Futures studies or futures research is the systematic study of possible, probable, and desirable futures. The field has expanded into an exploration of alternative futures and has gone further to examine the worldviews and mythologies that underlie our collective perspectives.
Governments and leaders worldwide are increasingly turning to system foresight to manage uncertainty and build resilience. For example, the United Arab States government has a futures ministry. And the UN Secretary-General recently proposed a world futures summit for 2023.
I was introduced to foresight or prospective studies in high school. It immediately inspired me – far-reaching, imaginative, analytically insightful, ethically committed, and practically diligent. However, in a few years of foresight work in government, I discovered that policymakers had a limited ability to consider alternative futures. Even where the field was topical, its old ways did not necessarily impact significantly.
What started as a trickle has turned into a flood over time practitioners, scholars, activists. And others worldwide are now working at these intersections in a myriad of different ways. A number of these are documented in our current Design and Futures collection.
The central challenge addressed by this work could indeed be described as global, but it is also psychological. It is an aspect of being human that exists at all levels of action and institution, from the personal to the planetary. That challenge is how can we engage with the different possible worlds that we might find ourselves in later – not just intellectually, abstractly, but deeper than potential lived realities. The field has traditionally been influential in organizing thought frameworks but more minor in transforming those anticipations into embodied ideas and capturing them.
Perhaps the most serious challenge is the need for future skills in the area of culture. Take politics and journalism, institutions inherently concerned with the future. But do not have the well-established habit of having rigorous imaginations. A lack of knowledge of the end becomes evident when otherwise knowledgeable journalists ask you to make predictions about the “future” (note the singular form) for your story on any topic you cover.
It’s also evident when policymakers, technologists, pundits, and other public figures release a steady stream of authoritative predictions. Still, no one comes back later to see how they fared or ask how that regime of visions future strains could influence and serve some interests more than others. Fostering collective future competence or social foresight not just in organizations. But across society is critical for all of us to navigate the difficult situations we face as a species.
The most significant current development is the rapid increase in the number of those who initiate, lead, and participate in foresight work. It’s fascinating people from different sectors, coming from different backgrounds and cultural. Organizational, and disciplinary sensitivities, appropriate the tools to develop approaches to strategic foresight and tangible futures in particular and adapt them to their contexts and needs.
There is more participation and interest than ever, which is as exciting as expected. Organizational leaders and governments are also taking note of the urge to improve their forward-looking approaches, which is needed now.
Getting into the habit of mapping the future can be life-changing. For institutions or organizations, it can change the way they work. Likewise, on an individual level, it is remarkable to see this in my students. I think it can have such an impact because it’s a way of framing the what and how of daily endeavors within the larger why of our lives. Investing in foresight capabilities helps connect vital day-to-day work to significant longer-term, higher-level issues and keeps those connections alive.
I think the most significant collective impact of all of this is unfolding before our eyes. But it’s a big story, so you have to look at it in a time of decades or generations rather than months or years. We, humans, are learning to help shape our future. It is ultimately about a transformation of culture and governance.
Futures studies, futures research, futurism, or futurology is the systematic, interdisciplinary, and holistic. Analysis of social and technological advancement and other environmental trends. Often to explore how people will live and work in the future.
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