Future Studies

By: The FHE Team

If you are new to our site, welcome to Part One of a two-part futuring series! We encourage you to explore these pages, cogitate and extrapolate. If you haven’t figured it out yet, we are all about presenting information on the technologies and changes currently taking place all around us, at an ever increasing rate, and how they might affect our collective future. As a result, we thought it appropriate to provide a little bit of basic information on “Futuring” or “Future Study Methodologies” if you prefer, that will help you understand this increasingly important discipline. After reading this introduction you may wish to visit our Future Study Methodologies overview of 25 methods, or our own Methodology page that describes the approach we take throughout this site.

Please peruse the introduction below and enjoy! This material is an expanded and updated version of Dr. Linda Groff & Dr. Paul Smoker’s Introduction to Future Studies, with additional references from Edward Cornish, Peter Bishop, and others. Our thanks to these professional futurists and their work in education.

Topics On This Page:

• Why Futuring is Important
• History of Future Studies
• Range of Futurist Perspectives
• What Makes a Futurist?
• Typical Future Forecasting Periods
• Subjects Studied by Futurists
• Systems View of the Universe
• Future Studies Methodologies
• Seven Lessons from the Great Explorers
• Designing an Alternative Future
• References

Introduction: Why Studying the Future and Change is Important

Change is occurring at an ever increasing rate, driven partly by technological advances that inevitably lead to change in all other areas of our lives. This change is made more complex by the rapid diffusion and progress of information technologies increasing globalization, commerce, and communication bringing the world inexorably (and many times uncomfortably or even dangerously) closer together. This trend is changing political and economic borders, systems, and alignments, as everyone seeks to become part of a global economy and society while still striving to maintain national, ethnic, and cultural identities and meaning.

In recent years we have become increasingly aware of the dangers of nuclear, chemical and bio terrorism, and other issues such as sustainable development and preservation of the environment, have gained greater ascendancy in the public consciousness. This has made it necessary for governments, businesses, organizations, and people to better understand change and the future, since the convergence of technologies, societies, and individuals will undoubtedly result in outcomes increasingly difficult to predict. When people better understand change, they quite often see more opportunities for their lives and ways to better positively influence the future that is being created.

And lest we get starry-eyed and altruistically myopic, let us not forget that ubiquitous communication and access to global commerce has created an era of unprecedented Hypercompetition that provides a driving force to know more, faster, and farther out. Futuring is becoming big business.

History of the Future Studies Field

While there have always been futurists, in the sense of people who looked to the future and who tried to understand change, the field of Future Studies itself–which tends to be very interdisciplinary –was really born near the turn of the previous century with H.G. Wells’ Anticipations of the Reactions of Mechanical and Scientific Progress upon Human Life and Thought. Arguably the father of future studies, his prolific writings included both fiction (scenario building) and non-fiction writings about the future.

As a profession, however, Future Studies is really a phenomenon which arose after World War II. In many ways, the US military needed to know things about the future that had never been known before. For instance, in preparing for a nuclear exchange, that worst of all catastrophes, they realized that all the planning would have to go into that exchange before it actually took place; once the missiles were on the way it was too late to sit down and figure out what to do. They also needed to understand the nature of the new technologies, because in planning long term military systems they had to understand not only what technologies were available today, but which ones would be available in the future. And that resulted in technological forecasting. The RAND Corporation was a think tank created by the Defense Department to do that, and futurists like Ted Gordon then developed a lot of Future techniques, like the Delphi technique, in that environment, and began to publish that in the open literature in the 1960s. Of course the 1960s were full of social change and social turmoil, and many people turned their eyes to the future. The first courses were offered at Yale University, in Virginia Polytechnic University. The World Future Society and the World Future Studies Federation were both formed in the late 1960s and early 70s. The program at the university of Ohio in political science was created at that time, as was the Study of the Future masters degree at the University of Houston-Clear Lake. 1

Range of Futurist Views and Perspectives

Within the Futures field, there have always been a wide range of views and perspectives from people who have come from a very wide range of different disciplines and backgrounds and interests. Futurists run a whole gamut of views between the following two poles, and everything inbetween:

“Doom and Gloom” Futurists: so-called because they tend to focus on current real world problems, without easy solutions (such as the nuclear danger during the Cold War, or the continuing population explosion, world hunger, depletion of fossil fuels and other nonrenewable resources, and environmental preservation and pollution) and project these trends into the future, showing that “if current trends continue,…then the future will be much worse than the present.”

