Assessing and Co-Creating Possible Local Futures Through Higher Education Institutions

Photo used with permission: Geh, Future.

Possible futures are impacted by a variety of “interlocking … global problems” (Slaughter, 1993, p. 257). The term, “world problematique” was coined by the Club of Rome to describe the predicament mankind finds itself in due to these interlocking problems that include, “pollution, overpopulation, loss of biodiversity, deforestation, armed conflict, starvation and the widening gap between the rich and the poor” (Slaughter, 1993, p. 257). It wasn’t until the 1960s that individuals, who later became known as futurists and futurologists, began to identify that, “man holds the options in his hands to shape his own future” and can intentionally “aim at alternate ‘futuribles’ (possible futures)” (Jantsch, 1972, p. 2). As Erich Jantsch points out, there is also a danger that is linked to futures thinking. “Playful modes of futurism”, as he describes it, that provide no “explicit links to action in the present – how to get from here to an imagined future” is “dangerous” because it “creates discouragement and even disenchantment with the future” (Jantsch, 1972, p. 2). While it is good to allow the imagination to run wild every once in awhile, mankind only benefits from the application of realistic futures work. The praxis side of futures studies includes preparing people for “surprise-free futures” (Bell, 1998, p. 40) through methods that indicate possible results due to current actions. These methods include, “constant monitoring, updating of forecasts, and reviewing of policy choices in the light of new information, and making responsive policy corrections” (Bell, 1998, p. 40). Through methods such as these, Wendell Bell (1998) believes that for individuals to, “become competent, effective, and responsible” (p. 41), they need to be aware and knowledgeable. Not only do they need to know about “alternative actions” (p. 41), but they also need to know the consequences of their actions.


There is a long list of futures methods that futurologists use to study the future. Wendell Bell (1998) creates a comprehensive list in his chapter, titled, “making people responsible: the possible, the probable, and the preferable”, “extrapolation of time series, cohort-component analysis, standard survey research, the Delphi method, cross-impact analysis, simulation and computer modeling, gaming, monitoring and scanning, content analysis, technology assessment, issues management, relevance trees, contextual mapping, participatory futures praxis including future workshops, social experiments, ethnographic futures research, and, most important, writing scenarios” (p. 39).

Scenario Writing

Scenario-writing is “essentially an attempt to view and combine various trends in a systemic way” (Jantsch, 1972, p. 86). As Erich Jantsch describes, “small single dimensional steps are taken (for example, in technological, economic,
 or political developments), the changes implied for the scenario are mapped, and decisions which have to be made (or may be made) due to these changes are then systematically explored” (Jantsch, 1972, p. 86). Scenario writing is a common method in futures thinking. As Inayatullah (1996) suggests, “they help predict the future, while for others, they clarify alternatives” (p. 202). It has been practiced at the Hudson Institute, a think-tank founded by futurologist and systems theorist, Herman Kahn, in the 1960s. Kahn and Weiner (1967) add that scenario writing includes studying alternative futures. This method, as the authors (1967) suggest, addresses two questions, “(1) Precisely how might some hypothetical situation come about, step by step? and (2) What alternatives exist, for each actor, at each step, for preventing, diverting, or facilitating the process?” (p. 6). Slaughter (1993) adds that having the option to choose a preferred future is like “using a road map to decide which route to take to a particular destination” (p. 101). Having the alternatives laid out allows individuals and organizations to make more informed decisions and take better courses of action.

Slaughter (1993) recommends picturing a “range of alternative futures” (p. 101). The following are a few examples that could be included in this range. A ‘breakdown’ scenario would explore “a future in which something important went wrong”. What is the aftermath of a nuclear bomb, another world war, the destruction of a forest, an Internet hack, a corrupt politician, declining enrollment, or employee turnover (Slaughter, 1993, pp. 101-102)? A ‘business as usual’ scenario ignores the systemic affects of evolving problems (p. 102). A ‘sustainability’ scenario acknowledges that the Earth’s resources are finite (p. 105). One document often cited in futures discussions is ‘The Limits to Growth’, developed by the Meadows team for the Club of Rome in 1972. It suggested that humanity’s propulsion to develop more, greater, and faster would lead to the exhaustion of the environment, and, eventually, humanity’s demise (Slaughter, 1993, p. 117).


