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Meet Ford’s Chief Futurist, who prepares for at least 4 futures at once

Picture of Ford's Jennifer Brace next to orange trucks.

Illustration by Robyn Phelps / Shutterstock / The Current

As the Ford Motor Company’s Chief Futurist, Jennifer Brace’s role is essentially to see the future without a crystal ball.

Her job is to prepare the 120-year-old automaker for what the subsequent decades could hold. With so much focus on the future, it’s ironic this position is intrinsically linked to her past.

Brace grew up in the shadow of Ford’s manufacturing plants in Detroit, Michigan — the automotive capital of the world — where her father worked for Ford as a technician for more than 30 years, making car parts with his hands. Her father’s passion for cars extended past work hours. Brace keenly remembers handing him tools in the garage as a young girl, helping him build classic hot rods in his free time.

Along with an early exposure to cars, Brace had a knack for math and science and so eventually pursued engineering at the University of Michigan. She ended up getting an engineering internship at — where else — Ford.

Twenty years later, Brace is still at Ford, which for the fifth year in a row, ranked as the top automaker on the Fortune 500, bringing in $158 billion in revenue in 2022. Over time she found herself drawn to marketing, with her positions over 20 years laddering up to be the company’s second-ever Chief Futurist, taking over the reins from Sheryl Connelly a year ago. It’s a role that didn’t exist before 2019.

“We always say, 'We don't predict, we prepare.'”

At Ford, Brace runs a team called “Trends and Futuring” that tracks trends across what Brace calls the “STEEP factors,” which stands for "social, technological, economic, environmental, and political." Pretty much everything but automotive, and that’s by design.

“What we want to do is keep our eye on all the things happening outside of automotive that might come back and impact our business, our products, our services, the way that we have to work to be successful,” Brace says.

4 different futures

Brace’s team is usually looking at four different futures at any given time to map out Ford’s adaptability for the coming decades. The “Trends and Futuring” team then works across Ford’s other internal groups, from engineering to innovation, to develop plans or strategies within those different possible futures, even down to what they could be creating in the next five years based on developing trends.

To determine those possible outlooks, the team ideates off a mountain of questions: “What happens if there's a war? What happens if there's a global recession? What might people be prioritizing in the future? What happens if new entrants come into our industry? What impact will AI [artificial intelligence] have?” says Brace.

If there’s a recession, for example, that could mean people will be looking for more essential vehicles. And AI could take humanity down multiple paths. Brace’s team would build out other potential futures and then ask: “What’s important in these worlds?”

Brace can see a future where a car’s AI could understand drivers’ moods. If a driver were stressed, for example, the car could create a relaxing mood or lift spirits with a catchy tune. She also believes the connected car is only going to become more equipped with new features, inevitably generating more consumer data.

“The amount of data that everybody has on everything will continue to grow,” Brace says. “I think that when you think about the future, you can start to ask yourself, 'Well, how do we layer all of those different collection points and all of that different data? What sense will they make of it? How will we react to that?'”

What makes a trend

Arguably one of the most difficult parts of the job is determining what trends have staying power, so a typical day means a lot of reading, documenting trends, and participating in workshops. Brace’s team will stay on top of the news, medical and science journals, and movements in the market, like new patents coming out. Usually, the trends that have staying power are ones that last multiple years and meet a need people have, Brace says. All the work culminates in an end-of-year report that sums up the year and looks ahead at what’s to come.

“There's definitely a bit of an art and science to it, but we do try to, as a team, keep ourselves in check to not just follow the hot trendy thing, but to just make sure that we actually think this has some staying power,” she says.

Even with all the tracking and research, Brace is the first to say that the future is still uncertain. “We always say, 'We don't predict, we prepare.'” She admits that what usually happens is a mixture of all four futures, and it’s difficult to tell at any which moment which version of a future might be the most prominent. “People are like, ‘Oh, well, just tell me the one that I need to pay attention to.’ And we say, ‘I wish it worked that way, but it doesn't.’”

From engineer to marketer

Brace is part of a new cohort of marketers who have landed in marketing after starting out as engineers. It makes sense, as the technology often needs to take centerstage when it comes to strategy and, as Brace adds, “as we start to figure out how much we need data and what to do with it.”

During her time as an engineer at Ford, she became a major force in the early days of in-vehicle touchscreens, back when they were only found in higher-end luxury vehicles. Brace worked on the user interface, designing everything from button placement to the fonts and colors used, paying attention to how people were interacting with the product. Brace also led a team out of California for autonomous vehicle research, an area Ford continues to study.

Now her days might be filled with more theorizing, but one thing has remained constant: From her early days of helping her father assemble cars in the garage, to becoming Ford’s Chief Futurist, Brace’s enduring sense of discovery continues to propel her forward into the unknown.