Futures thinking is the practice of thinking about the future in a structured way, and the methods and approaches that are used to do so. As a formal discipline, it is around a century old and has evolved during this time. Right now however, it is experiencing a transition: moving away from its traditional roots in academia, big business, consulting, and government foresight, towards a more participatory practice. But why is this important and what can we do to encourage this democratisation of thinking about the future?
Traditionally, Futures Studies (or Futurology) described the professional practice of studying past and present socio-economic patterns to anticipate the future. This activity was valuable to organisations and governments that were concerned with making their mark on the future by taking risks and making large investments — unfortunately however, these investments often sought to fulfil the ideologies of powerful organisations with little consideration for the affected societies.
Here are some historical examples, some of which not commonly referenced:
- In the 1930s, the Nazi Party used future visioning methods to sell their long-term fascist ideology as the short-term Volksgemeinschaft utopia (“the people’s community”), of unity across class divides. The German people’s support for a socialist transformation was then strategically manipulated to support the extreme racial vision of the Party leaders.
- Following the second world war, the RAND corporation used principles from Futures Studies to build long-term strategies for weapons development, initially to prevent catastrophic atomic war but also in support of smaller-scale, longer-term intercontinental warfare.
- And in post-Stalin Soviet Russia, Futures approaches were used by some leaders to propose plans to transform natural ecological systems, such as draining the Mediterranean sea and redirecting the Gulf stream to alter climates in the far East.
Looking back further, we can see futures thinking methods within transformative philosophy and fiction, with classic influencers from Plato to H.G. Wells using illustrations of alternative futures to propose social prophecies through visions of dystopia and utopia.
These examples of futures methods have a few things in common:
- They all exist within sectors of power and wealth: deployed by those that influence governance, national planning, and global relations. Future illustrations, or socio-economic ‘blueprints’ in these contexts, were both designed by and for those in positions of power.
- The people they consider to be futurists are male, extremely authoritative, and urban-centric (there are of course rare exceptions from this era, such as Ayn Rand).
- The futures they illustrate reflect only the views of the illustrators. As such, future visions rarely include the perspectives of the public, let alone marginalised groups, and rather reflect the interests of a few large organisations or influential individuals.
Admittedly, I have chosen instances from the extreme edge of the practice’s history to make these points. Yet still, modern examples of organisations that can afford to invest in futures thinking are typically at the cutting edge of new technologies, or are incumbents intent on protecting themselves against disruption. While they use futures thinking to guide the development of new products and services that might ultimately shape the lives of their audiences, they remain tied to a capitalist system and therefore the perpetual success of their own business. As such, their objectives remain internal; the futures they create are designed by individuals who share the organisation’s priority for commercial success, i.e. profit…
The problem with this situation, is that when conversations about the future are driven predominantly by those people and organisations that already hold the majority of power, then proposed future visions continue to consist of only their perspectives, values, and ambitions. As Rose Eveleth explains in her article ‘Why aren’t there more Women Futurists?,’ the lack of representation from marginalised groups within futures thinking leads to the creation of futures that don’t suit their needs. Regrettably, for some large organisations this results in ‘cutting-edge’ technologies that fall short, such as Apple’s ‘empowering’ health app that forgot to consider menstrual tracking. Of course this is not just a problem for women… all marginalised and diverse voices must have a place in our thinking about the future, that is if we want to create futures that de-marginalise.
Thankfully, human-centredness in design has become more commercially viable; increasingly popularised by large design companies who seek to educate their clients on the importance of corporate responsibility, social impact, and customer needs. And in recent years, designers have started to assimilate futures thinking into these emerging human-centred and participatory approaches. They do not concern themselves with predictions of the future, but rather seek to collaboratively explore various future possibilities. Theirs is a methodology that questions the ways we should live in society and how we might shape the future to better suit diverse human needs, in order to inform the decisions that we make now.
The needs of people are brought into these future explorations not only through consideration, but by inviting real participants into the process. Commonly, this takes the form of workshops, research events, and interactive exhibitions. So, no longer does futures thinking need to take place in isolation, driven by the “experts”; public audiences are beginning to participate in the creation of future possibilities.
Examples of these approaches however, remain few and far between; quietly pioneered by boutique design and strategy consultancies and in-house innovation teams. This new move towards de-privileging the future isn’t taking off as fast as it could be. Its scope is narrow. Public sector innovation foundation, Nesta, confirms that this kind of meaningful participation is expensive and time-consuming. Participation is not always valued as it should be and practitioners often lack the know-how to facilitate participatory engagements. So how do we overcome these challenges?
One step towards de-privileging the exploration and creation of new futures might be to diversify the scales and shapes of organisations that have access to futures thinking. This may seem like a momentous task, and surely it is, but there are some small acts that we can do now to ensure we are stepping in the right direction. Here are some thoughts on how this might be done (by designers, futures thinkers, and hopefully organisations):
- Futures Thinking as a Mindset, not a Method
Build a futures thinking mindset into our psyche. Instead of using futures thinking as a method to be deployed during design and innovation processes, embed it as a mindset into the ways that we work. At all stages of our creative processes, consider alternative possibilities and their consequences. If you are interested in delving deeper into the details and principles of how to implement this, check these supporting articles by myself and Santini Basra, and Will Brown.
- Open and Flexible Processes
Don’t just focus on the delivery of projects and outputs — invite collaborators and non-futures thinkers/designers into your process. Build in some time for knowledge exchange and try to leave behind new skills by sharing your methods. This not only encourages a futures-oriented mindset within your client organisations, but it opens the door to more experimental and collaborative projects with them. Present ‘futures’ as a verb, an activity that we can all take part in; rather than a noun, a classification of practice that only experts can claim.
- Participatory Futures Thinking
Beyond our collaborators, let’s bring in the “user” — I don’t particularly like this word, but it has become a universal term to describe the people who we design for and with (and let’s not forget our future/potential “users”: those who haven’t yet come into contact with the systems, services, and products that might be of benefit to them in the future).
When we do explore various future possibilities, remember to consider marginalised groups and the individuals that we don’t regularly interact with. Or better still, host diverse research activities (workshops, interviews, and discussion groups) during the process to invite as many voices as possible into future-making. Let them meet each other too, and support the sharing of perspectives. Participatory futures thinking has already entered public sector debates, with some investigating its potential role within national models of democracy and planning — can it be used as a new tool for Government innovation?
- Translate Futures into Common Language
Remove exclusivity from the future possibilities we discuss by avoiding consultancy-speak and academic language. Work towards accessible tools and concepts too. For example, the popular futures method ‘causal layered analysis’ uses terms such as ‘litany’, ‘structure’, and ‘discourse’. But we can transform this method into a participatory activity by replacing such terms with direct questions, like ‘what’s happening in the news right now?’ and ‘where has this value come from?’ Essentially, we can make it easier for our collaborators and participants to get involved in the futures thinking process by considering how we present the discipline and how we build our tools and methods.
Thinking about the future should be a free, liberating, and open activity that organisations can use to create offerings that are more resilient and considerate of their audiences. If you are an individual or organisation that would like to learn more about how to achieve this, please get in touch.