I’m Amy Webb’s Quantitative Futurist and This Is How I Work
Futurist Amy Webb has been running the Institute for the Future today since today … was the future. What sounds less profound than we hoped, but Webb’s work is profound. Since Webb founded it in 2006, Future Today has analyzed culture and technology trends for clients including Microsoft, American Express, Univision (the current parent company of Lifehacker), the White House, and the Federal Reserve. She also published two books and gave a TED talk “How I Hacked Dating.” We spoke to her about ideal carry-on luggage, the differences between media technology around the world, and the method her institute uses to effectively divide their workday.
Location : New York Current Workplace: Quantitative Futurist, Professor of Strategic Foresight at NYU’s Stern School of Business, Founder of the Future Today Institute One word that best describes how you work: Methodically Current mobile device: Samsung S9 Current computer : Mac Pro
First of all, tell us a little about your past and how you got where you are now.
In sixth grade, I joined our Future Problem Solvers of America team in high school and, without realizing it, started my career as a futurist when I was just 11 years old. In college, I took an interdisciplinary course of study that included economics, game theory, political science, computer science, and music.
After graduation, I worked as a foreign correspondent in China and Japan and spent my 20 years living in the epicenter of new technologies such as smartphones and tactile screens, and I saw the first, nascent advances in machine learning. When I returned to the United States, it was difficult for me to adjust again to the traditional newsroom environment. I was convinced that news needed a radically different business model to support quality journalism, but I got tired of apathy for new technologies, so I left.
I received seed funding to open a research and development lab for news and media, and my focus was on researching and creating new digital distribution methods. As my team experimented with new prototypes, I became interested in much broader topics beyond journalism, such as how the third era of computing (AI) will affect all aspects of everyday life, how technology will affect geopolitical balance, and how our data can become a major driver. economy. I wanted to model and display plausible scenarios of what this future might look like, and it was then that my colleague pointed out to me the work of early futurists like Robert Young and Alvin Toffler, as well as the quantitative modeling developed by Olaf Helmer and Nicholas Recher. I took strategic foresight courses, read everything I could get my hands on, and switched in 2006 when I founded the Future Today Institute. Since then I have been constantly working as a quantitative futurist.
I currently teach foresight at the Stern School of Business at New York University, and my students are incredibly smart and creative. I am also writing – now I am finishing my third book. It is a manifesto on how the tech titans of the Big Nine are shaping the future of AI. (These are Google, Amazon, IBM, Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, Baidu, Tencent, and Alibaba.) My latest book, Signals Speak , explains my foresight methodology and explains how to use the futurist’s tools to see the horizon.
Tell us about a recent work day.
Every day at work is different – sometimes I am in the office, but often on the road, so I suggest you the last two working days.
On the road: One of our clients is a global oil company and I worked onsite with a team of 15 to map risk / opportunity scenarios in the near future. We kicked off the session by diving deeply into the Future Today Institute’s forecasting methodology and explaining various aspects of destruction. We then mapped weak signals — problems that help us identify emerging changes on the horizon. This was followed by intensive practical work. The session lasted about seven hours. After we finished, I caught a red eye in the house.
At the office: finishing my next book. On book-writing days, I arrive at the office at 7 a.m. and write until 4 p.m. without interruption. Then from 4:00 pm to 7:00 pm I am in meetings and answering emails.
How do you concentrate for 9 hours without interruptions?
I think the way I stay focused for so long is a combination of brown noise, my headphones, and an exercise ball that I sit on instead of my regular chair. I, of course, go to the toilet and usually have a snack on nuts and dried fruits.
Turning off phones and shutting down social media and email meant a huge leap in productivity. I don’t believe in multitasking. In my case, the quality of my work deteriorates when I try to do several things at the same time. Knowing that there would be no extraneous interruptions – tweets, texts, Slack pings – allowed me to focus all my attention on one single task.
What apps, gadgets or tools can’t you live without?
I listen to brown noise on Spotify. I’ve experimented with different sounds and music, and since I’m more sensitive to higher frequencies, brown noise helps me focus better. It’s amazing how well this works. I am listening on Jabra Elite 65t bluetooth noise canceling headphones. When I write, I use a desktop curtain to avoid distractions.
Due to my busy travel schedule, I’ve spent many years looking for the perfect bag – one that could hold all my gear, plus an extra pair of shoes and a water bottle. For me, the Tumi Sheppard Deluxe Brief Pack is just right. It has a sleeve that allows me to clip it to my suitcase, which means I no longer carry anything heavy on my back.
How is your workplace arranged?
I have two monitors – vertical and horizontal. Everything related to office or communication (Slack, calendar, email) is displayed on a vertical monitor and remains active. All my recordings take place on a horizontal monitor.
My office is covered with Idea Paint . We turned one entire wall from top to bottom into a board surface. Many other surfaces are made of glass, which allows us to write with markers on the board wherever we need it, be it windows, tables or chairs.
What’s your best shortcut or life hack?
This is what I learned from Ben Franklin: Get the big, clumsy hard work out of the way first when your mind is fully charged.
Tell us about an interesting, unusual, or challenging process you have at work.
Our weekdays are divided into 20 minute blocks, and we use math to define each part of our schedule. We handle phone / video calls in 1 unit and most of our administrative meetings in 2 units. Work on a specific strategy takes 12 units. We found that dividing the day into units resulted in much better and more realistic time management.
The 20 minute system is what I developed for myself in college. I worked two jobs and once tried to complete five majors, so I had to count every minute of every day. (I even had to optimize my sleep because in my freshman year I could only sleep four hours at a time.)
I found that dividing the day into hours did not allow me to do everything – I either set my expectations too low or too high. The hourly convention works well for groups that need to determine the time, but I don’t think it works for productivity either. For example, I learned that if I have 40 minutes, rather than an hour, to complete a task, I’m more likely to focus and work harder. Meetings that last an hour tend to include a lot of wasted and unproductive moments. The 20 minute system of units is definitely an adjustment for the people who work with me.
Who are the people who help you achieve results, and how do you rely on them?
Our team is distributed – we operate outdoors in many different cities and we do not have a central physical center. Together we cannot work without our director of operations Cheryl Cooney. She is the engine that keeps me and the Institute for the Future working today. She manages and implements all decisions that do not require my direct involvement.
How do you keep track of what you need to do?
We have a three-tiered delegation of authority: immediate, over the next few days, and long-term. We pre-allocate the number of units needed to complete all these tasks. We experimented with various task management programs like Trello and Asana, but eventually I found that the combination of Slack, Google documentation, and a physical notebook worked best for me.
How to recharge or relax?
I sweat daily – usually doing sports or jogging. Paradoxically, training is the best way to recuperate. I also try at some point in the working day to go outside, take a walk, just sit in the sun for a few minutes.
What’s your favorite side project?
I advise on TV and films, helping talented show hosts, screenwriters, producers and production staff see the future. Most recently, I worked with Beau Willimon and his team on The First , his upcoming Hulu TV series, which depicts members of a team of astronauts becoming the first humans to visit Mars. The action takes place in 2031 and stars Sean Penn and Natasha McElhone.
What are you reading now or what do you recommend?
Who else would you like to see to answer these questions?
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
My mentor, MJ Ryan, taught me how to work gradually. Climb the stairs to the mountains. In every project, I need to think through all the steps first, without losing sight of the summit. She taught me to think about the present and the future at the same time.
What problem are you still trying to solve?
My goal is to democratize the tools of the futurists and make everyone who makes decisions think more about the more distant future. America is a country of “Nonists” and this is a problem that I still have to solve.