If there's a single phrase that we at IFTF find ourselves saying more than any other, it’s this: Futures work is not about prediction. That’s because the goal of foresight isn't prophecy, but preparation; although we can't ever know for sure what tomorrow will look like, we can imagine a range of different tomorrows, and consider what needs to be done to survive and thrive in each.

To do that effectively, the range of our imagined tomorrows needs to stretch to the limit of what we think is credible…and slightly beyond. There's not much value in imagining a future that's too similar to the present, because doing so doesn't challenge us. Incremental futures tempt us with simply accepting the status quo, rather than forcing us to innovate — and if there's anything that recent events have shown us (war in Europe! Insurrection in Washington, DC! The overnight mainstreaming of AI!), it's that complacency presents greater strategic risks than planning for the wildest of scenarios.

That’s why the essence of foresight is provocation. Responsible futures work requires us to create scenarios that mark out an expansive, even extreme gamut of possibilities. From there, one can certainly decide to focus on more probable choices — but those radical, outer-limit futures allow you to hedge your bets against, say, the sudden onset of a global pandemic that freezes society, closes workplaces and schools, and causes supply chains to come grinding to a halt.

But being provocative doesn’t mean confabulating absurdities. Provocative futures are surprising, yet rigorous. They can be reverse engineered backward to arrive at our present. They obey the rules of the game that you’ve set — the timeframe, the impact area, the drivers, and key uncertainties you’ve chosen to focus on — but are pushed to the edge…and slightly beyond. They may make people laugh, or make them angry, or make them do a double-take — but they also grab and keep their attention.

DALL E 2023 04 14 11 56 45 an oil painting by Monet of a person walking on clouds next to green turtles

Fortunately, there are some tried and true methods that you can apply to forecasting to ensure that the futures you’re imagining are provocative. Here are a few to consider:

  • Introduce Randomness: Bring in a wild card that forces you to reconsider how your rules should be applied. A frequent device for the introduction of wild cards is, in fact, cards — future-building decks that allow you to deal out events, phenomena, or concepts that participants in your brainstorm must then incorporate into a forecast, pushing them out of the comfort of linear extrapolation.

  • Cross-Pollinate: Take multiple drivers and consider how they operate together. Smash two existing forecasts together and imagine what might happen if both of them occurred at once. Unexpected and interesting things always emerge at intersections.

  • Tip Over Dominoes: A butterfly’s wing can cause a tornado over time. Begin with a comfortable forecast, identify something that could disrupt it, and draw out consequences one after the other until it turns into something much less comfortable.

  • Say “Yes, And”: It’s the cardinal rule of improvisation — use what you’ve been given, and add something else on top. Send your forecast verbally around the room in a game of “futurist telephone,” with each participant adding a new layer of interpretation, nuance, or context to it — forcing it to evolve in the process.

  • Flip the Switch: The classic science fiction gambit: Take an aspect of the world that you know to be true, imagine it as untrue, and capture all of the implications that emerge. What if air were no longer free? What if computing power was?

  • Play It Backwards: Take your forecast, and look at its mirror image. What does it look like when everything about it is inverted and backwards? Is your reverse forecast more or less plausible than the original? Is there a provocative yet plausible forecast that emerges from that opposite-land reflection?

The results of these remixes might be ridiculous, and they might seem impossible. But just because something is ridiculous doesn’t mean it can’t be useful — and just because something is impossible doesn’t mean it has no lessons to teach. When in doubt, always remember that classic exchange between Alice and the White Queen in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass:

“Alice laughed. 'There's no use trying,' she said. 'One can't believe impossible things.'

‘I daresay you haven't had much practice,' said the Queen. 'When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

Don’t be Alice. Be the Queen

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