Futures Studies is a field of academic research and a consultancy activity. There have always been futurists among us, but the field as it is today has its origins in post-World War II strategic think-tanks. Over the last fifty years, it has grown to encompass a wide range of approaches and ideals.
Across the spectrum of Futures Studies, though, there is one core principle: the future cannot be predicted.
As futurist Stuart Candy puts it: ‘The future does not exist. The ultimate reason to engage in futures work, then, and especially to create scenarios — which are merely tools to help us think — is to enrich our perceptions and options in the evolving present. More concretely, of course, it is an instrument for mitigating risks and finding new opportunities.’
Futures studies is an active process of identifying trends, contemplating possibilities and sketching scenarios. It’s a complex and multi-faceted field that draws on history, earth system sciences, politics and sociology.
What futurists provide is not a prophetic timeline of the years to come, but a range of scenarios that embody the different directions our society might go in. Futurists offer a sense of the consequences of our decisions and actions.
The value of this practice is not in the accuracy of any given future scenario, but from having a range of them, showing us the likely extremes and bounding our expectations.
As futurist Daniel Bell wrote back in 1967, ‘What is central… to the present future studies is not an effort to ‘predict’ the future, as if this were some far-flung rug of time unrolling to some distant point, but the effort to sketch ‘alternative futures’ — in other words, the likely results of different choices, so that the polity can understand costs and consequences of different desires.’