Futures Studies

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.’

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What do Futurists do?

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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.’

What is the value of Futures Studies?

So, are the tools and methods of futurists actually applicable to people outside of academia?

I can see several clear benefits to our adopting some of the practices of futures studies in our everyday lives.

  • We grant ourselves a richer and more mature perspective on our actions when we include the future perspective in our planning and decision-making.
  • By adopting the scenaric stance and anticipating and preparing for a range of possible futures, we are able to take a more proactive approach, instigating and driving change rather than waiting for it to come to us. As Candy says, ‘The future is not predictable, but it can in some ways be shaped. This is not a class in predicting change, it’s a crash course in participating in change, more mindfully and effectively.’
  • The act of envisioning what future scenarios might be possible in the coming years and decades, given where we are today, is a valuable imaginative act. By giving us a space to envision what kind of future we want, we can be aspirational rather than critical. Professor Steve Duncombe points out that, ‘These impossible dreams open up a space for democratic participation in the process of imagining the future, which also offers the possibility of escaping the tyranny of the present… for people to imagine, ‘why not?’, and ‘what if?”
  • Finally, there’s a measure of compassion that comes with asking ourselves the futures-informed question: Are we being good ancestors?

 

Experiential Futures

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99c Futures. From the Extrapolation Factory website.

While the tools and techniques of future studies have been adopted by many corporations and policy-makers over the last two decades, there has been very little engagement with the wider public. People are often unaware that futurists exist, let alone understand what it is they do. The result is an unfortunate disconnect, which separates the public from the valuable tools Futures Studies offers to help us think about and plan for the future.

In the last few years, a convergence of ideas and practice has led to the emergence of a new way of doing futures, one that sidesteps intellectual discussion in favour of provoking more emotional responses.

A diverse selection of visual art, films, theatre performances, digital games and artistic interventions has been gathered under the banner of ‘Experiential Futures’. The term, coined by futurist Stuart Candy and adopted by Bruce Sterling, Anab Jain and others, refers to the practice of embodying elements of hypothetical future scenarios through visual media, film, industrial design, theatre and gaming.

The last two years has seen an increase in this kind of practice, which seeks to ‘de-abstractify’ how the future might look using the tools and techniques of the arts.

From large-scale participatory theatre works involving thousands of participants, to corporate videos promoting as-yet-nonexistent technologies, to ‘future artifacts’ installed as guerilla artworks in urban spaces, the Experiential Futures label includes work in any creative medium.

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Procession for cyborg saint Santa Ste.la as part of the 2011 Lecturas de Cruce (‘Crossing Lectures’) on the US-Mexico border

The guiding principle connecting and underpinning these projects is the idea of manifesting some aspect of a hypothetical future in the present day. Rather than communicating ideas about the future verbally, practitioners seek to create an ‘experience’ of the future for their audiences / viewers / participants.

‘Given that future scenarios have no factual, “evidentiary” referents per se,’ says Stuart Candy, ‘Experiential scenarios and artifacts afford people the rudiments of a common vocabulary, a virtual shared experience, however basic, around which their contributions can cohere, and push off in discussion.’

From the futurist perspective, the intent behind these works is to prompt conversation or reflection around the idea of the future. The artistic intention, meanwhile, is to use Futures Studies ideas to generate works of art that are emotive and effective.

At its core, the practice of Experiential Futures is fundamentally inter-disciplinary. The artist needs the futurist’s insights and strategies of in order to meaningfully convey anything about the future. And the futurist needs the artist’s creative and design skills in order to convey those insights in an effective and accessible way.

One of the major challenges in creating an Experiential Futures work is to strike an effective balance between the ideas and the form. If the science is prioritised over the art, or vice versa, the work may end up either:

  • Aesthetically rich but analytically impoverished, OR
  • Intellectually rich but creatively uninteresting

The only way to negotiate those difficulties is to dive in and begin.

CASE STUDY: Hawaii 2050 / 2060

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Experiential Futures works have been produced since the 1970s, starting with The Great Hawaiian Jubilee, but one of the mot elaborate was the Hawaii 2050 event held in Honolulu in 2005.

Hawaiian state legislators approached the Hawaii Research Center for Futures Studies (HRCFS) about launching a broad-based public conversation around sustainability, focusing on the year 2050.

HRCFS staff Jim Dator, Stuart Candy and Jake Dunagan created a series of four experiential scenarios in different spaces throughout the recycled Dole Cannery. Each room was designed and staged with the help of a group of improvising performers to afford the participants (up to 150 at a time) a half-hour experience of a different version of Hawaii’s future. Stuart Candy described the event as ‘a sort of theatrical hybrid of theme park ride and role playing exercise.’

