Study of current trends in order to forecast future developments. The field originated in the “technological forecasting” developed near the end of World War II and in studies examining the consequences of nuclear conflict. Studies in the 1960s sought to anticipate future social patterns and needs. The Limits of Growth by Dennis Meadows, et al. (1972), focused on global socioeconomic trends, projecting a Malthusian vision in which the collapse of the world order would result if population growth, industrial expansion, pollution, food production, and natural-resource use continued at current rates. Later reports reiterated many of these concerns, with critics contending that futurologists' models were flawed and futurologists responding that their analytic techniques were becoming increasingly sophisticated. Other notable works include Alvin Toffler's Future Shock (1970), Daniel Bell's The Coming of Post-Industrial Society (1973), Jonathan Schell's The Fate of the Earth (1982), and Nigel Calder's The Green Machines (1986).
Learn more about futurology with a free trial on Britannica.com.
Foresight may be the oldest term for the field. In a 1932 BBC broadcast the visionary author H.G. Wells called for the establishment of "Departments and Professors of Foresight," presaging the development of modern academic futures studies by approximately 40 years. Futurology is a term common in encyclopedias, though it used almost exclusively by nonpractitioners today, at least in the English-speaking world. Futurology is defined as the "study of the future. The term was coined by German professor Ossip K. Flechtheim in the mid-1940s, who proposed it as a new branch of knowledge that would include a new science of probability. This term may have fallen from favor in recent decades because modern practitioners stress the importance of alternative and plural futures, rather than one monolithic future, and the limitations of prediction and probability, versus the creation of possible and preferable futures.
Three factors usually distinguish futures studies from the research conducted by other disciplines (although all disciplines overlap, to differing degrees). First, futures studies often examines not only possible but also probable, preferable, and "wild card" futures. Second, futures studies typically attempts to gain a holistic or systemic view based on insights from a range of different disciplines. Third, futures studies challenges and unpacks the assumptions behind dominant and contending views of the future. The future thus is not empty but fraught with hidden assumptions.
Futures studies does not generally include the work of economists who forecast movements of interest rates over the next business cycle, or of managers or investors with short-term time horizons. Most strategic planning, which develops operational plans for preferred futures with time horizons of one to three years, is also not considered futures. But plans and strategies with longer time horizons that specifically attempt to anticipate and be robust to possible future events, are part of a major subdiscipline of futures studies called strategic foresight.
The futures field also excludes those who make future predictions through professed supernatural means. At the same time, it does seek to understand the models such groups use and the interpretations they give to these models.
Some aspects of predicting the future, such as celestial mechanics, have been discovered to be highly statistically predictable, and may even be described by relatively simple mathematical models. At present however, science has yielded only a special minority of such "easy to predict" physical processes. Theories such as chaos theory, nonlinear science and standard evolutionary theory have allowed us to understand many complex systems as contingent (sensitively dependent on complex environmental conditions) and stochastic (random within constraints), making the vast majority of future events unpredictable, in any specific case. Nevertheless a number of stochastic systems (such as biological development, weather patterns, and aggregate social behaviors) also show simple, regular, and quite statistically predictable dynamics, on average, over particular time horizons and environmental conditions, in ways that can be falsifiably tested by simulation and experiment.
Not surprisingly, the tension between predictability and unpredictability is a source of controversy and conflict among futures studies scholars and practitioners. Some argue that the future is essentially unpredictable, and that "the best way to predict the future is to create it." Others believe, as Flechtheim, that advances in science, probability, modeling and statistics will allow us to continue to improve our understanding of probable futures, while this area presently remains less well developed than methods for exploring possible and preferable futures.
As an example, consider the process of electing the president of the United States. At one level we observe that any U.S. citizen over 35 may run for president, so this process may appear too unconstrained for useful prediction. Yet further investigation demonstrates that only certain public individuals (current and former presidents and vice presidents, senators, state governors, popular military commanders, mayors of very large cities, etc.) receive the appropriate "social credentials" that are historical prerequisites for election. Thus with a minimum of effort at formulating the problem for statistical prediction, a much reduced pool of candidates can be described, improving our probabilistic foresight. Applying further statistical intelligence to this problem, we can observe that in certain election prediction markets such as the Iowa Electronic Markets, reliable forecasts have been generated over long spans of time and conditions, with results superior to individual experts or polls. Such markets, which may be operated publicly or as an internal market, are just one of several promising frontiers in predictive futures research.
