It’s more than ‘What’s Next?’

Futures Research — What is it and why does it matter?

Welcome to the Andthen Journal, a new channel by Andthen for sharing our perspectives, discussing new ideas, and outlining our approach towards future-focussed design strategy. In this first instalment we take a look at Futures Research — a discipline that underpins much of our approach—and, in broad strokes, discuss what it’s used for, why it’s useful, and what it looks like.

Predicting the future doesn’t really work.

Historically (and even widely today), much of Futures Research has been about ‘What’s Next?’, transforming the question, ‘How can we predict what’s going to happen, and therefore stay ahead of the curve?’, into a legitimate commercial practice. As a result, an assumption has been created that the only conversation about the future that matters is one about prediction. And another assumption has been built alongside that: that by examining the past closely enough, we can consistently make accurate predictions about what is going to happen in the future. The problem is, that time and time again we fail at this, especially when it comes to predicting changes around social behaviours, desires and needs. This failure can usually be attributed to one, or both, of the following problems.

Firstly, the presence of bias, ego, and personal interest. This tends to result in the dismissal of certain facts, or the obsession with others — think about the common tale of the big business who released a product that completely missed the point, or future predictions which were completely off the mark. I’m sure that many of you may have come across clickbait articles which are called something like ‘10 ridiculous / shocking / bad predictions made 50 years ago’, like this one, or this one. While perhaps seemingly trivial, these give a little insight into how bias can skew prediction. Some great examples include:

“The subscription model of buying music is bankrupt.”— Steve Jobs, in Rolling Stone, 2003
“Next Christmas the iPod will be gone, dead, finished, kaput.” — Alan Sugar, 2005

You get the point—overcoming bias is extremely difficult. We are all biased in some form or another, whether by our own personal viewpoints, or involuntarily by external services curating the content that we are served. Either way, it is important to understand that this bias can significantly distort our ability to accurately anticipate change.

Black Swans ruin everyone’s predictions…

The second big problem with prediction has actually been given its own name — the ‘Black Swan’. The term is used to describe rare, large-impact, hard-to-predict and discontinuous events—the kind of events that consistently pop up and ruin everyone’s predictions. From financial bubbles, through earthquakes, to unexpected Presidential nominations, the routine appearance of Black Swans ensures that our predictions are always disrupted.

In many cases, companies that have been banking too heavily on the accuracy of predictions have suffered costly repercussions in the instance that a nasty Black Swan rears its head (think Financial Crisis).

The Black Swan has inspired a series of variants…

‘What Next?’ isn’t the only useful question.

Futures Research has come on quite a bit over the years. The old approach of ‘let’s ask lots of experts what they think is going to happen’ is being replaced by a new school of thought. Now, organisations are realising that by anticipating change, and having a clear understanding of what positive change means to them, they can actively play a role in shaping future contexts and markets. Aligning ourselves with this latter approach, at Andthen we believe in a conversation about the future that is about exploration and possibility; where the future is not something we react to, but is instead a tool that empowers us to change things now. (If you want to be picky about the terminology, the prediction-led approach refers to ‘forecasting’, while this explorative, critical approach refers to ‘foresight’.)

The future is about changing things now

Here, we start moving past this vision of the capital-F ‘Future’—a physical place that exists at some moment in time—and instead start thinking about ‘futures’ — a non-fixed set of provocative ideas and ways of thinking about change. We also stop attempting to affirm the status quo, and instead start subverting it and encouraging proactive change. This happens through a shift in thinking within Internal Culture, married with a new approach to exploring Opportunity.

Internal Culture.
By formalising a clear vision of a company or product’s preferable role in the future, it becomes easier to establish a well-defined company culture, to mobilise a large workforce, cut across silos, and to move towards a common goal. Such a vision also contributes to an expanded understanding of the business environment, where people look to the ostensibly unrelated social, political, technological and economical systemic issues as source material.

The Futures Cone

The above diagram, The Futures Cone, is a model commonly used to frame discussion around futures. It outlines a spectrum of futures that could occur, ranging from the probable to the possible. While predictive Futures Research is only concerned with the central beam — that which is probable — explorative Futures Research looks beyond the central beam. It searches for the edge of possibility, creating a range of possible futures, and highlighting opportunity areas, danger areas and early warning signs. Such an approach overcomes what’s called ‘future myopia’ (shortsightedness), and helps an organisation to identify what type of future is ‘preferable’ (for themselves, or for others); it empowers them to make confident strategic and product decisions in order to get them there, while minimising risk along the way.

So what is it?
Futures Research is a way of understanding change. While it can take the form of a suite of tools and processes, all adaptable and context specific, there are some key attributes that are generally consistent across all applications.

  • It is concerned with systemic issues and not immediate problems;
  • It is concerned with exploratory and divergent thinking—its goal is not to consider an outcome or final product, but instead to give clues about why and where something needs to happen or exist;
  • It is not concerned with a final product; instead, its purpose is inspiration. This might be inspiration to make a product, fund a venture, or to work towards a goal.
  • It looks for clues about tomorrow in the fringes of what is happening today—using early adopters and extreme users as source material, Futures Research explores how fringe behaviour could bleed into the mainstream (see Protein for explicit examples of this);
  • It uses a healthy mix of empirical research and intuitive extrapolation to create future visions that are both provocative, and informed by events occurring today.

Ultimately, we advocate for a shift in Futures Research away from a reactive approach to change, towards an organisation proactively assuming a more formative role in its own future. Here, in broad strokes, we have covered why this matters, and what it looks like. In future Andthen Journal instalments, we will explore the how a little further, and delve into some of the finer points around the subject.

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