Futures Studies as Human and Social Activity

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Future thinking has always been part of human history, for humans become human when they think about the future, as John McHale (1969) wrote. Some form of future thinking exists in almost all known societies; it is a universal phenomenon, as Wendell Bell (1997) writes, that ranges from divination, which involves the unveiling of the unknown, to the recent development of futures studies. Divination may be related to decisions taken by whole tribes and nations, just as the aim of scientifically rigorous futures studies is to support decision making.

In this particular context, it is important to trace the development of future thinking and the formalization of futures studies after World War II.


As in most disciplines, issues of terminology in futures studies are related as much to the word itself as to the underlying concept expressed by it.

From the 1940s to the 1970s, forecasting was the most important concept of futures studies. In 1967, Eric Jantsch defined forecasting "as a probabilistic statement, on a relatively high level of confidence about the future" (p. 15). In this rigorous definition, the use of the adverb "relatively" indicates the element of uncertainty that is always present in futures studies in general.

In France and in Spanish-speaking countries, however, they tend to prefer the term prospective. The term and the concept were actually born in France in the 1950s when Gaston Berger (1958) described prospective as "a way of focusing and concentrating on the future by imagining it full-blown rather than by drawing deductions from the present" (p. 3). In prospective, the main element is a project for the future. The idea is that by understanding the past (which cannot be changed but only interpreted), one can, in the present, choose from among the many possible and probable futures the one that is more desirable. According to Bertrand de Jouvenel (1967), the present cannot be changed either, as it is but a fleeting moment. Hence, the future is the only space we have to influence. Clearly, the prospective approach is completely different from the forecasting approach, as Michel Godet (1979) has correctly underlined.

The term prevision, as indicated by Barbieri Masini (1993) is not used in English or in French. In English it is thought to have the specific meaning of pre-vision, or seeing ahead (something not possible, as the future does not exist); in French it is not used because of its theological associations. In Italian the term previsione is used because a term equivalent to prospective does not exist. Prospettiva has a different meaning and projection is closer to forecast, which, as already mentioned here and discussed by Godet (1979), does not have the implications of prospective. Consequently when the term previsione is used in Italian it is necessary to qualify it. For example, previsione umana and previsione sociale, which has in itself the capacity to build a set of futures that are different from the past and the present (as with prospective) but with the addition of some other qualifications, as indicated by Barbieri Masini and Medina (1993). In this meaning, to build the future is seen simultaneously as a need, a choice, and a way of life that are related to the human being and to a given society. The need is due in part to the rapidity of change in modern times but also to an ethical requirement to create a future that is humane, as Josef Fuchs (1977) says, and at the same time social, as related to social choices. According to Barbieri Masini (1993), embedded in previsione umana e sociale is the need to build the future, but with a choice in terms of deciding to propose one or many alternative futures. It is a way of life, as it goes beyond a discipline and becomes a distinguishing feature of a group of people. Hence, previsione umana e sociale has the following basic functions: It is geared to a project of the future; it clarifies the goals of a given person or social group; and it is educational, in terms of helping to create responsibility for the future.

Prognosis is a term that is very much used in German-speaking countries and in Central and Eastern Europe. It is very close to forecast and forecasting.

Among the many other terms, it is important to mention futuribles, which was used by Bertrand de Jouvenel (1967) to indicate the many possible, probable and desirable futures that exist. In the debate about futuribles, Jouvenel's thinking is reminiscent of the thinking of many in the Middle Ages, especially the emphasis put on freedom by the Jesuit Molina (in 1588), whose writings were published in 1876 in France. Jouvenel, in the conceptual discussion of terms, especially "futuribles," refers to the discussion of the symmetry between the past and the future that took place in the eighteenth century and goes back to 1588 to the Jesuit Molina who had favored the position of human freedom of choice in relation to the interpretation of the past and the choice of the future.