Futures practitioners use a wide range of models and methods (theory and practice), many of which come from other academic disciplines (including economics, sociology, geography, history, engineering, mathematics, psychology, technology, tourism, physics, biology, astronomy, and aspects of theology (specifically, the range of future beliefs)).
Future Studies takes as one of its important attributes (epistemological starting points) the on-going effort to analyze images of the future. This effort includes collecting quantitative and qualitative data about the possibility, probability, and desirability of change. The plurality of the term "futures" in futurology denotes the rich variety of images of the future (alternative futures), including the subset of preferable futures (normative futures), that can be studied.
Practitioners of the discipline previously concentrated on extrapolating present technological, economic or social trends, or on attempting to predict future trends, but more recently they have started to examine social systems and uncertainties and to build scenarios, question the worldviews behind such scenarios via the causal layered analysis method (and others) create preferred visions of the future, and use backcasting to derive alternative implementation strategies. Apart from extrapolation and scenarios, many dozens of methods and techniques are used in futures research (see below).
Future Studies also includes normative or preferred futures, but a major contribution involves connecting both extrapolated (exploratory) and normative research to help individuals and organisations to build better social futures amid a (presumed) landscape of shifting social changes. Practitioners use varying proportions of inspiration and research. Futures studies only rarely uses the scientific method in the sense of controlled, repeatable and falsifiable experiments with highly standardized methodologies, given that environmental conditions for repeating a predictive scheme are usually quite hard to control for. However, many futurists are informed by scientific techniques. Some historians project patterns observed in past civilizations upon present-day society to anticipate what will happen in the future. Oswald Spengler's "Decline of the West" argued, for instance, that western society, like imperial Rome, had reached a stage of cultural maturity that would inexorably lead to decline, in measurable ways.
Future Studies is often summarized as being concerned with "three P's and a W," or possible, probable, and preferable futures, plus wildcards, which are low probability but high impact events (positive or negative), should they occur. Many futurists, however, do not use the wild card approach. Rather, they use a methodology called Emerging Issues Analysis. It searches for the seeds of change, issues that are likely to move from unknown to the known, from low impact to high impact.
Estimates of probability are involved with two of the four central concerns of foresight professionals (discerning and classifying both probable and wildcard events), while considering the range of possible futures, recognizing the plurality of existing images of the future (alternative futures), characterizing and attempting to resolve normative disagreements on the future, and envisioning and creating preferred futures are other major areas of scholarship. Most estimates of probability in futurology are normative and qualitative, though significant progress on statistical and quantitative methods (technology and information growth curves, cliometrics, predictive psychology, prediction markets, etc.) has been made in recent decades.
While forecasting -- i.e., attempts to predict future states from current trends -- is a common methodology, professional scenarios often rely on "backcasting" -- i.e., asking what changes in the present would be required to arrive at envisioned alternative future states. For example, the Policy Reform and Eco-Communalism scenarios developed by the Global Scenario Group rely on the backcasting method. Practitioners of futures studies classify themselves as futurists (or foresight practitioners).
Futurists use a diverse range of forecasting methods including:
Sample predicted futures range from predicted ecological catastrophes, through a utopian future where the poorest human being lives in what present-day observers would regard as wealth and comfort, through the transformation of humanity into a posthuman life-form, to the destruction of all life on Earth in, say, a nanotechnological disaster.
Futurists have a decidedly mixed reputation and a patchy track record at successful prediction. For reasons of convenience, they often extrapolate present technical and societal trends and assume they will develop at the same rate into the future; but technical progress and social upheavals, in reality, take place in fits and starts and in different areas at different rates.
Many 1950s futurists predicted commonplace space tourism by the year 2000, but ignored the possibilities of ubiquitous, cheap computers, while Marxist expectations of utopia have failed to materialise to date. On the other hand, many forecasts have portrayed the future with some degree of accuracy. Current futurists often present multiple scenarios that help their audience envision what "may" occur instead of merely "predicting the future". They claim that understanding potential scenarios helps individuals and organizations prepare with flexibility.
