Predicting the future? Yeah, right. I live in the real world.

Don’t get me wrong, nothing is as mysterious and magical as the future. It is brimming with opportunity, while at the same time concealing potential dangers.

However, it is intriguing when I see a fortune teller or Tarot card reader at a fair or on the street. Although I am a skeptic, there is that tiny 1% of me that thinks What if it were really possible? Then the frugal, practical side of me chimes in and reminds me that it would be a waste of money. I could get ice cream instead. Now, that is a much better use of my money!

But, people everywhere are interested in what is going to happen. People read their horoscopes. People bet on sporting events. People trade futures contracts. Most people are aware of the weather forecast for the following days. Don’t even get me started with political elections.

We all want to know what is going to happen in the future. We even will put our hard-earned money on the line. But we all know, predicting the future isn’t possible.

But if you think about it, would you genuinely like to know what your destiny holds? Do you want to spoil the surprise of future celebrations and milestones? Do you want to bear the burden of future calamities that you have no power to change? Think about it.

From a personal perspective, it may be undesirable to know your fate. However, when you take a step back and look at it through a more global or even universal lens the whole concept changes.

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Consider humanity as a whole. What kind of a legacy are we leaving future generations? What if we can make a difference on a global scale? As stewards of our planet, shouldn’t we leave it as healthy as we got it, preferably better?

That is where predictions of the future come in. Not only is it not a hoax, it is a moral imperative. (That is a Real Genius reference for my fellow nerds.)

Armed with a scientific education, I recognize the impossibility of foreseeing the future. However, as a mother, I see the necessity of doing whatever can be done to ensure the safety and longevity of my children and my children’s children in the future. Even if that means the predictions may be filled with uncertainty.

So I began to dig into the future. However because of the volume of information I dug up on this topic, this one article grew into a 2 article series. This first article will cover what is future studies and its approaches along with information on the groups that are practicing futuring now. The second article will look at tools being used, a few forecasts, and how you can get engaged.

With that covered, onto the future!

 

Predicting the future is an actual field?

I have to admit that when I hear the term futurist I am more than a little dubious. It brings up visions of science fictiony types that dress oddly. Usually spouting off some crazy, unimaginable states of the future. I know, that is unfair of me. Sorry, I am making up for it now by educating myself.

The disciple of predicting the future is called future studies. The field is also known as futurology or futuristics. The act of practicing it is called futuring or strategic foresight. One participating in the act is called a futurist. So, a futurist is futuring futures, ha!

Courtesy of the Association of Professional Futurists, the purpose of future studies is “…to help people understand, anticipate, prepare for and gain advantage from coming changes.” It sounds quite noble indeed, not so odd as I had envisioned. It is most aligned with the social sciences and is considered parallel to the study of history. It is interdisciplinary involving many different fields such as economics, sociology, geography, history, science, and technology.

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Of course we don’t just want to know what the future holds, we want the very best possible future. What good is knowing the future if our hands are tied? We want to influence the future. We want a hand in our destiny.

Most approaches to the study of the future don’t model what will happen in a singular future. Instead, they look at what could happen through possible, probable, and preferable futures. That is why it is oftentimes called futures studies. The terminology can get quite particular because those who want to be taken seriously don’t want to be lumped in with those with less than methodical processes.

A prediction is a statement of something that could or would occur in the future, often bound by a specific time. A forecast is a statement of probability regarding the future created by analyzing data trends and reasoning, such as what if scenarios. While considering the data and inputs, futurists also must contend with ‘wild cards’. A wild card is a low probability-high impact event such as natural disasters. An alternative to this is looking at known issues that currently have low impact that can change to high impact.

Now on to some terms that are more often associated with, how shall I say, softer processes. Precognition is the psychic ability to see events in the future. Prophecies are predictions based on supernatural revelations. Postdiction are explanations that occur after-the-fact. Correlation is often used as proof of ancient prophecies even when there are few details to back it up. It is always good to know how a forecast is formulated to understand the context.

Preferable futures is a term often used with backcasting. Backcasting is an approach that begins with a desired future, it then determines the preceding events that need to occur to realize that preferable future. A famous example was when United States President John F. Kennedy declared we would land a man on the moon within the decade.

All this talk about predicting the future really does mean the future. It isn’t short-sighted and instant gratification like our culture often acts. We are talking 10, 50, 100, and more years from now. On that scale, we can have a huge impact with our behavior now. It is like driving a car. A little turn of the wheel now will have a dramatic impact on where we end up a long way down the road.

 

What are the issues and how are they addressed?

Globalization has greatly added to the complexity of the issues we face today. Everything is tied together with intricate relationships. How they develop on the scale of decades is a puzzling to say the least.

The big issues are:

  • Environment
  • Technology
  • Geopolitics
  • Economy
  • Global institutions

Three matters complicate our ability to evaluate possible futures. First, our ignorance of the current condition of the issue. Second, the complexity of the current issue with influencing and dependent forces. Lastly, how humans will react to the changing circumstances.dice on 5

There are different futurist philosophies that drive examination of the global issues. These philosophies determine the method and data to use when constructing futures models. This is why you will get very differing opinions from futurists of different schools of thought.

