Unlike any other field of study, futures thinking is a topic that cannot be studied or predicted because the future does not exist yet. It is one of the few fields that is fundamentally inter- and multi-disciplinary. Scholars who focus on the future still reference the efforts of the last few centuries. H.G. Wells is possibly the most referenced futures author of the 19th Century, with contributions including The Time Machine (1895) and The War of the Worlds (1898). Two other authors followed in Wells’ footsteps in the 20th Century. Aldous Huxley’s 1931 novel, Brave New World, depicted a world in 2540 that includes reproductive technology, sleep learning and the abolition of marriage and George Orwell’s 1949 novel, 1984, referenced and featured a world with three ruling totalitarian superstates. In the 1960s, futures thinking had a spike in interest. Many journals and organizations still around today, such as World Futures Studies Federation (WFSF) and World Future Society (WFS), were created. A highly cited and controversial report titled, “The Limits to Growth”, commissioned by the newly formed Club of Rome in 1972, projected the impact of exponential growth on finite resources. The Club of Rome still exists today and has commissioned many follow-ups to “The Limits” report.  As a result of this scholarship, many higher education programs have been developed around the world to concentrate on futures, most notably at the University of Hawaii, the University at Houston, Tamkang University in Taiwan, and the Turku School of Economics in Finland. Futures thinking is also practiced in many organizations as a method of planning for the future.

What is Futures Thinking?

Though there exists many scholars of futures, the terminology associated with futures makes it very hard to define. In the article, “The Namesake: Futures; futures studies; futurology; futuristic; foresight—What’s in a name?”, Ziauddin Sardar (2009) sorts out the many terms and their definitions that have to do with ‘futures’. As he mentions, it is always important to speak in the plural when using the term ‘future’, as to describe the many possible futures (Sardar, 2009, p. 180). For example, ‘futures studies’ is a general term used to describe the study of futures. The term “futurology” was introduced in 1966 and is often used interchangeably with the term ‘futures studies’ (Sardar, 2009, p. 178). Another term widely used is ‘foresight’, which according to Sardar, “implies action in the present” (Sardar, 2009, p. 179). It is a term, along with forecasting, strategic planning, and technology foresight, that implies the “serious futures work” that usually takes part in organizations (Sardar, 2009, p. 180). Michel Godet, (2010), who uses the term ‘futurist’ to describe he and his colleagues, says that ‘la prospective’, a term used by “Romance-language countries”, is his preferred term to foresight because it is “less interested in futuribles (possible futures) than futurables (desirable futures)” (p. 1458). It is a term that still acknowledges that “the future is open” (p. 1460), especially because the world will continue to evolve parallel to the preferred futures and, therefore, preferred futures must constantly be reevaluated. While Sardar (2009) warns against the use of ‘futurism’ because it describes both an art movement and an Italian fascist movement (p. 179), James Dator (2002) uses it to describe the futurologists who, from the outset, identify a future they want (Dator, 2002, p. 7). This concept is in contrast to the concern of futures studies which takes into account the “manifold images of the future that exist in people’s minds” (Dator, 2002, p. 7) and tries to understand why these images vary across individuals and how these images lead to actions that “create certain aspects of the future” (Dator, 2002, p. 7). In his collection, “Futures Thinking in Higher Education”, Dator (2002), recognized that all the contributors “agreed that futures studies does not try to predict the future … before it has actually happened” (p. 5). Like many of the authors, Dator has concluded that the “future is fundamentally plural and open” (p. 6). A french term, “futuribles”, was invented to capture this concept (p. 6). This concept is also why futurists “forecast a wide variety of alternative futures” (p. 6), rather than attempting to predict one future. Dator also concurs with Sardar (2009) that the future cannot be studied, “since the future does not exist to be studied” (p. 7). “What does exist” to be studied, Dator says, “are “images of the future” in people’s minds” (p. 7).

Sardar considers himself a futurologist, a term used to describe those who study futures. As Sardar describes, there are many “tools with which we study the future” (Sardar, 2009, p. 178). For one, futurologists conclude different situations based on their research in very specific terms. The future cannot be “predicted”, for example, but “alternative futures” can be “forecasted” (p. 178). Forecasts, visions, and scenarios are “not the same thing as knowing the future” (p. 178). There are many methodologies in futures studies for determining “alternative futures” and influencing people to take action (p. 180). One such methodology detailed later in this paper is called “backcasting”.

What is Forecasting?