Forecasting was a method referred to and used long before many other methods were documented. As Slaughter says, many people practice foresight in their daily lives as they consider how the past and present will impact their own future. Slaughter (1993) defines foresight as a “time-series data from the past to consider the likely path of future trends or the possible occurrence of future events” (p. 249). People take extra precautions when they think ahead, such as when they, “take a raincoat or an umbrella (even though the sun is shining), make an appointment or put money aside for a new car” (p. 113). Though many futurologists will explore general forecasting, many will utilize more specific forms of forecasting. As Jantsch (1972) defines, “exploratory forecasting, which starts from today’s level of knowledge and explores future feasibilities and probabilities, has to match normative forecasting, which implies the delineation of goals of the future and their translation into missions and tasks for scientific and technological development” (p. 48). One such futures method that is directed at technological futures is “technological forecasting” (Jantsch, 1972, p. 105). If society can recognize that it is “free to choose [its] own fate by guiding technological development” (Jantsch, 1972, p. 105), then it absolutely must commit to evaluating futuribles. Jantsch (1972) considers the impact of technology as the “most powerful means for transforming society”  (p. 105). Inayatullah (1996) states that the, “assumption behind forecasting is that with more information, particularly more timely information, decision-makers can make wiser decisions” (p. 188). This information is crucial since, as he concurs with Jantsch, “the rate of technological change has dramatically increased” (p. 188). There are several techniques used for technological forecasting, such as the Delphi technique (Jantsch, 1972, p. 20), developed by Olaf Helmer and others and uses a panel of experts.


Backcasting is another promising futures method. It identifies a futures scenario and traces back the events to the present, with the intention of working towards the future. As Slaughter (1993) mentions, backcasting is “often contrasted with forecasting” (p. 240). Soheil Inayatullah (1996) uses backcasting in conjunction with other methods. As the final stage, he works with his students on, “deriving strategy by going backward from the future and asking individuals to remember the historical events and trends that created the present” (pp. 112-113). As he points out, backcasting can result in action, such as creating strategic plans or experiments.

Efforts in Academia

There are a variety of methods that reflect the theoretical and academic side of futures thinking. Futures workshops are one such method. They are a, “structured sequences of activities which are organised around a particular theme or purpose” (Slaughter, 1993, p. 255), such as imagining a world with no trees. The hope is that empowering people to envision the future will compel them to take action. One activity sometimes conducted in workshops and classes is called a Futures Wheel (or Web). It is essentially a mind-map that draws out consequences of a particular event in the middle. Though they are useful for depicting the perspectives of multiple individuals, they are also “sensitive to underlying assumptions and outlooks” (Slaughter, 1993, p. 255).

There are also a variety of academic programs and courses offered in futures studies at higher education institutions around the world. Futures studies programs can be found at the University of Houston, the University of Turku, and TamKang University, to name a few. Soheil Inayatullah (1996), who teaches in the Graduate Institute of Futures Studies at Tamkang University, uses a variety of methods in his courses in order to, “contextualize data (the predictive) with the meanings (interpretive) we give them, and then locate these in various historical structures of power or knowledge” because he is “particularly concerned with decolonizing the future”, and an approach he calls “liberation pedagogy” (p. 111). In his classes at the University at Buffalo in New York, Sam Cole uses a “Heuristic Model” that combines futures approaches, including trend extrapolation, dynamic systems analysis and computer modeling, cross-impact analysis, the Delphi technique, and scenarios (p. 245). In addition, he incorporates an advanced version of the ‘jigsaw activity’, in which students are put into groups and “each member becomes the “expert” with respect to a given topic, such as conflict, culture, education, or technology” (p. 245). As Cole points out, students learn to work in multidisciplinary groups, but also they learn the art of systems thinking in the process.

Co-Creating Local Futures

There are many reasons for why higher education institutions may embark on co-creating their futures with their local communities. The first, as Kahn and Weiner (1967) state, is to attempt to predict conditions that are dependant on current decisions (p. 1), in order to avoid courses of action that lead to unfavorable futures. The authors (1967) also point out that traditional methods of dealing with problems are now obsolete because of the unpredictable nature of advancing communication, but also, “urbanization, industrialization, and modernization” (p. 3). In 1967, the authors couldn’t have predicted the impact that the Internet would have on all of these factors, making their point still relevant. Third, the authors also mention that man’s “power over nature threatens to become a force of nature that is itself out of control” (p. 413). The great environmental effects we now see are a result of a social structure built on rewarding those who consume well beyond their needs. Detrimental effects to the environment can have repercussions for centuries to come.

Erich Jantsch (1972) believes that such collaboration is inherent and necessary for the “psycho-social evolution of mankind itself” (p. 160). In 1972, he was able to see that just as mankind has crossed different evolutionary thresholds in the past, such as the development of towns and villages, to the trade that then began to occur between different towns and villages, mankind may be on an evolutionary cusp now. Instead of maintaining “fragmented social systems” (p. 160), the world society could work to become more integrated. The problems tackled by individual systems do not have to be tackled alone. Systems can ban together to leverage a larger network. Not only this, but Jantsch argues that such integration will be necessary to have a greater impact on the problems that plague communities today, including, “food, environment, development, etc.” (p. 160). In this regard, Jantsch argues that forecasting and planning must also have to be integrated and, “they become part of inventing, planning, and creating the future of society, not just of the particular institution” (p. 161).