Below, I have listed the 5 most recognized approaches to futures studies

  1. Predictive-empirical tradition. This approach originated in the USA. It focuses on trend analysis and prediction. It creates only one “probable future.” It focuses on objectivity and neutrality and has been criticized for being overly empirical with no contextual awareness.
  2. Critical-postmodern tradition. This approach originated out of France. This approach is based on critical social theory to balance the empirical data. It creates multiple preferred futures. It includes aspects of context and values which opens it to be criticized for being too subjective.
  3. Cultural-interpretive tradition. This approach arose as an alternative and is designed as a non-Western or feminist consideration. It incorporates creativity and multiple perspectives. It can be criticized for feasibility issues or overcome by the dominant empirical approach.
  4. Prospective-action research. This approach can also be referred to as the Empowerment-Activist approach. It focuses on engagement and participation in the process. Questioning and decision-making. It can be criticized if it doesn’t include empirical data and not taken seriously.
  5. Integrative-holistic. This approach integrates several approaches at the same time and is also referred to as the Integral-Transdisciplinary approach. It is broad and can use different methods for different contexts. It is big picture, long term. It can be criticized for not being deep enough because of its broad approach. It may also face contradictory assumptions by applying various philosophies at the same time.

For you visual types out there like me, here is a grid that nicely sums it up.

Futures Studies Approaches

Future Studies Approaches. Credit: Jennifer M. Gidley, Global Knowledge Futures: Articulating the Emergence of a New Meta-level Field

 

Who are the groups that are looking into predicting the future?

There is a range of actors in the field of futures studies: international, national, non profit, consulting, member societies, and the list goes on. They all have different goals, philosophies, and activities. Along with that they have access to different resources.

Here are a few organizations and academic institutions that have enough information to set your reeling.

  • World Futures Studies Federation. “A UNESCO and UN consultative partner and global NGO with members in over 60 countries. We bring together academics, researchers, practitioners, students and futures-focused institutions. WFSF offers a forum for stimulation, exploration and exchange of ideas, visions, and plans for alternative futures, through long-term, big-picture thinking and radical change.”
  • World Future Society. “The world’s first organization for people who study, envision and create potential futures. Our mission is to improve decision-making about the future by empowering futurists, fostering networks and advancing knowledge and action on future-critical issues.”
  • The Millennium Project. “An independent non-profit global participatory futures research think tank of futurists, scholars, business planners, and policy makers who work for international organizations, governments, corporations, NGOs, and universities. The Millennium Project manages a coherent and cumulative process that collects and assesses judgments from over 3,500 people since the beginning of the project selected by its 56 Nodes around the world.”
  • The Club of Rome. “An informal association of independent leading personalities from politics, business and science, men and women who are long-term thinkers interested in contributing in a systemic interdisciplinary and holistic manner to a better world. The Club of Rome members share a common concern for the future of humanity and the planet.”
  • The World Future Council. “50 eminent global change-makers from governments, parliaments, civil society, academia, the arts and business. We work to pass on a healthy planet and just societies to our children and grandchildren with a focus on identifying and spreading effective, future-just policy solutions.”
  • Lifeboat Foundation. “A nonprofit nongovernmental organization dedicated to encouraging scientific advancements while helping humanity survive existential risks and possible misuse of increasingly powerful technologies, including genetic engineering, nanotechnology, and robotics/AI, as we move towards the Singularity.”
  • Institute of Futures Studies. “The Institute for Futures Studies is an independent research foundation….conducts advanced research within the social sciences. The Institute’s task is to promote a future-oriented perspective in Swedish research, and to use and develop appropriate theories and methods.”
  • Association of Professional Futurists. “A growing community of professional futurists dedicated to promoting professional excellence and demonstrating the value of futures thinking.”
  • Future of Humanity Institute, Oxford University. “A leading research centre looking at big-picture questions for human civilization…Using the tools of mathematics, philosophy, and science, we explore the risks and opportunities that will arise from technological change, weigh ethical dilemmas, and evaluate global priorities. Our goal is to clarify the choices that will shape humanity’s long-term future.”
  • Tellus Institute. “An interdisciplinary, not-for-profit research and policy organization. Our aim was, and is, to bring scientific rigor and systemic vision to critical environmental and social issues.”

 

Helpful or hoax?

What do you think? Did you have preconceived notions of futurists like me?

Do you see the value of future studies? Do you think we have the ability to influence issues that are heading on a negative trend? How do we account for future unknowns? Do these approaches deserve respect?

If you watch the news you know there is seriously scary stuff going on in the world. It would be horrible to think we had no influence. Thankfully, I firmly believe we all have the power to make a difference in our lives and in the lives of others.

I think that is especially so when we are highly motivated. The challenges are large and complex, but we have ingenuity and determination. Our lives may very well depend on it.

Have you given these issues a lot of thought? Please share in the comments.

Keep your eyes open for the next article in the Predicting the future series. (See Related: Predicting the future series: Future forecasts and you)

 

Resources

2015-16 State of the Future from the Millennium Project

Association of Professional Futurists

Cornish, Edward. Futuring. Bethesda, Md.: World Future Society, 2004. Print.

Forecasting Fox from The New York Times

Gidley, Jennifer M. “Global Knowledge Futures: Articulating the Emergence of a New Meta-level Field.” A Transdisciplinary and Transcultural Journal for New Thought, January (2013): 145-72. Research Gate. Web. <http://www.researchgate.net/publication/248976218_Global_Knowledge_Futures_Articulating_the_Emergence_of_a_New_Meta-level_Field>.

Great Transition The Promise and Lure of the Times Ahead from Tellus Institute

Kaku, Michio. Physics Of The Future. New York: Doubleday, 2011. Print.

Outline of Future Studies from Wikipedia

Sardar, Ziauddin. Future. London: Hodder & Stoughton Ltd, 2013. Print.

The Club of Rome

Who’s Best at Predicting the Future? (and How to Get Better) from Psychology Today

Wikipedia contributors. “Futures studies.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 24 Nov. 2015. Web. 24 Nov. 2015.

World Future Society

World Future Studies Federation