Back to the F**kture: Cat Tully

type - podcast
In the latest episode of the Back to the F**kture podcast, we speak to Cat Tully about her extensive experience as a practitioner, helping governments and businesses to be better prepared for the future

For Cat Tully, decoding the future is all about decoding and managing risk. Yes, she reflects, this does sound a bit dry, but when you’re dealing with governments, NGOs or the future of citizens themselves, she explains to The Future Laboratory co-founder Martin Raymond in his latest Back to the F**kture podcast, then you really have to get things right.

And Cat, who has worked for Downing Street, the UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office and an enviable list of NGOs and government departments globally, invariably gets things right. But she’s careful to explain that she isn’t a forecaster or a futurist. Nor, for that matter, is she about making accurate predictions: if anything, her job is about helping her clients to be proactively prepared.

Or, as she puts it, providing them with a range of options or future scenarios of what could be, even if what could be isn’t all that palatable, with the understanding that you are creating a group of people – enlightenment civil servants, far-thinking politicians, or in the case of corporations, visionary CEOs – that can use such scenarios to forge ahead confidently, and thus collectively build a different tomorrow by doing so. The future, then, isn’t about prediction, as she sees it, but about preferred futures, or alternative ones that are continuous and ongoing, and which require constant updating, managing and refining.

Cat has spent her working life doing this, initially in the corporate world, then with prime minister Tony Blair (gallantly, she refuses to discuss any personal questions I might have about him) and his successor Gordon Brown at the Downing Street policy unit, where she learned that part of future forecasting is all about asking the right questions and doing this in the right way

‘Politicians can talk about manifestos, which are all about future promises and future scenarios, she explains, but when you call it this, people immediately switch off, because it doesn’t resonate with them. On the other hand, if you talk about the value of creating a better future for your children that often gets people opened up.’

But this isn’t just about context-setting, she believes, it’s about developing very powerful scenarios that inspire people to think differently, which is why films like Black Panther (the 2018 box office smash about a technologically advanced African kingdom) or Wonder Woman (whose lead character, Diana, comes from a culture dominated entirely by Amazonian women endowed with superpowers) are powerful scenarios in their own right in that they provide us with an alternative, but wholly positive and potential framework for how a future world could be in terms of racial or gender equality.

Published by:

14 May 2021

Author: Martin Raymond and Cat Tully



In our final section of the podcast, we discuss the power of narrative and the role of the hero, heroine or other in these tales about tomorrow, but also the fact that clients, as a rule, tend to place more emphasis on the hard data of a story or scenario than they do on its adjectives – as in its drama, impact, the landscape that brings said tales to life.

We all recognise that ‘next slide please’ moment, as Cat amusingly puts it, from those early Covid briefings, and recognise too how little we understand it, or for that matter, are interested in it, and yet it is telling a story of tomorrow, one of great tragedy and terrible loss if we don’t embrace the scenario now with a view to making the outcome different, more palatable and optimistic.

‘Good stories help us to do this,’ she concludes, ‘which is why we need to use different techniques, alternative voices and new ways to place people at the heart of these scenarios rather than trying to bludgeon them into believing what you are telling them with data.’

But Cat doesn’t sidestep the subfusc nature of the future. Rather, she tackles it, pragmatically, forcefully and with the view that if you assemble the right insights, correct experts and ask the right questions you can come up with very powerful and practical outcomes.

‘The facts are simple. People are coming to you because they have a problem, and they want answers. And yet, quite lot of strategic forecasting or scenario-planning uses a framework where a lot of time is spent on identifying the trends, pulling them together into scenarios and so on, and then spending about 5% of the time left on implications and opportunities.’

To remedy this, and perhaps to train the next generation of strategic foresight specialists in a more flexible and open-ended way, she founded the School of International Futures, where she and her colleagues have created a much neater and more measurable process – ‘a third of our time on trends, a third of our time on scenarios, and a third of our time on implications and next stages’.

As she explains, it’s a bit like teaching people to ask the right questions; you have to teach them to stop looking at the supply curve, but to focus on the demand curve. It’s a case of trying to get people to engage with the future, to allow them to make better decisions today, not to look at tomorrow with a view to worrying about today.

If you look at the Brexit vote, the impact of Trump in the White House or the potential break-up of the UK if Scotland decides to secede, politics aside, we should, she believes, have been running scenarios to better understand what happens if X or Y takes place. Why? It stops us being binary and non-negotiable and believing that there is a yes or no vote or answer.

'Our inability to see beyond this can stunt choice, opportunity and our ability to come up with surprising and useful alternatives. We’ve confined ourselves to the future without understanding that the future is as flexible as it is ultimately unknowable.’

But this unknowability isn’t a bad thing, she says. ‘It is merely what the future is. Which is why people need to have agency over it and proactively manage it with purpose. And with the right tools, the correct scenarios – maps that help you set out into the unknown – you can teach people to build resilience and mitigate risk, but still harness those insights that help you define future(s) that are more desirable for the community as a whole.’

You can listen to Cat’s Back to the F**kture podcast here, or find out more about her work at the School of International Futures by clicking here.


Tune in to the podcast on Audioboom, Spotify, Apple or watch the full Zoomcast below.