As a futurist I often get the question: What really is “futures thinking” and why should I care?
As someone with an engineering background, “futures thinking” or “foresight” is not something a lot of us are exposed to throughout our academic careers or even into our professional work. To many, it may seem like science fiction or simply made up stories, and to some degree they’re not wrong. We often find inspiration from the likes of science fiction authors William Gibson or Neal Stephenson. Although, I’d argue that the biggest difference between fiction and futures thinking is that for futures thinking to be valuable it has to be grounded in present-day facts that with synthesis, sensemaking, creativity, and visualization are put into plausible, provocative stories about possible futures that resonate and inspire us to act differently today.
You might wonder what these “present-day facts” are that help us create these stories. And I’ll take inspiration here from previously mentioned science fiction author William Gibson who said “the future is already here — it’s just not evenly distributed”. What Mr. Gibson is referring to here is what we would call “Signals of Change”. These are small and often local innovations that draw your attention to where new ideas, technologies, and habits of the future are being actively experimented with, tested, seeded, and invented today. Signals are new ways of doing things that differ from how the mainstream normally believes the world to function. Together with more quantitative data like trends and drivers (which would be defined as long-term underlying directions of change unlikely to change in the coming years), we have our building blocks for creating provocative stories about the future, or “forecasts”.
There are tested and proven frameworks and methodologies to help us create these stories, and then learn from them to make better decisions today. I want to be clear about the fact that we’re not trying to predict the future, there is not ONE true future to predict, rather we want to juxtapose multiple possibilities that we can learn from more systematically and imaginatively to help turn uncertainty into inspiration for action and increased resilience in the present. I’d also like to point out that “any useful statement about the future should at first seem ridiculous.” This quote by futurist Jim Dator points out that future-back thinking helps us think in ways that present-forward thinking often prohibits us from. It allows us to break free from the boundaries and noise of the present and really push our thinking into new places where we’re allowed to imagine new possibilities.
Being a futures thinker is not something that only applies to certain people. We’re all futurists — whether it’s planning for our own personal lives or participating in strategic decisions at our work — we should all feel like the future is something we have agency and responsibility to impact and change. As my colleague Jake Dunagan would say, it’s “better to be surprised by a simulation, rather than blindsided by reality”.
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