It is important to note that even “Doom and Gloom” Futurists are not totally pessimistic, however. Indeed, no futurist would dedicate their whole life to studying change and the future if they were totally pessimistic. The major reason for pointing out negative trends and scenarios for the future is to alert people to the potential problems ahead, so that we humans can be informed and change our current policies so that a more desirable future can be created.

Futurists who create different scenarios of the future–from negative, “doom and gloom” views, to most probable or likely views, to positive, visionary views (an in between perspective, that acknowledges all these possibilities for the world future, and which points out that our actions and policies NOW will help to determine which of these scenarios actually transpires in the future).

Positive, Visionary, and Evolutionary Futurists: they focus more on positively imaging the more desirable futures that we would like to create; articulating the positive values that we would like a future world to be based on; focusing on technological, societal, and human potentials; tracking groups that are actually trying to create such preferable futures in the world today; and generally empowering people to see that we always have choices (in what we think & feel, and in how we behave in the world), and that we DO have the power to create a more desirable future world by committing in the present to change what we are doing NOW.

Characteristics of a Futurist Perspective

While Futurists themselves represent a wide range of backgrounds, interests, and perspectives (as noted above), there are nonetheless certain characteristics of a futurist perspective that most futurists would agree upon, and which distinguish Future Studies as a field from many others disciplines and fields of study. These characteristics include:

  • Seeing Change as the Norm and It is Speeding Up
  • Seeing Events as Interrelated (within a Whole Systems Context), not Separate and Unconnected.
  • Taking a Holistic, or Whole Systems Perspective in Looking at Change
  • Accepting as a Premise that there are Many Alternative Futures.
  • Distinguishing between Possible, Probable, & Preferable Futures:
  • Possible Futures:
anything (good or bad, probable or improbable) that could happen in the future.
  • Probable Futures:
what is most likely or probable to happen in the future (based on extending past trends or developments into the future in some way).
  • Preferable Futures:
what is most desirable or preferable to happen in the future.
  • The Goal is to make preferable or desirable futures more probable, by visualizing clearly what we want to create (including the values that we want a future world to be based on), and then committing energy, resources, time, and our lives to creating that future world.
  • Another Goal is to also note possible futures, that though they might not be probable or likely, if they did occur, would have a great impact on people’s lives. We should thus be aware of such possibilities.
  • Helping People Realize that there are always Consequences to what we do (or don’t do), and “If we always do what we’ve always done, then we’ll always get what we’ve always gotten.”
  • The Importance of Ideas, Values, and Positive Visions in Creating a Better World Future.
  • Empowering People to Choose and Act Responsibly and Consciously in the Present, Because Those Actions WILL Help in Creating the Future: helping people to realize that we are ALL creating the future that we will be living and working in by what we think and do every day of our lives, and that we thus always have choices in what we do.
  • In short, understanding that we CAN all make a difference, and we need to all become conscious of this fact and then make a commitment to do something–no matter how small it may seem–that we feel could help to make this world a better place.
  • Accepting the Importance of Short, Medium, and Long-Range Planning: In short, not leaving the future to chance, but proactively trying to create the future that we would like to be living in–for ourselves and our posterity.

Typical Future Forecasting Periods

There are various time periods for studying the future, which were outlined by Earl Joseph of the Minnesota World Future Society Chapter. These periods are:

  • Near Term Future: up to one year from now.
  • Short Range Future: one to five years from now.
  • Middle Range Future: five to twenty years from now.
  • Long Range Future: twenty to fifty years from now.
  • Far Future: fifty plus years from now.

Most individual people, as well as most businesses and governments, only look ahead as much as four to five years in their planning (in politics until the next election and in business through the next five years). It is important to look further ahead, however, in a world undergoing such rapid change today. Joseph stresses that we are creating the world that we will be living in in five to twenty years from now (the Middle Range Future) by what we are doing right now. Thus almost anything can be created–’if” we have a vision of what we want to create AND are also committed personally to that vision–in five to twenty years from now.