Many corporations use futurists as part of their risk management strategy, for horizon scanning and emerging issues analysis, and to identify wild cards - low probability, potentially high-impact risks. Every successful and unsuccessful business engages in futuring to some degree - for example in research and development, innovation and market research, anticipating competitor behavior and so on.
In futures research "weak signals" may be understood as advanced, noisy and socially situated indicators of change in trends and systems that constitute raw informational material for enabling anticipatory action. There is confusion about the definition of weak signal by various researchers and consultants. Sometimes it is referred as future oriented information, sometimes more like emerging issues. Elina Hiltunen (2007), in her new concept the future sign has tried to clarify the confusion about the weak signal definitions, by combining signal, issue and interpretation to the future sign, which more holistically describes the change.
There are some tools for utilizing weak signals in organizational environment. One tool is called Strategy Signals, which aims to collect weak signals inside of organization. The tool is developed by the Finnish company Fountain Park.
Another tool for using weak signals in organizations is called the Futures Windows, in which images of weak signals are shown in organization facilities. All the employees in the organization can send their images about weak signals to this tool. The purpose of that tool is to disseminate weak signals in organizations easily and increase futures thinking and innovating in the organization.
"Wild cards" refer to low-probability and high-impact events. This concept may be embedded in standard foresight projects and introduced into anticipatory decision-making activity in order to increase the ability of social groups adapt to surprises arising in turbulent business environments. Such sudden and unique incidents might constitute turning points in the evolution of a certain trend or system. Wild cards may or may not be announced by weak signals, which are incomplete and fragmented data from which relevant foresight information might be inferred. Sometimes, mistakenly, wild cards and weak signals are considered as synonyms, which they are not.
Some of these predictions come true as the year unfolds, though many fail. When predicted events fail to take place, the authors of the predictions often state that misinterpretation of the "signs" and portents may explain the failure of the prediction.
Marketers have increasingly started to embrace future studies, in an effort to benefit from an increasingly competitive marketplace with fast production cycles, using such techniques as trendspotting as popularized by Faith Popcorn.
Some intellectual foundations of future studies appeared in the mid-19th century. In 1997, Wendell Bell suggested that Comte's discussion of the metapatterns of social change presages future studies as a scholarly dialogue.. Johan Galtung and Sohail Inayatullah go further back arguing in Macrohistory and Macrohistorians that the search for grand patterns of social change takes us back to Ssu-Ma Chien (145-90BC) and his theory of the cycles of virtue, though a more intelligible - to modern sociology - would be the work of Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) and his The Muqaddimah It is here that we gain a coherent theory of social change. One might make a stronger argument that futurology as a field originated in the early 20th century, intertwined with the birth of systems science in academia, and with the idea of national economic and political planning, most notably in France, the Soviet Union and Eastern bloc countries.
The emergence of future studies as an academic discipline, however, happened after World War II. Differing approaches arose in Western Europe (mostly in France), in Eastern Europe (including the Soviet Union), in the post-colonial developing countries, and in the United States of America. In the 1950s European people and nations continued to rebuild their war-devastated continent. In the process, academics, philosophers, writers, and artists explored what might constitute a long-term positive future for humanity as a whole, and for their own countries in particular. The Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc countries participated in the European rebuilding, but did so in the context of an established national economic planning process, which also required a long-term, systemic statement of social goals. The newly-independent developing countries of Africa and Asia faced the challenge of constructing industrial infrastructure from a minimal base, as well as constructing national identities with concomitant long-term social goals. By contrast, in the United States of America, futurology as a discipline emerged from the successful application of the tools and perspectives of systems analysis, especially with regard to quartermastering the war-effort.
There is a perceived schism - though given the globalization of knowledge, generally no longer relevant - between future studies in America and future studies in Europe: U.S. practitioners often seem to focus on applied projects, quantitative tools and systems analysis, whereas Europeans seem to investigate the long-range future of humanity and the Earth, what might constitute that future, what symbols and semantics might express it, and who might articulate these. With regard to future studies within the former centrally-planned economies, or within the newly-developing countries, differences with U.S. futures practice exist primarily because futures researchers in the United States have no opportunity to engage in national planning, nor do their fellow-citizens call upon them to construct national symbols.