An interesting more recent term is foresight. Actually it was first used by D.H. Wells in 1932 in a speech for the BBC advocating the need for experts in foresight. As described by Irvin and Martin (1984), nowadays the term is mostly used in the sense of outlook, meaning a cluster of systematic attempts to look ahead and to choose more effectively. Foresight takes into account the fact that there is not one future but many—only one of which, however, will occur. Foresight is also used at the national level as a support for national planning, to identify the possible technological futures and their environmental and social impact.

As regards the actual discipline, in addition to futures studies—a very broad term that contains all the different ways of looking at the future, from projection to utopia—there is the term futurology, which was defined by Ossip Flechtheim (1966) as the search for the logic of the future in parallel to the search for the logic of the past in history. Unfortunately, this concept has lost its correct meaning and is now used casually to refer to any fantasy about the future.

Futuristics is another term that is often used, especially in North America. Its meaning is similar to that of futures studies.


It is hard to establish a definite date for the beginning of futures studies. Many indicate the period immediately after World War II with the development in the United States of what was called technological forecasting at RAND (Research and Development) Corporation. According to Wendell Bell (1997), this can be linked to the operational research conducted in the United Kingdom to predict and project the moves of the German bombers.

More or less in the same period, the Europeans also contributed to what may be considered the "beginnings" of futures studies—in France, Bertrand de Jouvenel with futuribles and Gaston Berger with prospective, followed by Pierre Massé and many others; Pater in the Netherlands, Fred Polak with his important books The Image of the Future and Prognosis: A Science in the Making.

The three major organizations dealing with futures studies were established at the end of the 1960s: the World Futures Studies Federation, which started in embryo in Oslo in 1967 and was formally founded in Paris at UNESCO in 1973; the World Future Society, essentially a North American organization founded by Edward Cornish in 1967; and the Club of Rome, founded in Rome by Aurelio Peccei and Alexander King in 1968. The latter in particular had a major impact on decision making with the project "The Limits to Growth," which is still relevant both in relation to the limits of the earth and of the need to look at the future in the long term, and in relation to a cluster of human and social issues (the global problematic).

The 1970s posed a serious challenge to futures studies. The severe economic crisis of that period showed that in looking at the future it is necessary to address many aspects and paces of change, given that economic and technological changes are much more rapid than social and cultural changes, for example. The 1970s also challenged the concept of the future as being linear development of the present and the past. There was a reappraisal of futures studies in the 1980s, especially in Europe. In countries such as the Netherlands, Sweden, and Finland, futures studies acquired political importance. In the 1990s developing countries also started to make use of futures studies; with the exception of India, China, and certain Latin American countries, most developing countries had had little interest in futures studies up until then. In the same period, futures studies reemerged very strongly in the United States with the launching of such major projects as the Millennium Project, supported by the United Nations University and the Smithsonian Institute. The Millenium Project, directed by Jerome C. Glenn and Theodore J. Gordon, studies the major threats and challenges of the future and produces the "state of the future" report. The debate on methodologies was also revived, sparking the publication of many basic texts that became prominent in the world debate. Schools of futures studies emerged in Finland and Hungary, and there was increased interest in Australia.

Numerous sociologists have made important contributions to futures studies: William F. Ogburn was appointed by President Herbert Hoover to chair the Research Committee on Social Trends as early as 1929. Harold Lasswell, who laid the foundations for the science of political choices also wrote many less well-known articles on futures perspectives. Daniel Bell wrote the famous report of the Commission Toward the Year 2000 for the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1967. John McHale wrote many books and contributed to the founding of the World Futures Studies Federation in the 1960s and 1970s. Elise Boulding greatly contributed with her work on peace in the future and the role of women in the future. One could mention many more names. The main point to stress is that futures studies and sociology have not always been considered two separate and distinct disciplines.


