Ray Bradbury, the Non-Futurist Visionary

Ray Bradbury, who died this week at the age of 91, had rather a lot in common with Peter Drucker—and it wasn’t just longevity.

For one thing, both men rejected the label of “futurist” even though they were known for being remarkably farsighted. “People ask me to predict the future, when all I want to do is prevent it,” Bradbury once quipped.

Ray Bradbury. Illustration by Charlie Bearman

For another, both men took a keen interest in how we live and work, with Bradbury called upon to consult on projects such as shopping malls. Like Drucker, who considered social innovation to be as important as technological innovation, Bradbury took more interest in how humans interact than in the gadgets they use (though he was amazingly prescient about gadgetry). “[Walt] Disney is my hero. I knew him when he was alive. And he created a model,” Bradbury said in an interview. “Disneyland, Disney World, EPCOT. They’re all social.”

Most important, though, both Bradbury and Drucker felt that many of the most important qualities of tomorrow were already visible today—if we just paid attention.

The major ideas of our time—developments in medicine, the importance of space exploration to advance our species—have been neglected,” Bradbury told The Paris Review. “The critics are generally wrong, or they’re 15, 20 years late. It’s a great shame. They miss out on a lot.”

In Drucker’s view, executives often miss what he called “emergent realities.” Preoccupied with looking around the corner, they miss what’s right outside the window.

A key skill “is to identify the changes that have already happened,” Drucker wrote in The Ecological Vision. “The important challenge in society, economics, politics, is to exploit the changes that have already occurred and to use them as opportunities.”

This is why Drucker at one point planned to give one of his books the title “The Future That Has Already Happened.” As an example, he cited the rise of post-war Japan, already evident by 1960 but barely noticed by most people until a decade or two later.

Or, to let Ray Bradbury have the last word this week, “Science fiction is not just the art of the possible, but of the obvious.”

What do you think today is the most obvious “emergent reality” to which business ought to be paying attention? Why?