Spaces and resources have to be provided for such a futures-oriented collaboration to occur, however. As it has been discussed, higher education institutions are best suited to oversee such a project because of their longevity. On some campuses, this collaboration might happen in a campus center. On other campuses, it might occur through an academic program. This area would provide, what Jantsch describes as, the “strategic antenna oriented toward society’s values as well as toward the future and maintain the dialogue with the educated public” (p. 241). He insists that such a center would maintain communication with the “triangle” of “government-industry-university” (p. 241). A small institution, for example, might translate Jantsch’s ideas to mean connections with local government, community organizations, and, possibly, local industry through seminars, conversations, joint-projects, and collaborative proposals. Jantsch refers to such a space as a “systems laboratory” (p. 241). Different collaborative conversations and projects may require different futures methods, and for that reason, Sam Cole’s heuristic approach to utilizing different methods at different times or in combination would be a good option for the centers and programs that would oversee such a project. On the institutional side, the goals of such a space might include: 1) forecasting the role of the institution and 2) forecasting the deployment of resources to fulfill such roles (p. 159).

It will first be important for these “systems laboratories” to agree on some priority areas. Slaughter (1993) gives a few suggestions for what these priorities might be. First, these communities might look at repairing the damage on the environment and community as a whole (p. 120). Another priority would be to focus on developing human capital, which Slaughter believes is a “key to cultural renewal” (p. 120). He says that people have such a wide variety of talents that are seldom engaged, but once realized, people can “become agents of change” (p. 120). Lastly, the capacity for and practice of foresight should be developed in individuals and processes at the institution and in the community (p. 120).

Institutions will then want to work to embed these priorities into their long-range planning. While most strategic plans focus on the short-term, futures thinking would create consistent elements across several, successive strategic plans. As Erich Jantsch (1972) states, long-range planning is about a “sense of direction”, with “short-range steps” (p. 1) taken in the meantime to react to environmental needs and changes. Wisely, he (1972) also suggests a different perspective on strategic planning, which he believes “is not about one inescapable future, but about a multitude of possible futures” (p. 1). Jantsch (1972) argues that two guiding principles should help institutions to integrate a long-range perspective that addresses social and technological futures: 1) institutions should focus on “technological missions” rather than specific technologies, and 2) adopt a “corporate development” (p. 165) approach that constantly synthesizes, assesses, and creates corporate strategies that align with technological missions. In other words, what Jantsch argues for is for “long-range perspectives” to drive institutional organization, rather than it looking for a place in the institution.

Long-term and strategic plans will no doubt include how to align curriculum and extracurricular activities towards campus goals. Wendell Bell (1998) says that it is often “a tragic irony that so many young people who have health, nearly a lifetime ahead of them, and endless choices for their own futures so often fail to take advantage of them” (p. 45). As has been mentioned, students can graduate without ever having been introduced to futures thinking, or the concept of possible futures. They might graduate and have one career goal on their mind, without considering the full complexity of what is to come in their life and the multitude of career doors that might open for them. They might not think beyond themselves, and see the full complexity of their place in a community, that is in a country, that is in a world. This is why Bell believes so strongly in teaching students how to forecast the implications of their actions, “select preferable futures”, and the importance of “ open and free discussion and exchange of views; emphasizing the use of reason and a willingness to change one’s mind when warranted by the evidence” (pp. 45-46). Long-range planning asks both institutions and students to acknowledge that, “through our actions, we influence the environment in which we live, and which acts back on our ways of life” (Jantsch, 1972, p. 3). This way of thinking is called cybernetics. Simultaneously, futures thinking compels both institutions and students to think about the alternative futures, select a preferred future and work along a path to achieve that preferred future, using a cybernetic approach.


Bell, W. (1998). Making People Responsible The Possible, the Probable, and the Preferable. American Behavioral Scientist, 42(3), 323-339.

Cole, S. (2002). Global issues and futures for planners: The heuristic model.Advancing futures. Futures studies in higher education, Westport et al, 241-263.

Dator, J. A. (2002). Advancing futures: Futures studies in higher education. Westport, Conn: Praeger.

Inayatullah, S. (1996). Methods and epistemologies in futures studies. The knowledge base of futures studies, 1, 186-203.

Jantsch, E. (1972). Technological planning and social futures. New York: Wiley.

Kahn, H., Wiener, A. J., & Hudson Institute. (1967). The year 2000: A framework for speculation on the next thirty-three years. New York: Macmillan.

Slaughter, R. (1993). The knowledge base of futures studies. Oxford [England: Butterworth-Heinemann.

Slaughter, R. A. (1993). Futures concepts. Futures, 25(3), 289-314.

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