Many characteristics of futures studies relate to the linking of present action with future results. Barbieri Masini (1993) identifies seven characteristics in particular:

  1. Transdisciplinary. Futures studies go beyond the interdisciplinary nature of social science. Futures studies needs the parallel approaches of different disciplines as well as the combined effort of many approaches in addressing the complexity of present problems in a rapidly changing society. It needs disciplinary approaches that identify common assumptions and use common methodologies. In terms of methodologies, examples of such approaches are the Delphi and the scenario-building methods, which function with the support of mathematics, statistics, economics, sociology, history, and psychology. To quote Fred Polak: "all kinds of separate, fragmented portions of the jigsaw puzzle are of little avail, unless they are fitted together in the best possible way, to form an image of the future depicting a number of main areas of development" (1971, p. 261).
  2. Complex. This represents the other side of the transdisciplinary nature of futures studies. As a concept, complexity was much debated in futures studies, even before it became a clear issue in social sciences, because it is related to uncertainty: The greater the complexity of a given situation, the greater the level of uncertainty; the greater the number of variables needed to describe a social situation, the greater the uncertainty. Because the future is so uncertain, futures studies has to devise methods for lowering the level of uncertainty: One such method is alternative scenario building.
  3. Global. Its global nature is probably the best-known characteristic of futures studies. It is now generally accepted that the future is determined by a continuous interplay between local issues and global issues. Some issues emerge as local and then become global, such as an economic crisis in a given country or part of the world. Some issues are born global and subsequently affect the local level such as the greenhouse effect.
  4. Normative. The impact of the normative is much greater in futures studies than is usually the case in social sciences. Frameworks of values and systems of values can never be completely eliminated in futures studies. Many methods try to lower the level of impact of the normative, but it is always present: Thinking about the future, making decisions about the future, is always related to some hope or fear.
  5. Scientific. This is the most debated characteristic of futures studies, precisely because the normative is always present. Great effort has been made to invent devices and methods for increasing the scientific level of futures studies. If it is not possible to define futures studies as scientific, then it must be absolutely rigorous in terms of application and methods. It must be used according to strict scientific rules. Yehezkel Dror (1974) stresses the importance of combining a clinical and a human approach.
  6. Dynamic. Futures studies is very dynamic: It is constantly in search of stronger foundations, of better approaches, and of more effective methods for facing the rapidity of change.
  7. Participatory. There is less consensus on this characteristic of futures studies than on the previous ones. It is obvious that futures studies methods should be developed with the participation of those who are responsible for choosing the future, that is, decision makers at every level. This may not be possible at every step in the application of methods, but it is certainly something to strive for. Participation is definitely an essential characteristic of scenario-building and Delphi applications.


Like all disciplines futures studies has limits. Barbieri Masini (1993) has singled out six such limits.

  1. Self-altering. The moment a forecast, or the result of a futures study, becomes public, it produces consequences that alter the reality in which it operates. In other words, a self-realizing or a self-defeating effect may invalidate the value of the forecast. This danger was underlined long ago by Robert Merton ([1938] 1973) and is still valid today.
  2. Psychological aspects. These are crucial in futures studies, as inevitably in looking ahead one is influenced by hopes and fears. Fear of the unknown is ever present and can have a negative impact on the need to think in alternative terms as the future requires. It is also easy to underestimate the changes that will occur in the future.
  3. Irrational aspects. In future processes and events there is always an irrational element that cannot be quantified or evaluated; for example, the whims of a given head of state or the religious reaction of a given population.
  4. Implicit hypotheses. These are present in any futures exercise. This aspect is of course related to the normative characteristic mentioned earlier, however, in using futures studies, it is essential to detect the implicit hypotheses.
  5. A posteriori verification. A definite limit of futures studies is that it is only possible to verify the validity of a given study after the events forecast have occurred. This is often done and is an extremely useful way of learning more about the application of methods.
  6. Availability of reliable data. This clearly is a crucial aspect: Any future-oriented study must be able to rely on good quantitative and qualitative data. There may, for example, be a lack of historical data on which to base a forecast or a lack of relevant ad hoc surveys. This is one of the most important limits of futures studies, for if forecasts are to be reliable, data must be rigorously evaluated.