Each room depicted one of the four archetypal future scenarios described by the HRCFS: Growth, Collapse, Discipline and Transformation, and how it played out in the context of Honolulu in 2050.

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The Growth scenario depicted a live debate between two candidates for Governor of Hawaii in a future where corporations had been granted the rights of personhood. The Collapse room enacted an induction ceremony for climate refugees in a future where Hawaii is run by the military. In the Discipline scenario, economic collapse had been avoided by returning to a back-to-nature communitarian form of society, and the half-hour scenario depicted a Civic Education Center where Hawaiians learned traditional methods of subsisting from the land. Finally, the Transformation scenario took place in a private hospital which offered futuristic body modification options and genetic therapies.

Each of the 530 participants experienced two of the experiential scenarios, followed by facilitated discussions in small groups.

The purpose of the scenarios was to provide the participants with material to inform the discussions, shared reference points for the conversation. The response from participants surveyed after the workshop was extremely favourable, supporting the hypothesis that this kind of immersive experience stimulates both brain and body, leading to richer and more rewarding engagement with the subject.

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In his 2010 PhD dissertation, Stuart Candy described the Hawaii 2050 event as only a partial success. Although the popular response to the event was extremely positive, subsequent consultation activities retreated to a much more traditional – and in Candy’s assessment, less effective – form of futures visioning.

Nevertheless, the popularity of the Hawaii 2050 workshop prompted a state legislator to approach the Center in 2011 and asked them to create an experiential futures program for the state government looking at climate change.

Hawaii 2060 was a two-day event run jointly by the Hawaii Research Center for Futures Studies and facilitator Donna Ching. On the first day, the Center created four experiential futures scenarios along similar lines to the Hawaii 2050 event. On the second day, Donna Ching took over as facilitator and held a more traditional butchers-paper-and-pens type workshop, trying to identify preferred futures and pathways to achieve them.

This project resulted in a report which was submitted to the Hawaiian State Government and which led to a piece of legislation requiring all government program and state development projects to include a climate change mitigation strategy.

The success of the Hawaii 2060 event in effecting a change in the state’s legislation prompts interesting reflections on involving the government in these kinds of exercises. Was the legislative outcome the result of the adoption of an experiential futures approach? Or was the involvement of experiential futures practitioners the result of a particularly foresighted group of policy-makers? Either way, the event hints at the importance of policy-maker involvement in projects from an early stage.

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These images from the Hawaii 2050 event are from Stuart Candy’s blog – I highly recommend taking a look.

CASE STUDY: ZED.TO

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Large-scale trans-media futurism exercise ZED.TO was a nine-month project created by Toronto creative collective The Mission Business over 2012. Explicitly drawing on the principles of experiential futures articulated by the Hawaii Research Center for Futures Studies, The Mission Business used live-action and digital storytelling experiences to engage theatre audiences, game players, and the broader public in an exploration of what it might feel like to live in one possible future.

The central conceit of ZED.TO was the rise and fall of ByoLogyc, a fictional corporation whose synthetic biology and genetic engineering practices evoke the tensions and concerns currently arising from the commercialisation of research into viral therapies and subscription based personalised medicine.

Over the course of the nine month story, ByoLogyc releases a new personalised healthcare platform called ByoRenew — a “software update for your immune system” activated by ingesting a single pill. ByoRenew is sabotaged upon release by an activist organisation opposed to the corporation. The result is a lethal pandemic which quickly spreads beyond the corporation’s desperate attempts to control it.

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ZED.TO took place over four key live events throughout 2012, supported by an ongoing and diverse stream of online activity. Public involvement built over the course of 2012 until there were thousands of participants engaging across the spectrum of forms. Each of these ‘performance tentpoles’ mapped to one of the four future images articulated by Jim Dator and the HRCFS:

The first event (Continuation) was an invitation-only launch for the company’s new line of products held in a gallery, offered to a select group of VIPs.

The second event (Transformational), taking place as part of the Toronto Fringe Festival, offered audiences the chance to take part in ByoLogyc’s intern program, giving them tasks and responsibilities within the company and allowing them to sample the company’s products. This event also signaled the initial outbreak of the lethally mutated version of ByoRenew.

The third live event (Disciplined) took the form of an immunisation clinic open to the public during Toronto’s ‘Nuit Blanche’ event, illustrating the corporation’s efforts to contain the spread of the disease.

