3.03. What do Futurists do?

What do Futurists do?

Students at the Hawaii Research Center for Futures Studies experiment with political sloganeering. Image thanks to John Sweeney.

Futurists use a range of tools and methods to generate forecasts of the future. Jim Dator of the Hawaii Research Center for Futures Studies says ‘Futures studies as an academic and as a consulting activity is based on the identification and analysis of images of the futures; theories of social stability and change; methods of social forecasting and design; the monitoring of continuing trends and the identification of emerging issues which might alter those trends or create new ones.’

Perhaps the definitive tool in the futurist’s kit, and the thing that distinguishes contemporary futurists from their historical predecessors, is the practice of generating multiple future scenarios.

Dator explains: ‘A forecast is intended to be a logical statement, a useful statement, about the futures. Futures thus are plural, alternative, diverse, possible… Thus we speak of possible “alternative futures” and not “THE future” as though it were a pre-existing entity “out there” waiting to be predicted.’

The futurists’ response to the impossible task of trying to anticipate the future is to generate a range of future scenarios, seeking to capture the spectrum of possibility and be prepared for whatever happens.

Futurists such as James A. Ogilvy argue that by adopting the ‘scenaric stance’ and holding multiple futures in view simultaneously, practitioners achieve a kind of emotional and intellectual maturity that is not available to either the simple optimist or the simple pessimist.

‘Yes, things could turn out badly. But, no, that is not in itself reason for inaction. Yes, things could turn out very well, but, no, that is not in itself reason for foolish bravado. By holding in mind several different futures at once, one is able to proceed deliberately yet flexibly; resolutely yet cautiously… He or she who sees no opportunities is blind. He or she who senses no threats is foolish. But he or she who sees both threats and opportunities shining forth in rich and vivid scenarios may just be able to make the choices and implement the plans that will take us to the high road and beyond.’

Although technically there is no limit to the hypothetical alternative futures we could imagine, in practice practitioners tend to limit their speculation to a few archetypal scenarios – typically, four: Continued Growth, Collapse, Discipline, and Transformation.

Jim Dator justifies this practice by saying, ‘Over the years, we have learned that all of the billions of images of the future that exist in the minds and actions of humans can be lumped into four “generic” images of the futures that serve as motivations for human individual and group behavior. Whenever we are asked, “so what is the future,” we reply, “there are four alternative futures.”

These four scenario archetypes are used by a majority of the world’s scientists; for instance, the International Panel on Climate Change’s report on the impacts of climate change depicts four possible future scenarios for the planet, depending on the rate of greenhouse gas emissions.

In practice, Futures Studies is a continuous process of forecasting alternative futures, envisioning preferred futures and identifying pathways to move toward them. Outside of academia, futurists are often employed by large corporations to look ahead and anticipate challenges and opportunities in the company’s medium to long-term future.

‘Futures studies is related to but different from planning and policy-making,’ argues Dator, ‘just as planning and policy-making are related to but different from day-to-day administration. Just as day-to-day administration should be guided by prior planning and policies, so also should planning and policies be guided by prior futures foresight activities.’