A Brief History of PBS Docuseries ‘A Brief History of the Future’ With Futurific Studios’ Ari Wallach and Kathryn Murdoch

Ari Wallach has made his living as a professional futurist for more than 20 years. What does that mean?

“I work with really large organizations, mostly helping them think about tomorrow — the far-off tomorrows,” Wallach explains on the latest episode of Variety podcast “Strictly Business.”

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Wallach’s forward-looking intellect is on display in the new PBS docuseries “A Brief History of the Future,” which premiered April 3 on PBS in the U.S. He hosts the series and is an executive producer with Kathryn Murdoch, Wendy Schmidt and DreamCrew, the production banner headed by hip hop superstar Drake. Wallach and Murdoch are partners in Futurific Studios, which makes its debut with “Brief History.” The six-part series studies inventors, entrepreneurs, activists, artists and others who are pursuing innovative solutions to a range of social ills. Notable participants include French President Emmanuel Macron, U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy and famed French soccer star Kylian Mbappé.

Futurific Studios was founded with the unabashed goal of developing content designed to promote positive portrayals of the future. Murdoch, who is president and co-founder with her husband, James Murdoch, of the Quadrivium Foundation, calls it a “protopian” perspective and says she has been dismayed by the deficit of hope that she has found in contemporary storytelling, particularly when it comes to young adult fiction.

“For some reason, we’ve stopped telling hopeful stories. And we only tell the story about how awful it’s all going to be,” Murdoch says. “When I met with Ari, who is an actual futurist, when we started talking about doing a show like this, it just felt incredibly important at this moment in time.”

Wallach began to notice a few years ago the time horizon for long-range business planning began to shrink. Where 10- and 20-year timelines were once the norm, he recently met with an executive who was only willing to look ahead six months. “I realized at that point that we had a problem,” Wallach says. “Because the issues we’re facing as a species on planet Earth are not going to be fixed in six months, nor did they come about in the past six months.”

A key theme of “A Brief History of the Future” is coming to grips with the new technologies that are driving the rapid pace of change.

“We know that technology alone is not the answer,” Murdoch says. “We need the social and political systems around those things in order to make them function. What we wanted to do was first to show that it’s not just about technology. It’s also about making systems work, like our democracy for example. But to also just allow that it’s not a binary of ‘AI is going to be terrible, or ‘AI is going to be wonderful.’ It’s actually about stepping back and thinking, ‘What do I want out of this?’ What’s the ultimate goal? Where do we want to get to? And then how would I use AI to do that? Or how do we train AI to be better?”

The Futurific partners are not naive – they understand that doomsday action thrillers are usually a more marketable product for Hollywood than a deep nonfiction dive on complicated social and environmental issues. But the pair hope that even starting the conversation with creatives in Hollywood will plant important seeds.

“We’re often told as a society, ‘Here’s what failure looks like.’ I just went to a theater and watched one of those movies. But if you keep hitting that button over and over again, eventually we just become numb to it and we lose the imaginatory muscle of what it that success actually looks like. And that’s part of the show, and very much the mission and mandate of Futurific Studios.”

“Strictly Business” is Variety’s weekly podcast featuring conversations with industry leaders about the business of media and entertainment. (Please click here to subscribe to our free newsletter.) New episodes debut every Wednesday and can be downloaded at Apple Podcasts, Amazon Music, Spotify, Google Play, SoundCloud and more.

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