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Futures studies

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Futures studies or Futurism reflects on how today’s changes (or the lack thereof) become tomorrow’s reality. It includes attempts to predict and analyze what might occur in the future of human history. The subjects and methods of futures studies include possible, probable and desirable variation or alternative transformations of the present, both social and “natural” (i.e. independent of human impact). A broad field of enquiry, futures studies explores, extrapolates, and/or portrays what the present could become from multiple interdisciplinary perspectives.

Futures studies takes as one of its important attributes (epistemological starting points) the on-going effort to analyze images of the future and distinguish possible, probable and preferred (normative) futures. This effort includes collecting change-data supporting the emergence of futures in any of those three categories, as well as setting up scenarios which portray all categories of futures. Like historical studies that try to explain what happened in the past and why, the efforts of futures studies to understand the potential of the present requires the development of theories of present conditions and how conditions might change. For this task futures studies uses a wide range of theoretical models and practical methods, many of which come from other disciplines - including economics, sociology, history, engineering, mathematics, psychology, technology, physics, biology, and theology.

Two factors usually distinguish futures studies from the research conducted by these other disciplines (although all disciplines overlap, to differing degrees):

  1. futures studies often examines not only probable but also possible and preferable futures
  2. futures studies typically attempts to gain a more holistic view based on insights from a range of different disciplines.

The following discussion, in presenting the history of futures studies and the work of its many branches, conveys futures studies as emergent, cross-cutting and diverse.



The discipline goes by different names, depending on the cultural context. Such names include future studies, foresight, futurism, futurology, prospective or vaticination (in France), and prospectiva (in Latin America). Futures studies has become the common term in the English-speaking world.

Futurologists exercised and applied Strategic Foresight for forecasting alternative futures.
Practitioners of futures studies classify themselves as futurists or foresight practitioners.


Academics predicting the relative wealth of nations or blocs in a generation's time may well class as futurists. However, Futures studies would not generally include the work of economists who forecast movements of interest rates over the next business cycle. The discipline excludes those who make future predictions through supernatural means, as well as people who attempt to forecast the short-term or readily foreseeable future.

As of 2003, over 40 tertiary education establishments around the world teach one or more courses in futures studies. The World Futures Studies Federation has a comprehensive database of futures courses.


Some intellectual foundations of futures studies appeared in the mid-19th century. In 1997, Wendell Bell suggested that Comte's discussion of the metapatterns of social change presages futures studies as a scholarly dialogue. One might make a stronger argument that futures studies 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 futures 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 (Masini, 1993; Bell, 1997). 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, futures studies as a discipline emerged from the successful application of the tools and perspectives of systems analysis, especially with regard to quartermastering the war-effort.

Even today, a schism in perspective lingers between approaches taken by scholars in the U.S.and those in other countries: U.S. practitioners often focus on applied projects, quantitative tools and systems analysis, whereas Europeans 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 (Slaughter, 1995; Sardar, 1999). With regard to futures 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 (Meadows, et al. 1972). 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 focussed 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 (Kuhn, 1975), two solidly-researched and well-accepted first attempts to synthesize a coherent framework for the field have appeared: Richard Slaughter's The Knowledge Base of Futures Studies (2005), a collection of essays by senior practitioners, and Wendell Bell's two-volume work, The Foundations of Futures Studies (1997).

History (by region)

North America

1975 saw the founding of the first graduate program in futures studies in the United States of America, the M.S. Program in Studies of the Future at the University of Houston-Clear Lake (Markley, 1998); there followed a year later the M.A. Program in Public Policy in Alternative Futures at the University of Hawaii at Manoa (Jones, 1992). The Hawai'i program provides particular interest in the light of the schism in perspective between European and U.S. futurists; it bridges that schism by locating futures studies within a pedagogical space defined by neo-Marxism, critical political economic theory, and literary criticism. In the years following the foundation of these two programs, single courses in Futures Studies at all levels of education have proliferated, but complete programs occur only rarely. As a transdisciplinary field, Futures Studies attracts generalists. This transdisciplinary nature can also cause problems, owing to it sometimes falling between the cracks of disciplinary boundaries; it also has caused some difficulty in achieving recognition within the traditional curricula of the sciences and the humanities. In contrast to "Futures Studies" at the undergraduate level, some graduate programs in strategic leadership or management offer masters or doctorate programs in "Strategic Foresight" for mid-career professionals, some even online. Nevertheless, comparatively few new PhDs graduate in Futures Studies each year.

Key concepts

The term "futures" can denote the field of "Futures" Studies. It describes the field’s recognition that one person or group of persons cannot predict "the" future, only possible, probable and desired futures. A number of tools and methods for arriving at possible, probable and desired futures exist.

Shaping alternative futures

Future studies uses scenarios - alternative possible futures - as an important tool. To some extent, people can determine what they consider probable or desirable using qualitative and quantitave methods. By looking at a variety of possibilities one comes closer to shaping the future, rather than merely predicting it. Shaping alternative futures starts by establishing a number of scenarios. Setting up scenarios takes place as a process with many stages. One of those stages invoves the study of trends. A trend persists long-term and long-range; it affects many societal groups, grows slowly and appears to have a profound basis. In contrast, a fad operates the short term, shows the vagaries of fashion, affects particular societal groups, and spreads quickly but superficially.


Trends come in different sizes. A mega-trend extends over many generations, and in cases of climate, mega-trends can cover periods prior to human existence. They describe complex interactions between many factors. The increase in population from the palaeolithic period to the present provides an example of a mega-trend.

Trend babies

Possible new trends or ("trend babies") grow from innovations, projects, beliefs or actions that have the potential to grow and eventually go mainstream in the future (for example: just a few years ago, alternative medicine remained truly "alternative". Now it has links with big business and has achieved a degree of respectability in some circles and even in the marketplace).

