What is Futures Thinking?

I am often asked what is futures thinking and Futures Studies. For me futures thinking is an approach to the present that reframes issues in the light of future possibilities. Such possibilities lie inherent within the present but are often obscured by habit and conditioning. The present however is richer and less stable than we take it for and when futures thinking is activated we can find great resources in ourselves, our communities and organisations, and our cultures and civilisations.

Activating these resources is the goal of futures thinking. Futures Studies is the applied knowledge field futurists are developing in order to enable futures thinking and futures activism. It is a combination of practical activities (tools and techniques) with philosophical and theoretical insights (concepts and ideas). It is informed by case studies, reflection, participatory and anticipatory action learning and the research methods that underpin and inform this learning.

Some practitioners are inclined to describe Futures Studies as a discipline in the same way that history, sociology and mathematics are disciplines. I am reluctant to do so, preferring Futures Studies to remain less defined and more mobile. Certainly it relies on a new, futures, orientation as the place to start new thinking but it is highly transdisciplinary and this is to its advantage.

For me Futures Studies is a pragmatic approach to the present that relies on a hands on approach to structure while working beyond structure with the longings, yearnings, myths, histories and aspirations of people.

Here are some important insights into futures thinking for you to consider:

  • Futures thinking is designed to help us rethink the present.
  • Futures thinking is not intended to help us predict anything.
  • Futures is designed to help us creatively rethink the present in the search for ethically and humanly sustainable outcomes.
  • Futures work is about relationships across scales and between systems of being.
  • Futures thinking helps us understand relationships between temporal zones; geopolitical identities; modes of being (such as nature, modern, human, non-human; etc…); our various selves within person and culture.
  • Futures thinking helps us find alignment across these relationships to greatly increase our capacity to work with the world without being overly defined by it.
  • Futures thinking works with structure in order to allow us greater flexibility in shaping structure.
  • Futures tools are designed to open up structure to inquiry that builds capacity.
  • The tools themselves are the product of structure and like structure should be understood as simply a tool that is more or less useful for a task.
  • Structure on its own is a shell – yet many people accept it as reality and thus deprive themselves of agency.
  • They are prisoners of temporal habit – the dullness of the present bounded by a conditioned experience of the past.
  • The cultural work at the heart of good futures however is attitudinal and values oriented – it is about active ethics.
  • Futures thinking is about alternative lines of flight towards human and natural conditions which are optimal and therefore sustainable for the long term.
  • Futures thinking is partisan in that it is always focused on maximising the capacity of those in context to achieve their desired goals – this partisanship needs to be tempered by a relational ethics that seeks to maximise the fulfilment of the potentiality of the collective and its individual members rather than working for the narrow interests of a group.
  • Thus Futures thinking is all about moving from the probable, to the possible to the preferable.
  • The world we live in is completely new in so many ways – the future cannot be a repeat of the past. The conditions of human existence are such that we face entirely new challenges and we therefore need new social learning skills to negotiate our way into this fascinating yet dangerous period.
  • Futures thinking should build the psychological and emotional resilience to cope with the challenges and obstacles of the present so that we feel hopeful rather than overwhelmed by the prospect of the 21st Century and our effective place within it



Author: rhizomicfutures

Educationalist and futurist who teaches world history and futures thinking at the University of the Sunshine Coast, Queensland, Australia.

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