How to get started with Future studies research

I will assume you know what futures studies are. If you don’t, I recommend you give a quick read to my previous article on the subject.

Ok, so you understand what futures studies are, and are not. You know it’s a whole academic discipline, and that academic futurists are mainly interested in 20, 50 or even 100 years from now.

Keep in mind, according to Dr. Jim Dator:

“THE Future cannot be “predicted” (accurately foretold),
but Alternative FutureS can be “forecasted” (logically constructed),
and Preferred Futures “envisioned” and “invented” (on the basis of values and political action), on a continual basis (constantly scanning the horizon for new things).” — Dr. Jim Dator

Now the question is, how can I apply this to my life/career/company? How can I get started with alternative futures research from a non-academic point of view?

The concept is simple:

Alternative futures forecasting is based on understanding the driving forces of change.

The 3 Driving Forces of Change

According to professor Dator, there is a continuous fight between three forces: the push from the past, the pull from the future, and the friction of the present.

The Push From the Past

Many factors from the past act as a force that pushes our society (by society, I’m referring to humankind as a whole and our different societies) into the futures, such as:

  • Deep cultural myths, beliefs and practices such as cultural and religious traditions.
  • Old images of the future, such as mainstream science fiction works (I still want my hoverboard).
  • Deeply-ingrained, long-running trends such as climate change, resource utilization, population growth and aging.

These are the main drivers from the past. These represent our individual and collective belief systems and how we think the future will be.

The Pull From the Future

On the other side, many factors from the futures seem to entice and pull our society forward into the futures, such as:

  • Emerging issues, just beginning to be seen and felt, such as possible technologies, lifestyle-preferences, resources and environmental challenges, etc. It is important to note that these are emerging, and in a very early stage, with unestablished trends. Examples could be AR/VR in the technology field (if you are in the tech world you may think that this is already established, but for the bulk of society it’s not, yet — but it’s pulling), or working remotely and personal mobility as a lifestyle-preference (very tied also with next point).
  • New generations of humans with new behaviours and values. Think of how Millennials have triggered an explosion of reading material about our inclusion and impact in the workforce.
  • New images of the futures resulting from these new behaviours and emerging issues.

These drivers from the future challenge our status quo and our old visions of the future.

The Friction of the Present

The present always entails friction. Think about your comfort zone, but on a global scale: our collective comfort zone that wants to prevent our societies to change. These are factors such as:

  • The major entrenched institutions such as government, commerce, military, education, and religion, which enjoy their power and control over society.
  • All the people whose daily lives depend on those entrenched institutions. Do you think they will like substantial change? Most of them won’t, and will act to impede it. To be fair, some people will try either to cause the institutions to change, or to make new ones. But most will find leaving their comfort zone to be an unwelcome challenge, making it difficult to escape the friction of the present.

The Ongoing Fight

These three forces are always in a fight against each other — we are always under some sort of social and environmental change.

At some point, however, the pull and the push become too strong for friction to resist, and large social and environmental change happens, one that can establish a new normal (and hence will continue this process).

In our current world, technology is the major driver of change. With these technologies creating many new experiences for humans, the pull and push forces are especially strong.

Making Sense of All of It

Our research, therefore, needs to focus on:

  • Understanding what are the major novel, cyclical, and continuing factors of the three forces of change.
  • Understanding how to use them to move towards our preferred future.

A quote I love from professor Dator:

We need to identify and strive “to surf the tsunamis of change” rushing towards us from the futures. — Dr. Jim Dator

And don’t forget the second law of Dator:

Any useful idea about the Futures should appear to be ridiculous. — Dr. Jim Dator

In order to do that, we need to understand that society is shaped by biology, its environment, its culture (especially language), technology and human actions.

If any of those change, your behaviour will change, and so will your beliefs and values.

It only takes one moment of self-reflection to realize all the behaviours that are so ingrained in our lives now that weren’t ten years ago, such as an always-connected lifestyle and higher dependency on technology.

Remember my previous article?

We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us. — Marshall McLuhan

Here is your checklist

To recap, if you want to start using the principles of futures studies in your life, you can:

  1. Re-read the factors of the three driving forces of change (push, friction, and pull).
  2. Critically self-reflect on each factor of each force. What is your understanding of it (without doing external research)?
    For example, do you understand the behaviours of younger generations? On what do you base your knowledge? On the same articles everyone is reading? On properly done research by other people? On personal experience?
  3. After detecting your understanding gaps, close them through research. Talk to experts in the fields, read books, read published research if that’s what applies to your field. Don’t limit yourself to a single field, and seek controversial opinions. The more, the better.
  4. Now you have predicted the future! Enjoy! (if you don’t get the joke, read my previous article).
  5. Honestly, the next step is figuring out how these forces interweave in different alternative futures (next post will be on this), and using your understanding to influence them towards your preferred future.

If it sounds like a lot of work, that’s because it is. Remember at the beginning when I said the concept was simple? It is; but the implementation is not. That’s why futures studies is a whole academic discipline.

The takeaway is that, if you put some effort into it, futures studies can be extremely useful.

On a personal level, I already explained the huge impact it had in my career; you can experience the same in your own.

From a company point of view, this work should be mandatory. If you are postponing it, you are literally cutting your lifespan, and you may go out of business sooner than you expect. At function(core) we have accompanied many clients through this process.

Keep in mind that the timeline of the futures you research will depend on your topic. Some things live for a long time, or take a long time to develop, such as space ventures. Other things live for a very short life span, and ten years ahead may already be too far for them (think on all the rapid changes in the software world, how fast some companies rise and how fast they fall behind a new, shinier competitor).

What’s Next

We will talk about the four generic alternative futures to frame your futures research on. For now, I think you already have a lot of work!

Stay tuned!

You can follow me on twitter at @Oriol_GG

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