By the late 1960s, enough scholars, philosophers, writers and artists around the world had begun to question and explore possible long-range futures for humanity to form an international dialogue. Inventors such as Buckminster Fuller also began highlighting the effect technology might have on global trends as time progressed. This discussion on the intersection of population growth, resource availability and use, economic growth, quality of life, and environmental sustainability — referred to as the "global problematique" — came to wide public attention with the publication of Limits to Growth, a study sponsored by the Club of Rome. This international dialogue became institutionalized in the form of the World Futures Studies Federation (WFSF), founded in 1967, with the noted sociologist, Johan Galtung, serving as its first president. In the United States, the publisher Edward Cornish, concerned with these issues, started the World Future Society, an organization focused more on interested laypeople.
The field currently faces the great challenge of creating a coherent conceptual framework, codified into a well-documented curriculum (or curricula) featuring widely-accepted and consistent concepts and theoretical paradigms linked to quantitative and qualitative methods, exemplars of those research methods, and guidelines for their ethical and appropriate application within society. As an indication that previously disparate intellectual dialogues have in fact started converging into a recognizable discipline, at least six solidly-researched and well-accepted first attempts to synthesize a coherent framework for the field have appeared: Eleonora Masini's Why Futures Studies, James Dator's Advancing Futures Studies, Ziauddin Sardar's Rescuing all of our Futures, Sohail Inayatullah's Questioning the future, Richard A. Slaughter's The Knowledge Base of Futures Studies, a collection of essays by senior practitioners, and Wendell Bell's two-volume work, The Foundations of Futures Studies.
Thorough documentation of the history of futures education exists, for example in the work of Richard A. Slaughter (2004).
While future studies remains a relatively new academic tradition, numerous tertiary institutions around the world teach it. These vary from small programs, or universities with just one or two classes, to programs that incorporate futurology into other degrees, (for example in planning, business, environmental studies, economics, development studies, science and technology studies). Various formal Masters-level programs exist on six continents. Finally, doctoral dissertations around the world have incorporated futurology. A recent survey documented approximately 50 cases of futures studies at the tertiary level.
The largest Futures Studies program in the world is at Tamkang University, Taiwan. Futures Studies is a required course at the undergraduate level, with between three to five thousand students taking classes on an annual basis. Housed in the Graduate Institute of Futures Studies is an MA Program. Only ten students are accepted annually in the program. Associated with the program is the Journal of Futures Studies. The founder of the program is Clement Chang.
As of 2003, over 40 tertiary education establishments around the world were delivering one or more courses in futures studies. The World Futures Studies Federation has a comprehensive survey of global futures programs and courses. The Acceleration Studies Foundation maintains an annotated list of primary and secondary graduate future studies programs.
Several authors have become recognized as futurists. They research trends (particularly in technology) and write accounts of their observations, conclusions, and predictions. In earlier eras, many of the futurists were attached to academic institutions. For example John McHale, the futurist who wrote the book The Future of the Future, and published a Futures Directory, directed his own Centre For Integrative Studies which was a Think Tank within the university setting. Other early era futurists followed a cycle of publishing their conclusions and then beginning research on the next book. More recently they have started consulting groups or earn money as speakers. Alvin Toffler, John Naisbitt and Patrick Dixon exemplify this class.
Many business gurus present themselves as pragmatic futurists rather than as theoretical futurists. One prominent international "business futurist", Frank Feather, coined the phrase "Thinking Globally, Acting Locally" in 1979.
Some futurists share features in common with the writers of science fiction, and indeed some science-fiction writers, such as Arthur C. Clarke, have acquired a certain reputation as futurists. Some writers, though, show less interest in technological or social developments and use the future only as a backdrop to their stories. For example, in the introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin wrote of prediction as the business of prophets, clairvoyants, and futurists, not of writers: "a novelist's business is lying".
