Sheryl Connelly is something like a walking TED talk (and indeed, she recently gave one). As Ford’s in-house futurist, it’s her job to keep her eye on the big picture—to examine trends, to think flexibly, and to imagine possibilities as much as decades away. Since being named one of Fast Company’s Most Creative People earlier this year, Connelly has begun developing a "futuring" curriculum at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. And this week, she released Ford’s second annual trend book, tackling themes she projects will be relevant for the next two years—on topics like the "joy of missing out" and a reconsideration of nostalgia.
Fast Company recently caught up with Connelly to learn more about her curious and enviable job.
FAST COMPANY: How does one train to be a futurist? Is there some Hogwarts-like futurism academy?
SHERYL CONNELLY: When I was younger I wanted to be an artist, but I came of age during a recession and it didn’t seem financially secure. I ended up with a bachelor’s degree in finance, a law degree, and an MBA. Ford recruited me to wholesale cars to dealers. And I don’t consider myself a car person! But I came to enjoy it and was doing fine in the sales division. Still, about eight years into my now-18-year career at Ford, I felt ready for a change. Ten years ago I joined the trends team. I look back and see it as divine intervention. I could not be more excited about my job.
Do you walk around wearing a foil hat and Google Glasses?
No, I’m not walking around in a purple velvet cape, with a crystal ball in my palm. I never forget that the things I do could be done by others, too, if they had the same luxury of time.
Why does Ford need an in-house futurist?
We’re looking for shifts in values, attitudes, and behaviors. It takes us at least 36 months to bring a new vehicle to market, and it’s an extraordinarily large capital investment. We have to make sure a new thing is the right thing. Henry Ford said, "If I’d asked people what they wanted, they would have said ‘faster horses.’"
I still would like a faster horse.
One of the major trends you’re watching is an aging population, and how that should affect the way you design your cars.
If you know aging includes reduced response time, impaired vision, and other factors, all those affect the ergonomics of a vehicle. What can we do to ensure the autonomy, freedom, and independence that comes from operating your own vehicle at an older age? Our 30-year-old engineers will wear a suit—it’s something between coveralls and an astronaut suit—that has a brace that makes it difficult to turn your neck. [See Co.Design's coverage of a similar suit here.] I’ve seen with my own 79-year-old mother that when she gets into a car, she leads with her behind, whereas a younger person leads with the foot. So to respond to that, Ford can do things like lower the lip of the vehicle and widen the door to aid ingress and egress. Every seven seconds in the U.S., somebody turns 65. [Gerontologist] Aubrey de Grey believes that the first person who will live to 150 years of age has already been born.
I’ve seen my grandmother drive. I can’t imagine what a city full of driving 150-year-olds will be like.
It wouldn’t be our best marketing strategy to say that we build cars for old people. That’s not exactly a tagline. So we look for solutions through a lens of universal design, so that a feature appeals to you whether you’re 17 or 71.
When you come into the design department or any department and offer your findings, do they bristle at being told what to do?
People aren’t fond of being told how to do their job. Over time I realized I could offer more value by giving suggestions of how other categories are responding to a trend. So with aging, for instance, I’ll never offer examples from other cars or trucks. I’ll say, "Here’s what the government of Japan’s doing. Here’s what the health care industry’s doing." The hope is to take non-automotive subject matter expertise and pair it with someone who does have that expertise, and together we might come up with something. Do you know the video done by the Harvard professor where people are passing a basketball...
If you ask people to focus on counting the basketball passes, they totally miss the obvious fact that a gorilla walks into the frame.
Ford Motors downsized by a third during the recession. People here are doing more than they’ve ever done before, and there’s more focus on output and objectives, which leaves little time to notice things like trends and futuring. My job is to say, "While you were busy thinking about design, this gorilla came into the room called "aging populations." I don’t know what it means exactly for you, but I just wanted you to know that it was there."
For those readers who can’t afford an in-house futurist for their own business, what’s one tip of a way to think like a futurist themselves?
The first step is that you can’t be afraid of the future. Many of us feel that way. My twin sister saw a tarot card reader and said, "Oh, it’ll just be for fun"—but then the death card appeared, and even though she said she didn’t believe, she got freaked out. There’s the fear that you’re going to hear something you don’t want to hear, and once you ring that bell, you can’t undo it. It’s human nature to be uncomfortable talking about things you can’t control—but you can’t afford that in business.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
[Image: Flickr user Jannis Andrija Schnitzer]