Assembling a Futures / Foresight Toolkit
Extreme uncertainty making you uneasy? Want to pivot from challenge to opportunity on the fulcrum of emerging change? It’s probably time for a skills update. First you may want to find out the full range of what’s on offer to supercharge your futures thinking.
People new to futures research and foresight often think that scenario planning is the be all and end all of foresight. But there are at least six key activities in well-designed futures research, and dozens of tools available for each activity — and they all can be interconnected, intermixed, and layered.
Here’s an example illustrating just a few design choices on your way to our futures:
- What’s your focus, or frame: why do you want to think about the future — what are you worried about? or are you trying to articulate aspirations of a preferred future? What are the layers of thinking and cultural underpinnings of the issue (Causal Layered Analysis)?
- Have you honed your awareness of the change emerging all around you? have you scanned for trends driving change (Horizon Scanning)? have you identified emerging issues of change, and pinpointed the weak signals to watch (Emerging Issues Analysis)? Have you parsed how overlapping waves of stability, action, and emergence might collide (Three Horizons)? Have you inventoried the possible explanations for the changes you are observing (Theories of Change and Stability)?
- Have you explored the impacts of those changes? have you mapped the impact cascades each change might generate (Futures Wheels)? evaluated how impacts might intersect and interconnect (Cross-Impact Analysis)? Thought through how change would affect all aspects of daily life (Verge Framework)?
- Have you imagined the alternative futures that would result from all those changes and the ricochet of their impacts? you can do that by slamming three futures wheels together for a rich picture of colliding changes and impacts (Manoa); or explore the boundaries of two uncertainties in opposition (2X2 uncertainties matrix). You can render a possible future more real by designing an artefact to suit alternative outcomes (The Thing from the Future). Of course, you don’t need to build new scenarios at all — you could repurpose scenarios from another project, from speculative fiction, or use generic archetypes of possible futures (Four Futures / Scenario Incasting).
- Have you assessed your values and most cherished goals and envisioned your preferred future? Visioning can start with individuals visualizing stepping into their preferred future, sharing notes, and building a group vision from common themes and characteristics everyone admires (Ziegler / Boulding / Manoa Visioning). Or you can gather stakeholders and build a vision off past successes (Appreciative Inquiry) or by mutual commitment (Future Search). You can also dig down into the cultural underpinnings of the issue in the present, choose a more positive metaphor, and build it back up to a vision (Causal Layered Analysis).
- Have you worked out what actions and resources you’ll need to bridge the gap from now, across turbulent seas of change, to the island of your vision (Backcasting)? Have you tested those actions and resources against the alternative futures you might face on the way to achieving your vision (Windtunneling)? Have you identified who will support you and who will oppose you in creating change (Influence / Stakeholder Mapping)?
Do you feel comfortable using those tools? choosing the right tool for your issue? can you imagine how to layer Verge and 2X2 scenario building? or combine Causal Layered Analysis with Three Horizons? Assembling a core kit of futures tools that you feel comfortable using is the first step towards futures fluency. Together with my colleague Victoria Ward, we recently took a group of international policy advisors and national civil servants through a three-day tour of the futures toolbox, allowing them to assess by experiential engagement exactly which tools they thought would work best for them. Even outsourced futures work is greatly improved by starting out as an informed consumer.
If you want help stocking your toolkit, just ask.