Branching trends

Very often, trends relate to one another the same way in which a tree-trunk relate to branches and twigs. For example, a well-documented movement toward equality between men and women might represent a branch trend. The trend toward a minimizing differences in the relationship between the salaries of men and women in the Western world could form a twig on that branch.

Life-cycle of a trend

When does a "trend baby", gain acceptance as a bona fide trend? When it gets enough confirmation in the various media, surveys or questionnaires to show it has an increasingly accepted value, behavior or technology. Trends can also gain confirmation by the existence of other trends perceived as springing from the same branch. Some commentators claim that when 15 to 25% of a given population integrates an innovation, project, belief or action into their daily life then a trend becomes "mainstream".

Other suggestions for thinking about the future

  • Any useful idea about the future should appear to be ridiculous. (Jim Dator)
  • The future is clear to me. What I don't understand is the present. (Gerhard Kocher)
  • There are no future facts. (Polak)
  • Take hold of the future or the future will take hold of you. (Patrick Dixon)
  • Alternative possible futures
  • Strategic Foresight
  • Integral Futures


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.

Apart from extrapolation and scenarios, many dozens of methods and techniques have uses in futures research (see below).

Futures 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, although sometimes based on science, cannot follow the scientific method, as its practitioners lack the patience to falsify their predictions by waiting for the definitive future to happen. They can and do, however, apply many scientific techniques.


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, 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. He has written books such as G-Forces: The 35 Global Forces Restructuring Our Future (1989), Future (2000), Future Living (2003, and Biznets: The Webopoly Future of Business (2006). The last three examine the strategic impact of the Internet revolution (what he calls the "Webolution") on business, economics, and society.

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".

Research centres

Futures techniques

Main article: Futures techniques (abstracts)]]

Futurists use a diverse range of forecasting methods including:

Alternative futures forecasting

Sample predicted futures, as of 2003, 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, to help identify so-called wild cards - low probability, potentially high-impact risks. See a sample presentation on risk management. Every successful and unsuccessful business engages in futuring - for example in research and development, innovation and market research, anticipating competitor behavior and so on.

Near-term predictions

A long-running tradition in various cultures, and especially in the media, involves various spokespersons making predictions for the upcoming year at the beginning of the year. These predictions sometimes base themselves on current trends in culture (music, movies, fashion, politics); sometimes they make hopeful guesses as to what major events might take place over the course of the next year.

A number of paranormal activists, including psychics, astrologers, and some religious figures, also make bold predictions regarding startling events that they believe will occur within the upcoming year.

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.

Futures education

Education in the field of futures studies has taken place for some time. Beginning in the United States of America in the 1960s, it has since developed in many different countries. Futures education can encourage the use of concepts, tools and processes that allow students to think long-term, consequentially, and imaginatively. It generally helps students to:

  1. conceptualise more just and sustainable human and planetary futures
  2. develop knowledge and skills in exploring probable and preferred futures
  3. understand the dynamics and influence that human, social and ecological systems have on alternative futures
  4. conscientize responsibility and action on the part of students toward creating better futures.

Thorough documentation of the history of futures education exists, for example in the work of Richard A. Slaughter (2004).

While futures 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 futures studies 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 futures studies. A recent survey documented approximately 50 cases of futures studies at the tertiary level. [6]

Academic programs

Key thinkers



See also


External links


  • Bell, Wendell (1997). Foundations of Futures Studies: Human Science for a New Era. Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick, New Jersey, USA.
  • Cornish, Edward (2004). Futuring: The exploration of the future. Bethesda, MD: World Future Society.
  • Godet, Michel (2004). Creating Futures Scenario Planning as a Strategic Management Tool. Economica, 2001.
  • Jones, Christopher (1992). “The Manoa School of Futures Studies.” Futures Research Quarterly, Winter,19-25.
  • de Jouvenel, Bertrand (1967). The Art of Conjecture. (New York: Basic Books, 1967).
  • Kuhn, Thomas (1975, c1970). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, Illinois, USA.
  • Lindgren, Mats and Bandhold, Hans (2003). Scenario Planning-the link between future and strategy. Palgrave Macmillan, Hampshire and New York.
  • Lindgren, Mats et. al. (2005). The MeWe Generation. Bookhouse Publishing, Stockholm, Sweden.
  • Markley, Oliver (1998). "Visionary Futures: Guided Imagery in Teaching and Learning about the Future," in American Behavioral Scientist. Sage Publications, New York.
  • Masini, Eleonora (1993). Why Futures Studies? Grey Seal Books, London, U.K.
  • Meadows, Donella H., D.L. Meadows, J. Randers, and William W. Behrens III. (1972).
    The Limits to Growth. Universe Books, New York, New York, USA.
  • Retzbach, Roman (2005). Future-Dictionary - encyclopedia of the future, New York, USA
  • Sardar, Ziauddin, ed. (1999). Rescuing All Our Futures. Praeger Studies on the 21st Century, Westport, Connecticut, USA.
  • Slaughter, Richard A. (1995). The Foresight Principle: Cultural Recovery in the 21st Century. Adamantine Press, Ltd., London, England.
  • Slaughter, Richard A. (2004). Futures Beyond Dystopia: Creating Social Foresight. RoutledgeFalmer, London
  • Slaughter, Richard A. (2005). The Knowledge Base of Futures Studies Professional Edition CDROM. Foresight International, Indooroopilly, Australia
  • Woodgate, Derek with Pethrick, Wayne R. (2004). Future Frequencies. Fringecore, Austin, Texas, USA
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