Where is this data? How can it be used? Futurists like those questions because the answers help them differentiate their work from palm readers. Indeed, the starting point for most futurists tackling a new project is massive data intake. "This work has to start with a strong factual foundation," says Adam Fein, president of Pembroke Consulting. "The first step in thinking about the future is to deeply understand the past and present. We will spend weeks gathering pertinent information when we begin an engagement."

Let's say a futurist starts an engagement with a petroleum company that wants insight into mid-21st century energy supplies and demand. Most would start by reading extensively - internal reports prepared by the company, government reports (for instance, the Department of Energy's voluminous research), and trade publications that offer detailed analysis. The futurist would also interview client executives one-on-one, probing their thinking, their fears, their hopes. Some futurists would even quiz competitors and trade association staff (the American Petroleum Institute, for one). They'd certainly talk to experts on alternative energy sources - hydrogen, solar, perhaps even coal and nuclear - because their use would affect long-term demand for petroleum products. The research phase would require many days, perhaps weeks, of work. Without this foundation of knowledge about a company and its industry, forecasting is more hallucination than helpful business tool.

Meantime, futurists supplement their specific, client-oriented research by continually swallowing a broad range of information, all designed to open their eyes to wide possibilities. "I'll spend a fourth to a third of my time reading," says futurist Treadway. Adds Arthur Shostak, a futurist at Philadelphia's Drexel University, "Personally, I subscribe to more than $2,000 worth of magazines annually."