We often say that all humans are futurists. Imagining, planning and acting to turn imagination into reality are certainly distinctive human capacities. But, if humans are futurists, then we also are historians, nurses, psychologists and priests. We have beliefs about the past, we care for the sick, we attribute motives to other people’s behavior, and we pray and console. Still, we tend to seek out the opinions of professional historians, nurses, psychologists and priests.
We weren’t always like this. Throughout most of our existence on Earth, humans lived in a world where the past, present, and future were essentially the same. No one asked a child, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” You simply followed in your parents’ footsteps, as they had done. Sure, there were exceptions and people consulted soothsayers or an Oracle at Delphi, but for much of history society and social roles generally did not change much from generation to generation. To innovate was dangerous, strongly discouraged, and scarcely imaginable.
Evolution of society
Enter the scientific-industrial revolution. We discovered new lands and new cultures with foreign ways. We invented telescopes and microscopes that allowed us to peer farther and deeper than our own human eye could see. New technologies permitted new behaviors – a new way of thinking emerged.
With the future no longer entirely prefigured by the past, we began to imagine utopias either on Earth or even in space. Science fiction was born. And the idea of progress blossomed. We began to believe that our lives were getting better and better, and that the lives of our children and grandchildren would be better still.
It was shortly after WWII that we noticed – at least in the U.S. and later in parts of Europe and Japan – that most people were moving away from jobs that produced something (agriculture or industry) to jobs that did not (white collar, service, entertainment). We were watching industrial nations turn into “post-industrial nations.” Now we call them “information societies.”
Today some are arguing that information societies are transforming into “dream societies.” The idea is that performance, attitude, icons and “meaning” are becoming more important than either information or the products which exude those qualities. What do you think?
Preparing for change
Looking back, we progressed from hunting and gathering societies, to agricultural societies, to industrial societies to information societies – with the rate of social and environmental change increasing each time. Some say it’s increasing exponentially, meaning the rate of change itself is increasing.
That’s one of the reasons futures studies is now more important than ever. Both governments and corporations could apply futurist methodologies to help plan their future strategies.
Corporations have always studied markets in order to stay out in front of the competition and to detect new trends and opportunities early. Some have even engaged futurists to help them anticipate changes and continuities in the broader society that might impact the bottom line.
Unfortunately, few organizations, and fewer governments, engage in routine futures research, and so are largely unprepared for the challenges and opportunities lying ahead. Worse, they may engage in a single futures exercise and then stubbornly act on the basis of the single “snapshot” of the future. Worse still, they may be convinced that they know what the future will be and thus reject any notion of alternative or preferred futures.
Futures research is related to planning, just as planning is to day-to-day decision-making. Day-to-day decision-makers typically make decisions on the basis of established strategic plans. But before strategic plans are formulated, organizations should engage in alternative futures forecasting and preferred futures envisioning and inventing. Without it, plans are based mainly on past experiences rather than on future possibilities. Plans that are based on a preferred future, which accounts for a wide range of alternative futures, typically are more robust those that are not – and that applies to the decisions made according to those plans, too.
A study of the futures
Because the futures are changing so rapidly, organizations should take things a step further and set up a futures research unit – or at minimum engage the continuing services of a futures consulting firm. Routinely scanning the futures for new threats and opportunities rushing towards them will become more and more important.
Futures studies may not yet be well established in academia, but some very successful academic programs have existed for 20 or 30 years, and more are being created every day.
If there is not an academic program near you, I encourage you to inquire why not, and seek to establish one.
In the end, I leave you with the following:
1) THE Future cannot be predicted, but alternative futures can and should be forecast, and preferred futures envisioned and invented, on a continuing basis.
2) “Any useful idea about the future should appear to be ridiculous.” If a statement about the future makes sense to you, it is probably about the present and therefore not very useful. If it shocks or disgusts you, or seems ridiculous science fiction, it may be about the futures, and hence useful to you.