me or anyone around me 40 years ago what would I be, the most likely answer would’ve been an “engineer.” A good bet since most educated Russian Jews are engineers, many of them here in Silicon Valley. I did spend one unhappy year studying naval engineering (this may explain my decision to emigrate at the age of 18). No one around me knew any futurists other than the gypsy fortunetellers regularly trolling the streets of Odessa. You can think of me becoming a futurist as one of those black swan events Nassim Taleb writes about.
Making the Future
To paraphrase Margaret Mead, we are all immigrants to the future; none of us is a native in that land. The very underpinnings of our society and institutions—from how we work to how we create value, govern, trade, learn, and innovate—are being profoundly reshaped. We are all migrating to a new land and should be looking at the new landscape emerging before us like immigrants: ready to learn a new language, a new way of doing things, anticipating new beginnings with a sense of excitement if also with a bit of understandable trepidation.
Marina’s profile at the Institute for the Future.