Futuring is the field of using a systematic process for thinking about, picturing possible outcomes, and planning for the future. Futurists are people who actively view the present world as a window on possible future outcomes. They watch trends and try to envision what might happen. Futuring has its roots in the post during the World War II era. Scientists, politicians, and academics began to consider ways of anticipating the future. This initial consideration led to a more cohesive and developed field of futuring in the mid-1960s. An association, the World Future Society, exists to provide a forum for further discussion and analysis.
Explorers often found themselves in situations where they had no idea what the future held for them. What was around the next bend, over the next mountain range, or across the next river was a complete unknown. They were forced to make decisions that were literally life and death. Futurists can look to these explorers for guidance. Edward Cornish, former president of the World Future Society, highlights seven lessons that can be learned: (1) prepare for what you will face in the future; (2) anticipate future needs; (3) use poor information when necessary; (4) expect the unexpected; (5) think long term as well as short term; (6) dream productively; and (7) learn from your predecessors.
A major instigator of forecasting the future is the incredible rate of change that is taking place. Technologically, culturally, and environmentally change is all around and moving at a very fast rate. Mankind has lived through the Agricultural, Industrial, and Cybernetic Revolutions. There will undoubtedly be another, if not several more, revolutions that will affect the planet. Futuring delves into this process of revolutions to attempt to forecast what might be the next one. Cornish discusses six current “super trends” that are dramatically affecting the present and the future.
- Technological Progress. Improvements in computers, medicine, transportation, communications, and other industries are all affected by technology.
- Economic Growth. Impacted by technological progress the improvement of people's economic well-being continues to steadily improve over time.
- Improving Health. Impacted by the aforementioned super trends—technological progress and economic growth—the average lifespan and overall health of the average person continues to improve over time.
- Increased Mobility. Technological progress, economic growth, and improving health combine to improve mobility of people and products, creating both advantages and disadvantages as the world shrinks.
- Environmental Decline. The scope of this progress and mobility and increasing population is impacting the earth with severe environmental issues that do not have a short-term solution.
- Increasing Deculturation. Mankind has had a wide variety of cultures and races; due to some of the above trends, these cultures are being erased by poverty, migration, and tourism.
FORCES THAT AFFECT THE FUTURE
Futurists must account for several powerful forces that impact future events and trends. These forces are systems, chance, and chaos.
Systems. Systems exist in most every setting. Relationships between people, the human body, and cities sewage and transportation services are all examples of systems. Actions that impact one part of the system can inevitably affect other parts of the system.
Chance. Chance events occur continuously. These events can shape future outcomes. Small actions or details can have a profound effect that can cause major worldwide events.
Chaos. Chaos is the idea that minor differences in something can have a profound effect on other things and then inevitably on the future. This means that there is always a wide array of possible outcomes; only extremely minor differences separate these possible outcomes from actually happening.
These three forces: systems, chance, and chaos, must all be considered at some level if a person is to try and forecast the future.
Futuring is accomplished by rather normal means of forecasting. There are four methods used in futuring to determine possible outcomes. These methods are: polling, gaming, modeling and simulation, and visioning.
Polling. Polling is a method that involves consulting with others, preferably experts, who are knowledgeable on the topic in question. It consists of a series of questions to elicit responses that are then collated to determine what
the overall perception of the group is. This is best performed when the participants cannot interact with each other and bias their answers.
Gaming. Another method of forecasting that is used by researchers, and especially by the government, is gaming. Gaming is a method of possible events where participants are placed in mock situations and are expected to make actual decisions based on the information and actions that are happening around them. Gaming possible events and situations with computer simulations is becoming more popular. Gaming assists with understanding how people will react in their roles and what possible outcomes of a given situation might be.
Modeling and Simulation. Modeling is a method used in forecasting future outcomes. Modeling generally involves computer processing of data to provide possible outcomes. Data for the relevant variables is entered into the computer with the model then run repetitively with minor variations to observe potential outcomes.
Visioning. Many futurists use the visioning method to not only forecast, but to encourage potential futures. Visioning involves discussing and creating preferred futures. The result of visioning is a plan of action for following through with the ideas that are generated.
