Historian of the Future?

As far as job titles go, ‘Historian of the Future’ is an absolutely doozy. However, as one of the leading practitioners of this fascinating trade, Dr James Bellini, can testify, the description can lead to a few misunderstandings: he is most definitely not, for instance, a magician.

“Let me be clear: I don’t have a cloak, a pointy hat and a magic wand,” Bellini jokes – and he absolutely can’t tell you who’s going to win the 3.30 at Ascot. What he can do, however, is draw upon a career spanning decades of research and analysis, networking and award-winning creative endeavours to produce assessments of the likely state of the future which are as informed, and as entertaining, as any you’ll encounter.

When SSON meets Bellini, the good doctor – whose PhD “in military stuff” came from the London School of Economics – has just finished presenting to the 8th Annual Shared Services Week in Sitges, near Barcelona. His talk – the first plenary of the event – has ranged from early corporate history, via demographic change in modern Europe, through ‘Gutenberg 2.0’, to the rise of a new wave of consumers and the hiring challenges posed by the emergence of ‘Generation C’– and he’s scattered some pretty brain-bending statistics along the way.

For example, those of us in the audience now know that by 2040, if current trends are maintained, Italy will have 20 million fewer inhabitants; that “in 1965 there were 10,000 people for every computer, but by 2015 there will be 10,000 connected devices for every person”; that “over 50 per cent of people on the planet have never made a phone call”; that by 2020 Japan will be the oldest society in the developed world, and the USA will be the youngest.

It’s from a vast archive of such data, analysed through methods many years in the perfecting, that Bellini is able to create the “works of informed imagination” that make up his futurological output. Facts and figures, he says, are the currency of futurology and he declares that, magpie-like, he “will steal anything without remorse” which will contribute to his understanding of the myriad forces shaping the times to come.

This understanding has developed over the course of a distinguished and varied career which has seen Bellini finding success as an academic, a think-tank analyst, a reporter and TV presenter, an author, a narrator and, of course, a public speaker. If, however, this suggests chameleonic professional tendencies to accompany his corvine approach to data, Bellini’s wry grin, penetrating stare and uncompromising wit mark him out as resolutely human – as does his unwillingness to pander to social niceties: his latest book, tackling corporate deceit and the pervasiveness of misrepresentation in the business world, is appropriately titled The Bullshit Factor.

Bellini moved from university (St John’s College, Cambridge) into advertising, among other roles – but it was in Paris as the first British member of the highly regarded Hudson Institute (co-founded by Bellini’s early mentor, nuclear strategist Herman Kahn) where he won his spurs, and plaudits, with a series of predictions for major European economies, starting with France. He and his colleagues were a long way ahead of the curve in foreseeing the French economic revival of the 1970s and ‘80s, and their success did not go unnoticed; brought in by the BBC as a consultant on a similar predictive piece about the British economy, Bellini ended up fronting the program as lead reporter. Perhaps unpredictably – even for this most promising of seers – television, and a modicum of fame, had come knocking.

Although he discusses his successes with disarming humility, Bellini’s career in television left him much to crow about: seven years as a studio presenter with Sky News and Financial Times Television; stints presenting Panorama, Newsnight and The Money Programme; and a host of awards including the Prince Rainier II Prize at the Monte Carlo International TV festival and a special award given by the United Nations for his work on the epic documentary series The Nuclear Age – as well as rather less glittering roles such as presenting a TV version of Cluedo. Meanwhile he continued to predict, to analyse – and to publish, with a series of well-received tomes reaching the shelves from the 1980s onwards.

By now Bellini had established a reputation as one of the most perceptive and intuitive pundits on the current affairs circuit, and the step to public speaking to compliment his flourishing literary career was a logical one. His natural flair for business (he has served in executive positions for numerous companies) and for communications, combined with his specific spheres of interest, mean that – although he’s just as happy to present to the likes of Greenpeace “for a cup of tea”- his natural constituency consists of relatively high-powered businessfolk with a vested interest in understanding the foundations of the future (exactly the kind of people attending Shared Services Week, in fact)....

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