Signals and drivers are two pillars of foresight practice at IFTF, yet many workshop attendees struggle to fully understand the two concepts and how they differ from one another. Understanding the distinct meanings and functions of these two terms as well as understanding the relationship between these two concepts is critical to building a strong forecast.

Signals are evidence of the future that we can find in today’s world. They are concrete, compelling observations about how the world is changing that give us a hint at where we might be headed. Think specific products, policies, events, experiences. The compelling element of signals should not be taken lightly; true signals incite a notable reaction, causing us to pause and think about the possibilities they represent. Strong signals are critical to generating strong forecasts as they allow futurists to provide grounded detail about new and unexpected experiences, behaviors, and values.

Drivers on the other hand, are broad long-term trends that are likely to have a significant impact on the future. Some examples of prominent drivers in today’s world include climate change, the aging of the world’s population, and the rise of disinformation / decrease in trust in government. At the Institute, we often use the STEEP (social, technological, environmental, economic, political) heuristic to gather and categorize drivers. Although drivers of change move at different scales and speeds, they are always overlapping as no single driver operates in a vacuum. For this reason, drivers operate across multiple industries and topics, as their impact will inevitably be felt in many different contexts. Drivers provide critical context for analyzing signals as they allow practitioners to understand both the context through which a signal came to be and the implications that a signal might have for the future.

Here are a couple of analogies collected from IFTFers that might be helpful for understanding these concepts:

  • Drivers are to signals as clouds are to raindrops. Clouds, like drivers, overlap and converge and precipitate raindrops/signals.
  • Drivers are to signals as diseases are to symptoms. Just as a symptom is a specific, observable result of disease, signals result from drivers and when observed, call our attention to the presence of the said drivers and how they might shape the future.
  • Drivers are to signals as a river is to a whirlpool. The river flows continuously while contributing to the conditions necessary for a particular vortex to form.

I hope that this writeup helps you better understand signals and drivers and distinguish between the two. However, the best way to solidify your comprehension of these terms is through active engagement. I encourage you to lean into your signal scanning practice and connect with your futurist communities to deepen your understanding of these concepts in order to leverage them most effectively in your foresight practice.


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