And therein lies the key word: opportunity. Identifying opportunities is tricky business these days, when changes are happening faster, bigger, and more profoundly than ever before. In executive suites from Houston to New York to London to Santiago, corporate leaders realize that in this fast-changing world, businesses that ignore warp-speed change today will be roadkill by tonight. Hence the growing importance of the business futurist, a breed that focuses on the practical rather than fanciful, whose brains are down to earth instead of lost in space.

In fact, futurists say they've seen an explosion of corporate work in recent months, likely because companies that spent three to four years focusing on survival are now more optimistic and ready to think about tomorrow - but not so optimistic that they're willing to take unnecessary risks or make decisions without information that's as complete as possible. Executives are calling on futurists for speeches, workshops, retreats, even hands-on consulting. "Companies come to futurists because they want to know how better to deal with uncertainties," says futurist Bob Treadway. "Our job is to make the uncertain a bit more certain."

TIME WAITS FOR NO ONE
Doesn't strategic planning - a long-accepted corporate function usually handled internally - suffice to clue in execs to tomorrow's headlines? Futurists scoff: "Old-style strategic planning doesn't cut it because events happen so fast," says John Luthy, a futurist from Boise, Idaho. By the time strategic planners cobble together their reports, he says, the near-term future has already unfolded.

Even defenders of strategic planning admit that the process leaves plenty of room for futuristic thinking, because strategic planning and futurism attack different time horizons. Planners usually try to home in on a 12- to 24-month time frame, and futurists start their ruminations at two years out. Most business futurists are comfortable chewing over outlooks for 5, 10, 25 years, or maybe even longer, and only where hard data is available to construct long-term forecasts.