It is also important to remember that while past-present-& future are all somehow interconnected, the only place from which to change the future is in the NOW. The power for change resides in the present moment, for that is the only place from which our thoughts or actions can actually be changed.

Holistic/Systems View of Our Place in the Universe (as Systems within Systems within Systems)

While it is common, especially in the West, to look at the universe and world as being made up of separate, unconnected individuals and things (which is especially characteristic of industrial-era, Newtonian Physics thinking, as well), Future Studies as a field tends instead to look at the universe and world as being made up of dynamically changing, interdependent parts. The universe and world can thus be seen as being made up of systems within systems within systems within systems. Every system is in turn made up of smaller, interacting, interdependent parts; and each of these parts is in turn another system with its own interdependent, interacting parts.

Key Subjects Studied by Futurists

While futurists can study the future of anything and everything, and while people who call themselves futurists often have a holistic, systems approach that looks at connections and relationships between changes in one area of life as these relate to changes in other areas of life, there are nonetheless certain key subjects that futurists tend to study a lot.

1. Technological Progress
2. Economic Growth
3. Improving Health
4. Increasing Mobility
5. Environmental Decline
6. Increasing Deculturation

There are some simililarities between his list of major forces affecting our future, and those subjects typically studied by futurists as described in the list originally published by Dr. Linda Groff & Dr.Paul Smoker in 1997 (updated by the editorial staff of this site). Subjects studied by futurists include:

The Global Megacrisis Issue, including the Relationships Between:

  • -  Global Population Growth;
  • -  Food and World Hunger;
  • -  Energy Sources (Traditional, Nonrenewable Fossil Fuels &
    Alternative, Renewable Energy Sources);
  • -  Environmental Pollution;
  • -  Sustainable Development; and
  • -  Global Climate Change (including Global Warming);
  • -  Other Global Catastrophes.

Global Peace, Conflict, and War;

Terrorism;

The United Nations System and Global Governance;

North-South Relations, and the Increasing Gap (Both Between and Within Countries) Between Rich and Poor. Today there are not only economic haves and have nots; there are also technological haves and have nots, and it is vitally important that everyone who wants access to modern information age technologies (and hence to information about our rapidly changing world) can increasing gain such access.

The Emergence of Larger Regional Economic Blocs, including the Asia/Pacific Region; the European Community (EC); the North American Free Trade Association (NAFTA); and now other regional blocs, including blocs of countries in the South. In the 1980s, talk that the 21st Century would be the century of the Pacific Rim (or Asia/Pacific), no doubt led Europeans to move more quickly towards a formal European Community (to compete), which in turn furthered development of NAFTA in North America, and the emergence of other regional economic blocs.

Global Economic Trends, including the emergence of a global economy, as well as larger regional economic blocs (above), and privatization of economies within countries, as well as reactions to privatization (as is occurring in parts of the former Soviet Union, such as Russia, where pulls to both the right and left economically and politically are occurring, along with reforms).

Global Political Trends, including democratization, and reactions to that (especially by those who feel disenfranchised or left out of all the modern changes happening in the world).

Societal Fragmentation, as the glue that held the industrial age, centralized nation-state together breaks up and diversifies and decentralizes society; as media diversifies and people no longer all watch the same programs (except perhaps CNN); and old beliefs and identities are challenged by rapid change which creates anxiety in people, fear of change and the future, and hence resistance to change, which sometimes takes the form of fundamentalism, and an attempt to go back to an earlier, so-called better, simpler, idealic time (which never existed quite as people remember it). The only problem is that one cannot go back, one can only go forward–while hopefully also taking into the future what was best and worth preserving from the past.

Societal Restructuring and Environmental Impacts of New Technologies, including:

(A) High Technologies, such as:

  • Computers, Telecommunications, Robotics–the First Stage of the Information Revolution;
  • The new Interactive, Multimedia, Internet, World Wide Web, Virtual Reality Technology Stage of the Information Revolution;
  • Genetic Engineering, Recombinant DNA, and Gene Splicing;
  • Space Exploration, Industrialization, and Settlement; and
  • Nanotechnology.