Sohail Inayatullah (1996) describes forecasting as one main attempt to “understand the future” and the “preferred technique of planners, economists and social scientists” (p. 187). The main assumption behind forecasting, he says, “is that with more information … decision-makers can make wiser decisions” (p. 188). Though likened to many forms of planning, there are actually many differences between common forms of planning (such as strategic planning) and taking a futures approach. First, while many planning efforts focus on the immediate future, such as creating a 5-year strategic plan, the futures approach tends to focus on creating the far future (five to fifty years) (p. 188). Also, as was mentioned previously, the futures approach is concerned with creating the future (rather than predicting it) (p. 188). It “attempts to include all stakeholders” in a participatory experience to create different “authentic alternative futures” (p. 188).

There are many qualitative and quantitative methods to forecasting, including the frequently referenced Delphi method that relies on a panel of experts, scenario analysis which analyzes future events and outcomes, and data mining. Erich Jantsch, a systems thinker and forecaster, contributed definitions and ideas on a few different methods. In 1967, he developed a framework for technological forecasting for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). He describes technological forecasting as the “probabilistic assessment of technology transfer” (p. 15), or the evolution of technology, from discovery to mainstream. In 1973, Jantsch created a frame of reference for using a systems approach in forecasting, which he says brings “all forms of human experience, into play as fully as possible and organizing them toward a purpose” (p. 1367). Some of his other forecasting work focused on policy sciences (1970), corporate planning (1968), and higher education (1969). Lastly, two popular methods for forecasting include trend extrapolation, where “quantitative data is collected for a period of time and scrutinized to see if any recognisable patterns are present” (Sardar, 2013, p. 59), and backcasting. Although it is often referred to as the opposite of forecasting, backcasting is a forecasting method that selects a preferred future and aligns policies and programs to achieve that future. Sardar (2013) says that backcasting has 5 steps: “(1) setting the agenda and identifying stakeholders; (2) construction of sustainable future visions; (3) backcasting; (4) elaboration, analysis and defining follow-up and (action) agenda; and (5) marshalling commitment to change” (pp. 84-85). In order to determine a “normative future” (p. 83), the exercise must involve a “broad range of stakeholders” (p. 84) with a very clear agenda. Backcasting forces a city or organization to develop a shared vision based on stakeholder input, which isn’t easy. Usually backcasting is depicted on a long wall. On the left side, a point is drawn for today. On the right side, three points are drawn vertically depicting three versions of a preferred future: the best scenario, the average scenario, and a less than ideal scenario. These points are then connected via three strings to reach the point to today. The next step includes working backwards to identify key indicators, usually on post it notes in one color. Finally, the step includes assessing risks, opportunities and actions on post it notes of other colors (Milan, 2007).

Though forecasting can be done in isolation, both Jantsch (1970) and Sardar (2013) don’t recommend it because one is not able to see the “mutual effect of a host of interconnected issues and other possible future events” (Sardar, 2013, p. 67). As another famed futurologist, Alvin Toffler (1972), reminds us, “every society faces not merely a succession of probable futures, but an array of possible futures, and a conflict over preferable futures” (p. 108). Though futurologists can study images of the future and conclude alternative futures, it is highly unlikely that everyone, whether around the world or in one organization, will agree on the preferred future. Toffler recommends that cities, schools, and organizations harvest these images, possibly by leveraging technology, through what he calls, “imaginetic centers” (p. 111). These centers would bring together creative people who could “speculate freely, even playfully, about possible futures” (p. 111).

What does it mean to create alternative futures?

A futurist may be hired or volunteers to coordinate a group that works to articulate their ‘images’ of the future. These images are brought about through a chosen method of forecasting. Most importantly, these images lead to the creation of alternative futures. In the chapter, “Universities without ‘Quality’, and Quality without ‘Universities”, James Dator (2008) says that “while the concept ‘Alternative Futures’ is similar to that of scenarios, the particular feature of alternative futures is that they are indeed substantially different from one another” (p. 99). He suggests 4 different ways in which they would be different. One alternative might be based on a “Continuation” of what is already occurring; the impact of not changing course. Another future might be based on some kind of “Collapse” due to one reason or another. A third alternative might come from the realization that ‘Continuation’ and ‘Collapse’ do not produce a preferred future, and influences the creation of a more coordinated, “Disciplined Society”. Finally, a fourth scenario, labeled the “Transformational Society” addresses a more fundamental change in society, “similar to the phase change from ice, to water, to steam” (p. 100).  Though there are many possible futures that can be addressed using forecasting, backcasting, imaginetic centers, and alternative futures, higher education is a future well worth considering. Dator recommends that futurists first look at the continuation of higher education, “modified only slightly to cope with things that do not fundamentally alter the substance, structure, and mission of higher education today” (p. 100).


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