The final phase of the story (Collapse) was a ticketed performance event for 350 participants taking place in an abandoned brickworks outside the city, which represented the company’s final stand against the outbreak: a kind of corporate concentration camp for victims of the pandemic, defending itself against attacks by the paramilitary wing of the anarchist protest organisation.

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The core creative team of The Mission Business coordinated a huge range of creative collaborators and unfolded the story simultaneously through multiple mediums. The success and popularity of the work indicates the effectiveness of the trans-media form and the resonance of the themes.

It is significant that the Mission Business, consisting of artists from live performance and gaming backgrounds, explicitly adopted the strategic foresight methods advocated by futurists in the creation of the work. ZED.TO is perhaps the first major project where ideas from Futures Studies have been put into practice by professional artists, rather than by futurists adopting some artistic practices or creative collaborators.

In his research paper exploring ZED.TO, Mission Business member Trevor Haldenby examines the challenges of manifesting the work as both a rewarding performance experience and as a scientifically informed work of experiential futures. ‘During the production of ZED.TO, I struggled to find a way to transform game-like audience experiences into more rigorous and methodologically aligned research exercises. Sustainably integrating an entertainment experience and research practice is a tall order.’

Nevertheless, it is clear from the dialogue around ZED.TO (captured in online reviews, alternate-reality games forums and personal responses) that the work prompted numerous and thoughtful reflections on the future, and argues for the more central role of artists in constructing meaningful futures scenarios.

ZED.TO Live Event Details

CASE STUDY: FutureCoast

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The FutureCoast project, created by the PoLAR Partnership at Columbia University and funded by the US National Science Foundation, is a participatory storytelling game that adopts an Experiential Futures perspective.

The FutureCoast website contains a selection of audio recordings, purporting to be ‘voice mails’ recorded between 2020-2065, that have somehow made their way back in time and are audible now. Each message provides a small glimpse into the future it purports to be from, usually focusing on the impacts of climate change.

People are invited to upload their own voice mails to the FutureCoast website, contributing to the bulletin board-style aesthetic of the website.

The strength of large-scale participatory work such as this is that it offers a porous space for public engagement. It can be challenging, however, to curate and maintain a quality standard across this platform. Nevertheless, FutureCoast experienced a high uptake in both contributors and audiences.

CASE STUDY: Guerilla Futures

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A very different approach is advocated in the course summary for the University of Hawaii’s Underground Futures Studies degree*: ‘Guerilla Futures: systematically picture how alternative worlds could unfold; manifest your own visions playfully and compellingly in a range of media; and make these narratives available in the real world, via live urban interventions for unsuspecting audiences to encounter.’

The result of these Guerilla Futures projects often include street art referencing events that haven’t happened yet, installations in public spaces (often including ‘future artifacts’) and occasionally, monuments to future tragedies or achievements.

Along similar lines are the Blue Line Projects, which have been carried out in various cities around the world. The execution varies but the core idea is quite simple: a blue line is traced (using chalk, or paint, or tape, or sometimes projected) through the streets of the city, showing where sea level is expected to be by the end of the century if global warming continues.

Where they have sought city approval, these projects have often experienced severe backlash from real estate developers, property councils and other businesses who may suffer financially if waterfront properties are perceived to be less permanent. However, the simplicity of the project means that it can be carried out with virtually no resources and planning by community groups and activists.

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In one such example in Santa Barbara, where the property council’s aggressive reaction resulted in the community group being refused permission for the project, anonymous activists protested the decision by drawing the line anyway. The end result, thanks to the controversy and public debate, was that the population of Santa Barbara became significantly more aware of the implications of sea level rise for their city.

The immediacy of this kind of work for the viewer really captures some of the essence of the Experiential Futures tag. Though the nature of guerilla art means that most passers-by do not engage with it, those that do engage will experience these ideas in a very unusual context, and the simple fact of their surprise may stimulate them to reflect on and consider these ideas more thoughtfully than if they had read them in a book or seen them in a TV documentary.

*Now also, I’m pleased to see, being offered at OCAD University in Toronto, by none other than Stuart Candy.

CASE STUDY: 10,000 Year Clock

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The Long Now Foundation‘s 10,000 year clock is not an aspect of the future manifesting in the present, but it shares with Experiential Futures work an interest in encouraging people to reflect on the future.

The Long Now Foundation is dedicated to the task of making people think in longer timeframes than they are used to. The Foundation’s flagship project is the creation of a clock that ticks once a year, which will run for 10,000 years. The clock is currently under construction, and will be installed in a mountain in East Texas.

