What Exactly Does Ford's "Futurist" Do? Not Much With Cars.

What does a "futurist" do? I attempt to find out.


My eyes were wide open as I laid face up on a yoga mat. I was on the third floor of a small building on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, deep in the middle of a meditative gong bath led by Lucy Child, founder of Sacred Sound Tribe. This was the second stop on Ford’s one-day trip through the future in New York City, guided by the company’s very own in-house futurist Sheryl Connelly. I was supposed to be clearing my mind to the echoing reverberations of clanging pieces of metal, but I couldn’t stop thinking: Why exactly does Ford have a futurist?

The auto-maker’s fourth-annual future trends analysis, “Looking Further With Ford,” is 52 pages of marketing research: What percentage of adults are more likely to share positive news on social media? What percentage of people under 35 feel guilty for the amount of garbage they produce? How about people who think mindfulness is more than just a passing fad? (73, 60, and 79 percent.) Notably sparse in the pages of statistics and research, though, is anything about cars. Nothing about electric vehicles and nothing about battery technology. (Later in the day, there’s this remark about about self-driving cars: Only 40 percent of U.S. adults could see themselves buying a self-driving car in the future (the highest was in India, where 84 percent of adults would).

There’s not much about cars because Ford’s one and only in-house futurist isn’t all that concerned about cars: Connelly has been with Ford for 18 years, a decade and counting of which was spent helping guide the entire company’s long-term discussion about the future. But “future” wasn’t always in her job title: She practiced law before joining Ford, and has a master’s in business administration. She’s been a guest lecturer at MIT, University of Michigan and Wharton School of Business, not to mention a featured speaker at TED Global. She was Fast Company’s 24th Most Creative Person in Business in 2013, and she is most concerned about is what’s next. The cover on her Twitter profile is a photo her standing in front of a wall that has “LISTENING” written on it large blue letters.

“It’s important to remember no one can predict the future,” Connelly says during a reduced-waste lunch of “dumpster dive salad” and a juice pulp cheeseburger on a repurposed bread bun at Blue Hill, a pricey ($88 daily menu; Ford footed the bill for lunch) farm-to-table restaurant whose head chef Dan Barber was featured in the Netflix series Chef’s Table.

Connelly says her job is do the next best thing to predicting the future: Projecting what people will want, not what they do want. As Henry Ford (might have) said: “If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.”

All the necessary tools for a gong bath.

Nickolaus Hines

By around minute 20 of my 45-minute gong bath, I still hadn’t hammered out why an automobile company with a $63.6 billion market cap is interested in meditation and mindfulness. I also couldn’t keep my eyes shut or relax — the Red Bull I had a couple hours prior wasn’t helping, and neither was the person snoring a couple rows back. Ford’s peace of mind data aside, I was starting to understand why most people would rather shock themselves them be left alone with their own thoughts.

Connelly put peace of mind on the list of what people will care about in the future for a reason. Airports in Chicago and San Francisco have yoga rooms. Swedish prison guards are trained by a national yoga coordinator on meditation instruction — and they have one of the lowest prison recidivism rates in the world.

Added to that, Ford found that 65 percent of adults globally say that it was easier to live in the moment before all the technology. That sounds like a clear call for a return to simpler times. Why not return to those simpler times when driving what is likely the largest piece of technology you own?

“It’s not simply about expediently and safely getting from A to B,” Ford’s trend report says, “it’s about self-expression and escapism.”

Connelly in her official corporate portrait

Car engineers in all companies are designing for the future. It could take years for a car to go from initial concept to showroom floor. That’s where Connelly comes in, but she has no guarantees that anything will actually come from her work.

Ford has somewhere around 187,000 employees. Only one of those is a futurist. Her one (rather large) job is to figure out both the macro and micro ideas that people will be interested in in the future, and then put that data into language and examples everyone can understand. But all of Connelly’s work is for nothing if the other 186,999 employees don’t act on her data and predictions. She’s in the difficult position of guiding what tomorrow’s Fords will look like, without being able to directly decide what tomorrow’s Fords will look like.

The gong bath ended in one final Mad Men finale-esque “mmmmm” and I still hadn’t figured out exactly what Connelly does all day. Whatever her daily schedule, it’s clear she is the person at Ford least concerned with actual Ford vehicles and most interested in what the future will look like.

Related Tags