What is a Futurist?
A professional futurist is a person who studies the future in order to help people understand, anticipate, prepare for and gain advantage from coming changes. It is not the goal of a futurist to predict what will happen in the future. The futurist uses foresight to describe what could happen in the future and, in some cases, what should happen in the future.
Most people use some sort of foresight all the time - something as simple as listening to the weather forecast to prepare for the next day. A professional futurist uses formal methods to develop descriptions of possible futures. The output of a futures study may include the driving forces, assumptions, evidence or indicators of the futures. A futurist is more likely to say how or why a future could appear rather than to say what the future will be.
One of the founding principles of the field of futures studies is the idea of personal and organizational choice. Although the future is unknown, a person can identify possibilities, select the most favorable outcomes and attempt to influence events to create a desired future.
By considering systems and human agency, futurists help identify choices that affect the future, for ourselves and future generations.
What do futurists do?
Futurists work in large and small businesses, governments and non-profits, as teachers or researchers in education, and as consultants or as permanent staff. Many futurists focus on one topic such as a technology or an industry. Other futurists study broad social changes or global problems. All futurists take a very wide view of the world in both scope and time. Futurists tend to take a much broader perspective, consider longer time horizons, and include many more factors in a study than analysts such as economists, technology specialists, social critics or political commentators.
A futurist’s analytical process falls into five general areas:
- Framing - understanding the current state of affairs
- Scanning - looking for indications of the future
- Describing - explaining or reporting on possible futures
- Visioning - opening the range of possibilities
- Planning - creating/implementing a future direction
Where do you begin?A futurist usually does not set out to describe “The Future.” Generally a futurist is called upon to help make a decision, solve a particular problem, adapt to a coming change, or identify paths toward innovation.
The foundation of a good futures project is the solid understanding of the present conditions and historical influences. A futurist describes a situation using a deliberate and structured method. This process includes the surface conditions of, for example, an industry, but the futurist also studies the goals and purposes behind the industry.
The framework of a futures study usually can include many different kinds of information:
Understanding the current conditions and the accepted assumptions about the field are key to opening the future.
- Data-driven evidence like trend analysis and historical analysis
- Descriptions of driving forces like a systems model
- Mapping of influence networks, leaders or followers
- Perspectives and visions of leaders and decision makers in the field
- Current accepted expectations of the future of the field
Scanning is what futurists call “watching what is going on.”
There are two types of scanning. The first is to study the broad trends shaping our world. Futurists use the acronym STEEP - for Society, Technology, Economic, Environmental, Political - to categorize information. The combination of STEEP trends paint a picture of the direction and the expectations of the future. Futurists use a very broad view of the world to help understand the interactions between events.
The second type of scanning looks for anomalies or unusual events that may provide an indication of change or a solid piece of evidence for an emerging trend, called weak signals.
Both types of scanning require futurists to be “information sponges." Many futurists and organizations use structured methods of sorting and categorizing data to help sort useful information from noise.
Most get information from a wide variety of sources including newspapers, books, periodicals, scientific and trade journals, forecasts, interviews with subject matter experts, electronic media, arts and cultural trends, to name only a few. While most futurists scan broadly for background information, it is most effective when used in combination with a defined, focused framework.
Describing Possible Futures
Everyone likes a good story
For futurists, describing the future falls into two types of activities: forecasting and writing scenarios. The two are very different and it is important to understand why.
Forecasting describes how events may unfold. Everyone is familiar with a weather forecast. A futures forecast can take the form of a technology road map, a projection of a trend or a warning of an impending event. Although many futurists prefer to stay away from forecasting, we all do it to some extent. However, rather than predicting a single future, futurists consider multiple possible futures. A generally accepted forecast is called a probable or baseline future.
Another common description of the future for a futurist is a set of scenarios. A scenario is a description of how a future would turn out if a certain set of events or conditions happen. Scenarios are usually presented in a set of different possible futures where each scenario is based on different conditions. Back to the weather analogy: with no forecast I can still plan for multiple scenarios. For example, if it is sunny tomorrow, I will take a walk in the park. The second scenario: if it rains tomorrow, I will read a book. Scenarios are a way of describing a future so you can consider the consequences before an event happens. It may never happen - probably will never happen - but foresight will enable you to make better decisions.
How does a futurist come up with new ideas about a future that does not exist yet?
Discovering what could happen in the future can be one of the most exciting parts of a futures study. Futurists use a wide range of techniques to imagine what could be possible.
One way to find out about future possibilities is to ask people. Futurists use a number of techniques to ask people about their ideas and dreams of the future. The methods range from structured surveys of experts, to workshops, to informal interviews. Another way to explore the future is to look deep within oneself. By directed visualization, a person can become immersed in a future and “see” details that may have otherwise been overlooked.
Visioning is used to discover new opportunities, open and expand the range of possibilities, survey a full range potential futures and explore the future, but it also leads to a goal.
From the discoveries about the future, the final step is to select from all the possibilities what is the most plausible and what is most desirable. The purpose of many visioning exercises can be to get a detailed description of what the most appealing future would look like. From the vision, we can begin to understand how to move toward that future.
Planning is the process of taking all the insights from visioning, scanning, scenarios and forecasts plugging them into your framework and saying, “So what?”
How you apply the knowledge you gain from your futures work depends on why you were exploring in the first place. Some of the possibilities:
Perhaps the most important planning activity is to be able to plot a course to get from the present to the future you desire. If you come to a preferred vision of the future you can work back to the present by “backcasting” to identify steps that must take place to get there. Once you have an idea of what needs to happen, you can begin to plan how to make each step along the way take you in the right direction.
- to prepare for change
- to make better decisions today
- to be ready for whatever does happen
- to avoid surprises
- to assess the long term implications of choices
- to imagine new opportunities and innovations
All of the methods, techniques, and processes of a professional futurist are intended to improve our understanding of what needs to be done today. Many times a final product of a futures project is not important. The key outcome is that during the process of exploring the future, participants are deeply engaged and become aware of how to see the future for themselves.
The objective is frequently not to come up with a single answer, but to change the way that you think about what could happen and how to choose what should happen.