photo of the future


Sheryl Connelly has been living in the future for a long time.

She recently retired as chief futurist after 27 years at the Ford Motor Co., and she’ll be sharing her expertise as the opening plenary speaker at the ASCE 2023 Convention, Oct. 19 in Chicago.

Connelly spoke with Civil Engineering Source about her career, why it’s critical for companies to embrace the future, and what she believes is the critical characteristic of successful futurists.

Civil Engineering Source: What does your title of futurist entail?

Sheryl Connelly: I worked for my former company [Ford Motor Co.] for 27 years. When I retired, I was the chief futurist, which is an exotic title. When I give speeches, I spend a lot of time trying to explain exactly what it means.

A futurist doesn’t predict the future; a futurist is someone who challenges the organization to rethink their strategies to upend the status quo and to make sure they put together plans that are more resilient or that can adapt to disruption.

Source: I would imagine that can be like pushing a boulder up a hill sometimes.

Connelly: That’s a great description. Yes, it really is.

Part of it is being contrarian. There are people who love being challenged and some who don’t. So you have to tread really lightly.

One of my greatest joys was getting to assemble a team of futurists when I was at Ford. It went from a one-person operation up to 10 maybe now. When hiring for those roles, people ask, “Well, what kind of skills are you looking for?” And the most important thing to me was humility. I wanted people who were humble.

Because if you call yourself a futurist, you have to do it delicately, you have to do it with great humility. You need to let other people know that you’re not coming in to tell them what to do, you’re there trying to help them strengthen whatever plans they have. To say it simply, “I’d like to pair my expertise with somebody else’s expertise in the hopes that together we can discover something neither one of us would discover on our own.”

Source: What’s the biggest mistake you see companies make in terms of future trends of technology or where they’ve missed the boat?

Connelly: I think organizations, despite their best intentions, do not spend enough time thinking about the future. For most businesses, it’s about the sales close or the quarterly earnings, year-end results, maybe the business plan for the next year. There are some people who have a five-year business plan, but in my experience even that is not very common.

In my world [automotive industry], we’re pretty forward-thinking because we just have a really long lead time and an extraordinary capital investment that goes with it. I would imagine the same goes for civil engineering. It must take an extraordinary amount of time and investment to build a piece of infrastructure. Those things don’t happen overnight.

There used to be this quote inside of Ford Motor Co. commonly attributed to Henry Ford, and it went like this: “If I asked people what they wanted, they would have said, ‘Faster horses.’”

I always liked that quote, because it spoke about the idea that if you want to be a true innovator, you have to imagine a future that no one else has imagined. I thought it was a great space for a futuristic play.

But the truth of the matter is I later found out that Henry Ford never said that. It was a statement that didn’t appear until the late ’90s or early 2000s. But the sentiment still survives and what Henry did say was, “If you don’t think about your future, you won’t have one.”

Learn more about the ASCE 2023 Convention.