From the Foundation’s website: ‘Why would anyone build a Clock inside a mountain with the hope that it will ring for 10,000 years? Part of the answer: just so people will ask this question, and having asked it, prompt themselves to conjure with notions of generations and millennia. If you have a Clock ticking for 10,000 years what kinds of generational-scale questions and projects will it suggest? If a Clock can keep going for ten millennia, shouldn’t we make sure our civilization does as well?’

CASE STUDY: Reporting from the Future

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In 2008, political activists / mischief-makers the Yes Men carried out a major stunt, producing and distributing 1.2 million copies of a ‘special edition’ of the New York Times. The Yes Men’s alternative NY Times perfectly replicated the design and layout of the original, but with a telling edit to the Times’ motto, from ‘All the news that’s fit to print’ to ‘All the news we hope to print’.

The content of the fake NY Times was as aspirational as the Yes Men’s motto suggested: front page headlines included ‘Iraq War Ends’, ‘Ex-Secretary Apologises for WMD Scare’,  ‘Maximum Wage Law Succeeds’ and ‘Nation Sets Its Sights On Building Sane Economy’.

Along with the laudable attention to detail and the amount of planning evident in the stunt, one of the most interesting things about the NY Times Special Edition was when it happened. The special edition hit the streets on 12 November 2008, but the newspaper itself was dated 4 July 2009.

So the Yes Men were reporting from the future?

The NY Times Special Edition is a vivid example of a particular stream of Experiential Futures practice, in which news outlets briefly disconnect from their ongoing stream of updates from as-close-to-the-present-as-possible, and instead deliver a report from a moment somewhere in the future.

The Yes Men’s wildly aspirational, almost euphoric vision of 2009 made it clear that they were less concerned with making realistic future predictions than with prompting a call to action. Their dazzling alternative to the dismal futures currently being debated by politicians was at first glance absurd, but so richly detailed that readers couldn’t help asking themselves, ‘Why not?’

The other examples of newspapers reporting from the future come from cities that share a key trait with the Yes Men: an urgent need to imagine a better future, prompted by a disastrous situation in the present.

In 2013, two years after a massive earthquake devastated the city, Christchurch newspaper The Press produced an edition of the paper reporting from 2031. Articles covered New Zealand politics, city planning, the impacts of climate change, local Christchurch sports and arts, from the perspective of 20 years after the earthquake.

The aim of the exercise was to prompt Christchurch citizens to look beyond the recent disaster and to ‘Rally, protest, cheer, plant . . . do something that changes the future.’

Salon_de_the_facebook_4 Photo of Salon de Thé Facebook, Tunis, shared on Twitter by @WadhahJebri on February 16, 2011 and recirculated with the #16juin2014 hashtag.

But perhaps the most striking instance of this kind of future journalism took place in Tunisia in 2011. Following the Sidi Bouzid Revolt in January 2011 which ousted the president, the country experienced a national strike which halted economic activity, and the transition government swiftly lost the confidence and goodwill of the people.

A Tunisian ad agency, Memac Ogilvy Label Tunisia, embarked on a campaign to convince Tunisia’s media outlets to join together for one day to report the news from 2014, three years in the future.

‘We needed to find a way to encourage the people to get back to work and start rebuilding the country we had all fought for. … So we decided to show everyone how bright our future could be if we all started building it now. … During a whole day, the media acted as if it were June 16th 2014 and presented Tunisia as a prosperous, modern and democratic country. … The media content spread to social media via 16juin2014.com and people began to imagine wonderful futures and called everyone for action. #16juin2014 hashtag was n°1 top trend topic on Twitter all day long. At 6pm, the debate was everywhere on TV, radios, blogs… Getting back to work quickly became an act of resistance.’

When I visited the 16 Juin 2014 website (sadly no longer active), what struck me about the news being reported was how uneventful it was. The major news item was about a ‘shopping festival’, in the town of Kasserine, featuring appearances by several fashion VIPs. Compared with the ambitious targets set by the Yes Men in their headline stories, it seems slightly unambitious.

But then, given the turmoil that spread across the country just several months before these articles were written, perhaps ‘uneventful’ is ambitious enough.

presse-2 Front page of La Presse on February 16, 2011.

NOTE: I want to interject here briefly to mention that I adapted this case study into a longer stand-alone article on rhizome.org. The Rhizome piece benefited greatly from the editorial contribution of Michael Conor, and it digs a little deeper into some of the underlying issue around this kind of activism. If you’re interested, please check it out.