(B) Appropriate or Intermediate Technologies, tied to Sustainable Development

  • Living in Harmony with Nature, & Voluntary Simplicity.

(C) Workplace Trends, including:

  • New Management Styles;
  • Employment/Job Trends;
  • Technology & Jobs;
  • Diversity and Women Working.

(D) Educational/Learning Trends;

(E) New Scientific Paradigms (or overarching worldviews);

(F) Changing Cultural Paradigms;

(G) Global Spiritual/Religious/Consciousness Traditions and Trends .

One can also sometimes distinguished between futurists who are generalists (and look at the interactions of changes in a number of diverse areas) and futurists who deal more with change in a particular area, such as the future of energy. In general, however, people who choose to call themselves “futurists” tend to fit the former definition, and even if futurists tend to specialize in particular areas, they usually look at the area within the broader context of numerous other changes happening in the world that impact upon their particular area of interest.

Methodologies for Studying Change and the Future

Since the future has not yet happened, futurists have had to develop a number of different methodologies for studying the future and change that are different from traditional scientific methodologies for studying the present and the past–on which data already exists or can be generated. These methodologies range from quantitative, left brain methods to visionary, creative, intuitive right brain methods, and various combinations in-between. It is important to remember here that futurists believe in many alternative futures–including probable, possible, and preferable futures. Futurists are thus not only interested in looking at probable futures (based on extending past trends and developments into the future), but also at designing preferable alternative futures, and showing how one can plan to get from the present state to this more desirable future. A wide range of methodologies must thus be employed to cover these very diverse different views of the future. Some of the more prominent futures methodologies include the following (each is described on our methodologies page for a more detailed explanation):

  • Trend Extrapolation
  • Panel of Experts
  • Delphi Surveys
  • Projection
  • Consultation
  • Goals Analysis
  • Scenario Writing
  • Backcasting
  • Modelling: Econometric, Computer, Feedback
  • Simulations And Games
  • Brainstorming
  • Relevance Tree
  • Critical Technologies (Forecasting/Assessment)
  • Cross-Impact Analysis
  • Environmental Impact Assessment
  • Social Impact Assessment
  • Morphology Analysis
  • Content Analysis
  • Patent Analysis
  • Visualization
  • Science Fiction
  • Futures Wheels
  • Intuition & Intuitive Forecasting
  • Experiments in Alternative Lifestyles
  • CERT/CPM Analysis

Seven Lessons from the Great Explorers  2

Also from Edward Cornish’s book Futuring, he opens with seven lessons explorers of the future can learn from the great explorers of the past:

  1. Prepare for what you will face in the future
  2. Anticipate future needs
  3. Use poor information when necessary (rather than none)
  4. Expect the unexpected
  5. Think long term as well as short term
  6. Dream productively
  7. Learn from your predecessors

Steps in Designing an Alternative Future World  3

There are perhaps unlimited potential versions of the steps that one must go through to design an alternative future world. Marvin Soroos came up with five stages,* to which we have added three additional stages (the last three). We have also added different future studies methodologies (from the previous list above) which are relevant to each of these stages, as follows:

  1. Value Specification
  2. Analysis of the Present and Forecasting Future Developments
  3. Formulation of Designs of Alternative Futures
  4. Evaluation of the Designs of Alternative Futures
  5. Drafting Transition Strategies (Of How One Gets From One’s Starting Place to Where One Wants to End Up)
  6. Implementation of Policies
  7. Feedback (On Whether Those Policies are Having the Effects One Planned On, or Not)
  8. Adjustment of Strategies and Policies, Based on Feedback

References

  • 1 Interview with Peter Bishop, Media Mente, 1998
  • 2 Futuring, Edward Cornish, 2004
  • 3 From Marvin Soroos, “A Methodological Overview of the Process of Designing
    Alternative Future Worlds,” in Planning Alternative World Futures
  • Dr. Linda Groff and Dr. Paul Smoker’s original Introduction to Future Studies

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Category: Future Studies