Before entering the debate on methods, it is important to underline the accepted typology of futures studies methods. Futures studies can be extrapolative (opportunity-oriented) or normative (mission-oriented). The definitions in parenthesis are those of Eric Jantsch (1967). In other words, to extrapolate from the past to the present and into the future constitutes one group of methods, of which projections are one. Another is to start from what is needed in the future—an image, a goal, an objective—and work backward, searching in the present for possible and probable ways of realizing it. Nowadays futures studies are never wholly extrapolative or normative; they usually emphasize one or the other aspect, given the normative characteristic of futures studies.


The term and method were introduced by Herman Kahn during the 1960s. Nowadays scenario is a general term that is used to refer to different approaches: those of the Stanford Research Institute (SRI), of the Battelle Institute, of the studies by Michel Godet and others. A scenario can be defined as an ensemble created to describe a future situation and the sequence of events leading from the present situation to a future one.

Theoretically speaking, scenarios are a synthesis of several different hypothetical routes (events, actors, strategies) that lead to different possible futures. Practically speaking, scenarios often describe specific sets of events and variables that have been put together with the aim of focusing on causal processes and related decision-making. According to Herman Kahn (1967), scenarios answer the following basic questions: How does a situation evolve step by step from the present to the future? What are the possible alternatives that different actors in the different moments of decision making can use in order to anticipate, change, or facilitate the process?

From an epistemological point of view, scenarios are analytical and empirical constructions. They are hypotheses that do not "predict" the future but rather indicate a series of options and probable situations. No scenario will ever precisely anticipate the occurrence of a given event; rather it will suggest alternatives with the aim of sensitizing decision makers to what might happen. Hypotheses are never invented but are founded on a rational, consistent diagnosis of the forces that may model events. According to Michel Godet (1995), the scenario hypothesis should respond to the following five conditions. They must be: pertinent, coherent, realistic, important, and transparent.

Scenarios are instruments for better decision making. Their aim is to lower the level of uncertainty and increase the level of understanding of the consequences of actions in the present.

In looking at scenarios, one presumes an awareness on the part of the author of the rapidity and interrelatedness of change, which will affect both decisions and the understanding of consequences, which can change a preexistent situation, either completely or in part. Scenarios are both synoptic and simultaneous: They can be used to analyze many variables at once and identify the respective turning points in terms of decision-making in steps of five, ten, or twenty years. Timing depends on the area of interest. For example, in the economic area the time span considered will be much shorter than in the educational area.

In recent years, use of the scenario technique has increased greatly, as have its applications. The scenario method seems to be particularly useful in the following situations: (1) to detect long-term trends that can help to formulate alternative within a given context; (2)to identify potential discontinuities and situations and alert organizations, countries, or regions to foresee them and thus prepare contingency plans; (3) to alert organizations, regions, or countries of possible interrelated changes as a reference for planning; (4) to provide a basis for analyzing risks as interactions between socioeconomic areas that may lead to risks and are not understandable if seen only in a specific and isolated area; (5) to evaluate the results of different strategies in different areas that may not have been developed in the awareness of interrelations.

In the public sector the best-known applications include the following. In the 1960s, Herman Kahn used scenarios connected to military and strategic studies that were developed at the RAND corporation. In the 1960s and 1970s, territorial planning by DATAR was used in France. Scenarios derived from systems analysis and global models, such as The Limits to Growth by Meadows and Meadows (1972), analyzed the global consequences of the interrelated growth of population, agricultural production, industrial development, environmental pollution, and use of natural resources. Finally, Jacques Lesourne directed an important exercise of Interfutures for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and development (OECD), which identified the alternatives of the relationships between the North and the South regions of the world.

In scenario building the private sector intervened, perhaps late, but in a sophisticated manner. Shell International Petroleum Company (Royal Dutch/Shell Group) used scenarios before the energy crises of 1973 and before the debacle of the Soviet Union, its major competitor in the petroleum area. Other large oil companies followed Shell's example and made extensive use of scenarios—ARGO in the late 1970s and, more recently, Pacific Gas and Electric.

In the private sector scenarios are used by enterprises in many sectors. Financial services have used scenarios to understand competitors and regulate uncertainty. Insurance companies, such as the Allied Irish Bank, have used scenarios to support strategic planning within a constantly changing context.


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Eleonora Barbieri Masini