IEET > Vision > Fellows > Jamais Cascio > Futurism
Futures Thinking: Scanning the World
Jamais Cascio   Dec 1, 2009   Fast Company  

Looking for the distant early warnings of tomorrow…

In “Futures Thinking: The Basics,” I offered up an overview of how to engage in a foresight exercise. In “Futures Thinking: Asking the Question,” I explored in more detail the process of setting up a futures exercise, and how to figure out what you’re trying to figure out. In this entry in the occasional series, we’ll take a look at gathering useful data.

Like the first step, Asking the Question, Scanning the World seems like it would be easier than it really is. In my opinion, it may actually be the hardest step of all, because you have to navigate two seemingly contradictory demands:

  • You need to expand the horizons of your exploration, because the factors shaping how the future of the dilemma in question will manifest go far beyond the narrow confines of that issue.
  • You need to focus your attention on the elements critical to the dilemma, and not get lost in the overwhelming amount of information out there.

You should recognize up front that the first few times you do this, you’ll miss quite a few of the key drivers; even experienced futurists end up missing a some important aspects of a dilemma. It’s the nature of the endeavor: We can’t predict the future, but we can try to spot important signifiers of changes that will affect the future. We won’t spot them all, but the more we catch, the more useful our forecasts.

The biggest problem you’ll face is wrestling with the limitless number of issues and forces related to your key question. In nearly every case, there will be too many for you to investigate them all. Moreover, only a few of them will be truly critical to determining the outcome of your problem. So how do you narrow down the drivers?

imageIn many ways, the best training for futures work is the study of history. Scenario-based forecasting can be thought of as anticipatory history—scenarios are often written as if looking back from the narrative “present” (which could be 2015 or 2020 or 2050 or whichever point your scenario is set) at how that world came to be. It stands to reason, then, that getting a handle on understanding what led to the real present will help you understand what will shape the future.

Digging up college history textbooks can’t hurt, but (as noted before) you probably aren’t trying to develop scenarios of the future of the world. Instead, you will need to dig up multiple perspectives (if possible) on how the subject of your dilemma got to where it is today, and then work your way backwards. How did your company come to need to look for new place to build a widget factory, for example? If the primary answer is “increased demand,” start looking at what drove that increased demand, and then what triggered that change, and so on.

The reason you want to find different perspectives is that you’re looking for patterns not answers. Are there cause-and-effect loops that seem to show up time and again? Do your various sources all point to similar processes? Your future scenarios won’t simply be re-tellings of the past—but they should reflect the kinds of drivers that have already proven to be important.

How far should you look back? The futurist rule of thumb is to look back twice as far as you want to look forward. If you’ve decided that your scenarios will be set 12 years out, then you’ll want to look back roughly 24 years. That may require you to look at parallel or competing organizations, but again: your goal is not to come up with universal causes, but to spot patterns.

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Jamais Cascio is a Senior Fellow of the IEET, and a professional futurist. He writes the popular blog Open the Future.


So why not also use science-fiction as a thinking tool :

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