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Sum of its Pasts: Why Futures Thinking

Updated: Nov 10, 2022

You cannot cross a bridge that you never laid the foundation for. The time to think about the future is now.

In a cycle of continuous change, creating a system of Futures Thinking will foster a culture of foresight and strengthen the anticipatory governance models in place. But, what is Futures Thinking? It is a cross-disciplinary approach to considering potential futures through the exploration of trends and drivers for change that may lead to different future scenarios. While the predictions we make for the future are not completely reliable, we can critically examine the possibilities that might come up.

The Need for Futures Thinking

Futures thinking is primarily concerned with systemic factors. It believes that everything is interconnected and that interventions are required in systems to make a meaningful and long-lasting impact. The future carries the footprints of the present actions. Futures thinking and strategic foresight are essential tools in understanding those footprints.

The Two-Curve Framework

Source: Ian Morrison, Institute for the Future, 1996

In the above diagram, the first curve is descending and represents the current way of life. This curve falls in the future because our current practices will not necessarily be applicable in the future. The second curve represents the future way of life. Though it begins in a trough, it pivots in the second half of the diagram. The path this curve takes in the future, is the path that we should walk on.

By observing patterns in how the political, economical, societal, legal, technological and environmental drivers of change behave, we can come up with alternative scenarios that are closer to the truth and do not steer us away from the more probable realities. Together, both technology and experience can be used to paint accurate pictures of future scenarios.

Approaches to Futures Thinking

Since Futures Thinking is a broad concept, there exist two techniques or approaches to come up with probable scenarios. The first is Foresight and Strategy where you imagine certain visions of the future and use the techniques of backcasting and scenario mapping or creating a vision to lay out plans to achieve them. The second approach, Speculative Design, is concerned with future consequences and implications of the relationship between science, technology, and humans. Both the approaches, though different in composition, aim to create mindful and accurate alternative scenarios.

A deeper dive into the approaches discussed above is required in order to get a greater understanding of how we can create future scenarios.

The first, Foresight and Strategy. Simply put, foresight is the act of thinking about the future to guide the decisions of today. It is not an inherently complex subject, but when used to answer questions for a larger number of people, it becomes more intricate and consequential. There are three techniques that can be used in this approach:

  • The first is creating a vision, these visions could be the product of either an analysis of different scenarios and selecting the best one or questioning the nature of their life in the future.

  • The second is backcasting, where you take the vision and retrace the steps taken to get to the said vision.

  • The third is transcending, where you resolve the conflicts between different visions of the future. The aim here is to create a win-win situation in which the best of the visions is integrated, creating a new homogenous vision.

The second approach, Speculative Design, uses design as a medium to question the world order as we know it and create a space for discussions and dialogue. The projections this approach creates are not conjured out of thin air but are grounded in prior knowledge, trends in human behaviours and the existing technologies.

Speculative design is intentionally relatable, which means that it uses all popular tools and techniques. These techniques could be screenplay, storyboard, games , media , pop culture, science fiction or stand-up. A relevant topic at a point in time is a good way to approach the education for Futures Thinking.

The future is not a bridge you cross when it comes, it requires deliberation and planning. When events occur without contingent mechanisms in place, the consequences can be life-threatening. The purpose of Futures Thinking is to come up with such events and then work towards setting up appropriate channels to deal with them. There is a need to think about the future, but there is also a need to analyse and criticise our current practices because the future is nothing if not the sum of its pasts.


Approaches, methods and tools for speculative design

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Understanding futures thinking, 15 November 2013

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