It is the task of the futurist is to inform decisions by critically studying the future, comparable to how historiographers examine and synthesize the past. Foresight is a science and an art but it is not clairvoyance.
I am a futurist finishing a Master’s of Science degree in Foresight through the University of Houston. In this description of strategic foresight practice, the field of professional futurists, I submit its value proposition of research and creative thinking about what lies ahead to the wider test of your input.
Strategic Foresight is not a grandiose appellation for futurists designing for the gap between the present state and the optimal future. Futurists do not make predictions (yes or no judgments on discrete occurrences) or see visions. Be wary of futurists claiming the future is declaratively X or Y. Seek out professional futurists who ask questions with you to co-create diverse paths. Like academics who offer the most value by helping refine and navigate the problem, futurists provide frameworks to guide through the investigation and the design of prospective futures.
I share common concerns about attention-seeking celebrity and “crackpot” futurists and I believe that the work of a futurist should be more gadfly than glittery. My philosophy of foresight is rooted in asking questions. “What if,” “why not,” and “how might” launch investigations, some may say interrogations, into future directions. We ask to challenge assumptions and seek unseen connections. The outcome of our futures work should be a mindset of questioning more than a set of predictions.
Futurists assist describing the futures which reflect our values, our destination myths. The work of futurists to understand the future could not happen without historians’ critical hindsight, theories and patterns of change. History is one-third of Foresight. The rest of the story is what futurists do.
What Futurists Do
Professional futurists stand apart from others plying quantitative and qualitative forecasts. We explore alternative futures springing from breaks in trends, design preferred futures, and adapt strategy. When chaos shocks statistical models, futurists divergently ask; “what could cause the trajectory to change and in what directions, “Whose actions could alter drivers in the web of implications?” With the power of narrative, professional futurists employ visioning and ideation alongside subject experts to craft stories of possible, plausible, and probable scenarios that get around our biases in and of the present.
The chaotic future is not predictable, but armed with systems thinking we do not shy away from investigating the structure and behavior of complex futures. We scientifically subject data points and theoretical frameworks to testing.
The major output of Foresight is creative thinking, overlapping academia in this sense of learning how to explore relevant pasts, fashion critical insight about surrounding environments, and providing new contributions. Other outputs include preparing for disruptions, filling the next user needs, decreasing uncertainty, efficiency in getting to failure faster, and effectiveness in projects’ long-term promise.
Healthy futures require skepticism. Futurists are required to explain how we increase confidence, contribute results, improve judgment, and how the strategies we inform are more closely aligned with emerging landscapes. Ask professional futurists why and how and expect analytical methods. If futurists can increase our ability to strategize creatively and systematically than a disregard for their work is an easy trap to avoid.
My path to Strategic Foresight included study of Physics and Business as well as experience in Librarianship and technology. Every professional futurist brings their own diverse experience to foresight training: I know futurists who hail from design, military, finance, energy, insurance. Before studying Foresight, I was a Science Librarian at Yale University. Much of my work involved serving the past and preparing for the future’s opportunities and complications so I now apply librarian expertise in “the ask” to craft critical questions about joint futures. Much of librarians’ value is in convergent synthesis of data, application of information, and translation of information into knowledge. I am a data-driven futurist by training and empathize with our future through literature as artifacts of our cultures.
I am also completing an Executive MBA program and am as grounded by day-to-day operational needs as I am stretched by long-term considerations. Yet rather than tempering, this MBA has multiplied my ability to prototype and frame constraints to bridge present states with goals. The foresight management confluence provides an economic basis of futurists’ contribution of closing gaps in organizational success and future readiness of projects.
A bachelor’s degree in Physics similarly grounds while expanding my competencies as a futurist. Science provides STEM frameworks for problem solving, studying change and deep causes, and the structure of reality alongside a creativity-extending sense of wonderment.
These anchors; scientist, manager, librarian, along with formal training ensure that my work as a futurist is accountable to evidence, that my divergent multiple futures are answered with convergent analysis. I use data to make projections and know when imagination needs to be inserted as well as systems dynamics, design thinking, and challenging our biases. With critical insight, I define limits and know when the past ceases to be a good indicator of the future. I apply my ethos to consider the stakeholders of the future and the future for all stakeholders in all contexts.
The Master’s of Science degree in Foresight worth of techniques puts to ease fears of madness without methods. I worry that we professional futurists have not communicated well enough the value of researching the future. Futurists impute critical analysis yet are judged by outcomes of prediction fail rates instead of contributing ways of thinking.
As with history and science, the future is never a perfectly complete story. Futuring is iterative as we adjust our understanding. We can each think like futurists by challenging assumptions and our preconceptions of the future.
We cannot afford a lack of tactics for addressing the future. If you are less than fully convinced that this outlined practice of foresight provides value to your work be it as a futurist or other, please do share your critique and additions so that we may continue to refine and grow.
Joe Murphy, foresight student and former Librarian. Libraryfuture@gmail.com
EMBA, San Francisco State University, Summer 2017.
Master’s of Science in Foresight, University of Houston, Summer 2017.
Master’s of Library & Information Science, University of Hawaii 2006.