What is futures thinking all about?
“Futures thinking” is a complex thing with at least three answers to its nature.
There might be more angles to this, but here are the most frequent answers people look for, then they ask me what it is: A popular, a scientific, and a practical answer.
So, is there a good, a bad, and an ugly answer?
All the answers are valid, but the usefulness of the explanation differs vastly depending on the context and the relevancy of the topic to the person who asks.
Let’s unpack that.
By Erik Korsvik Østergaard
18h of September 2022
The popular answer
The popular answer: Futures thinking is … a way to foresee what will happen.
I think I have been asked hundreds of times over the past decade about the future of
“What’s the future of leadership?”
“What’s the role of HR in the future?”
“What skills are required as an employee in the next decade?”
I fully understand why we all look for those pointers and predictions. We need certainty in a world of uncertainty. We need some clear answers to foggy questions. We need to lean on to someone who seems to have a firm idea of where we’re going.
The challenge is that not all futurists like giving such popular answers, as they inhibit our wiggle room, do not allow for hesitation, and rob us of our imagination.
Even if you give (or receive) such answers, remember that they are filled with bias on both parties. Maybe the answer comes from a white, middle-aged male engineer, from a Nordic business world. And maybe the receiver of the answer has a similar bias. These answers can absolutely be useful, just remember that they are given (and received) in a certain context and with a “this is my world”-bias.
Your milage may vary. The answers, no matter how firm or clear it is, might not be that happens, in your ecosystem.
The scientific answer
The scientific answer: Futures thinking is … the study of anticipation and assumptions, to understand how we think about things that have not happened yet.
Thinking about the future has changed with the shifting needs of humans over the past +300,000 years, from “how might we get through winter” to “how fast should we populate Mars”, just to name a few thoughts on the spectrum.
Futures thinking and futures literacy has caught the interest of UNESCO too and is named as a “an essential competency in the 21st century”. “Futures Literacy [is] a universally accessible skill that builds on the innate human capacity to imagine the future”, UNESCO writes on their website.
This scientific field is emerging. As the complexity of our challenges and worlds increase, futures thinking is needed in schools, in businesses, in politics, and in society. Several universities invest time and money in this area and collaborate on shedding light on the different aspects. Futures thinking is of interest to the scientists in a changing world.
Using the future for better decisions in the present starts with understanding how we assume things, how we anticipate things, in what contexts it happens, and for what purpose.
The practical answer
The practical answer: Futures thinking is … a way to evaluate the trends and anomalies in your ecosystem to imagine and evaluate the scenarios of what might happen, so that you can invest time and money in the future you like.
This is an approach that has many methodologies and tools in it, and with many thinkers and doers that contribute to the party. You might have heard of signal sorting, trend spotting, scenario building, and backcasting. There are dozens of other tools that help us in exploring and evaluating the possible futures, and in emphasizing and nominating a future that we prefer.
This can for example happen as part of a strategic planning in a business, where key opinion leaders want to investigate the possibilities and keep nurturing the multitude of potential business ideas. Or as part of solving wicket problems in a society. Or to keep the ambition and aspiration of an organization live and dynamic, rather than focused on a single-threaded tactical execution, however relevant that even might be in some cases.
In this way, futures thinking is an approach to juggling options, rather than providing answers.
The good, the bad, and the ugly
Which if my three answers above is the “good” one? The “bad” one? The “ugly” one?
Well, you pair them up.
I think it depends on what your initial legacy is, and on that you want to use the answer for.
To me, futures thinking is FUN 😊
The Horizon Scanning Document on the Futures of Work
It’s called a ‘Horizon Scanning’ document because we scout into the horizon to see what developments and movements that are coming towards us.
We stand on our toes – or even a ladder – to get a glimpse of the anomalies and odd happenings, that might affect us.
The Horizon Scanning Document is used both as inspiration for your work, and as a concrete tool for Signal Sorting during the Futures Thinking process.
The document does not list the current trends but focuses on the signals that might lead to the next trends.