A study (The study consisted of 108 entries; 78 were men and 30 were women. Those from OECD nations accounted for 75 entries and non-OECD 33 entries) on what futurists think found the following shared assumptions. The shared assumptions were:
1. We are in the midst of a historical transformation. Current times are not just part of normal history.
2. Multiple perspectives are at the very heart of futures studies. Multiple methods, finding ways out of the box of conventional thinking, internal critique, cross-civilisational conversations, are among the ways they are expressed.
3. Creation of alternatives. Futurists do not see themselves as merely value-free forecasters but as creators of alternative futures.
4. Participatory futures. Futurists generally see their role as liberating the future in each person. Creating enhanced public ownership of the future. This is true worldwide, for the African or European futurist.
5. Long term policy transformation. While some are more policy oriented than others, almost all believe that the work of the futurist is to shape public policy so it consciously and explicitly takes into account the long term.
6. Part of the process of creating alternative futures and of influencing public (corporate, or international) policy is internal transformation. There was no divide between institutional and inner transformation that one so often notices at international meetings. Futurists saw structural and individual factors as equally important.
7. Complexity. Futurists believe that a simple one-dimensional or single discipline orientation is not satisfactory. Trans-disciplinary approaches that take complexity seriously are necessary. Systems thinking, particularly in its evolutionary dimension, is also seen as crucial.
8. Futurists in general were motivated by a passion for change. They are not content merely to describe the world, or to accurately forecast it. They desire to play an active role in transforming the world, or playing a part in its transformation.
9. The significance of hope cannot be stressed enough as a pivotal force in creating a better future.
10. However, even with hope as a “strange attractor”, pragmatism is not lost sight of. Most believe they are pragmatists, living in this world, even as they imagine and work for another. Futurists understand that they are in a business or mission for the long term. Merely one article, book or vision does not make for transformation. Rather it is consistent effort over a life time that can help create a better world future generations.
11. Sustainability was a given. It almost didn’t need to be mentioned. Sustainable futures, understood as making decisions that do not reduce the options of future generations, that thus include the long term, the impact of policies on nature, gender and the other, appears to be the accepted paradigm. This is so for the corporate futurist and the NGO. Moreover, sustainability, in its green sense, appears to have been reconciled with the technological, spiritual and post-structural ideal of transformation. It is thus not a simplistic ideal of sustainability (ie, back to nature) but rather a paradigm that is inclusive of technological and cultural change.
Organisations too face additional new challenges including:
Greater prospects for global, national and local disruption and shock are increasingly in evidence. Forecasting models projecting past patterns can therefore no longer be relied upon to predict the future. Shaping the world we want to live in means being more aware of the future and seeking better approaches..
A new, more agile and resilience focused, approach is being led by smart, forward-thinking organisations. They have learned that searching for emerging trends, tipping points and weak signals is a vital intelligence tool to help them survive and thrive in an ever more competitive future.
What can be done? In a world where only uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity seems to be the norm these days organisations need wider global knowledge obtained from many more external sources and a new set of cognitive skills to determine their best future responses.
The following critical cognitive skills need to be mastered:
Organisations that inspire, engage and enable their people to use foresight through developing their strategic competencies can acquire and maintain a sustainable futures-orientated edge in their global marketplace(s).
Next practice Leading organisations use systematic, collaborative and strategic foresight capabilities to see what's coming next and respond ahead of the competitive curve. This guide serves as a documented description of how our clients, and others well known to us, achieve successful outcomes, avoid upcoming risk, innovate and thus create next practice through practical foresight.
Source: First chapter - 'Practical Foresight': www.shapingtomorrow.com
There is a large industry for trend intelligence surrounding fashion and design futures which include magazines like Viewpoint (published by prominent industry futurist David Shah) and online information portals like Mpdclick, wgsn.com and PSFK.com. Mpdclick, featuring prominent industry futurist Fiona Jenvey, is an online futures information service specifically for the fashion industry. Other examples are The Future Laboratory, a UK based fashion and design futures organization featuring prominent industry futurist Martin Raymond and the Copenhagen Institute for Futures Studies in Denmark which focuses on consumer trends.
Artists and conceptual designers, by contrast, may feel that consumer trends are a barrier to creativity. Many of these ‘Startists’ start micro trends but do not follow trends themselves.