The different methods of forecasting the future can be used in a variety of settings depending on the people and information available. Other methods that are also used in futuring are:
- Scanning —systematic survey of information sources focusing on trends
- Trend Analysis —in-depth look at a specific trend and all of its related issues and elements
- Trend Monitoring —continuous monitoring of important trends
- Trend Projection —using numerical data to project where a trend should eventually end up
- Brainstorming —generating new ideas by small group interaction
- Historical Analysis —using historical events to anticipate current developments
- Deja Viewing —reviewing the past to determine if anything similar has happened
- Bringing the Future to the Present —looking ahead to the future and painting a picture of what you want to happen
- Experience Hitchhiking —gaining experience by “hitchhiking” with people who have gone through similar experiences already
Scenarios are recognized as an effective method for forecasting the future. Scenarios are beneficial in forecasting because they deal with the uncertainty of a situation. Scenario creation focuses on identifying what might happen. This allows for analyzing the problem and determining what the consequences might be in light of the information available and in light of our own reactions to possible events. Futurists often use five different variations of scenario building: (1) Continuation —things will continue much as they are now; (2) Optimistic —things will get considerably better; (3) Pessimistic —things will get considerably worse; (4) Disaster —things will go terribly wrong; and (5) Miracle —things will go stunningly well.
Each scenario is then given a percentage of probability on the likelihood that it will happen. Cost for each scenario in effort or outcome is important to consider. Scenarios assist in clarifying thinking about issues so that better decisions can be made.
WORLD FUTURE SOCIETY PREDICTIONS
The World Future Society brings together experts from around the world to report on future directions in their areas of expertise. The November 2007 issue of The Futurist contained the WFS's top predictions for the future. A sampling of the trends is provided here:
- The world will have 1 billion millionaires by 2025. Technology and globalization will drive this prosperity, but the world's newfound wealth will also cause problems like water shortages.
- Commerce will become cashless. As technology becomes more accessible, there will be more frequent counterfeiting attempts, pushing society toward cash-free commerce. All transactions will be processed instantaneously and “grace periods” will no longer exist.
- The U.S. federal deficit will worsen. America's fiscal imbalance will become even worse if federal spending continues along its current trend. In twenty years, the deficit will become unsustainable and reach more than 10 percent of the economy.
- The world population will reach 9.2 billion people by 2050. Previous estimates of population growth have been adjusted due to increased longevity in richer countries and slower than expected decreases in fertility in developing countries. At the same time, infant mortality rates may rise due to HIV/AIDS and other issues.
- Water shortages will be a continuing problem for much of the world. Implications of this include: (1) the growth of famine and desertification in developing areas of the world; (2) water wars are possible in certain areas of the world; and (3) water impurities will become a growing problem.
- A major species will become extinct. As a result of overpopulation, increased resource consumption, and environmental destruction, the earth will experience a species extinction event 100 to 1,000 times greater than any experienced since the dawn of humanity.
- The United States will experience an osteoporosis epidemic. Currently 34 million Americans have a condition that is considered a precursor to osteoporosis, a number that is projected to grow to 47 million by 2020.
- Generation X and Y will be far more likely to choose the wrong career path than their predecessors. This effect will be caused by unrealistic expectations about a particular career.
- Privacy as we know it will disappear. As a result of the increase in cyber-exhibitionism as well as new surveillance technology, privacy will become a thing of the past.
Futurists are aware that random events can happen that can change the best forecasting; therefore, these techniques of trend-watching, reviewing past events, gaming, scenarios, and others all must allow for a certain amount of flexibility. Forces acting on any possible future include systems, chance, and chaos, as well as individual choice.
Developing the skills and techniques to see into the future is neither magic nor unattainable. Futurists are leading the way to envisioning possible futures. They believe that developing effective foresight can lead to better decision-making, greater discoveries, and an improved future. Futurists challenge the concept of fatalism—that the future is coming and there is nothing we can do about it. Using these forecasting methods, individuals can change and guide their future. They are in a position to positively influence their future, which can potentially make things better for others and possibly change the world.
“The Art of Foresight.” Futurist 38, no. 3 (2004): 31–37. Cetron, M.J. “Trends Now Shaping the Future.” Futurist 39, no. 2 (2005): 27–42.
———. “Trends Now Shaping the Future” Futurist 39, no. 3 (2005): 37–50.
Cornish, E. Futuring: The Exploration of the Future. Bethesda, MD: World Future Society, 2004.
May, T.A. “Tricks of the Futuring Trade” Computerworld 38, no. 12 (2004): 23.
Orell, David. The Future of Everything: The Science of Prediction. New York: Basic Books, 2008.
“Outlook 2008: recent forecasts from World Future Society for 2008 and beyond” The Futurist. Available from: http://www.allbusiness.com/government/public-finance-government-budgets/5523416-1.html
Taylor, C. “Looking Ahead in a Dangerous World” Time 11 October 2004, 60–61.
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