Defining futures thinking

It's not easy to define futures thinking and foresight because it seems to be the norm in this field to re-invent definitions on a regular basis.

Defining futures thinking

It's not easy to define futures thinking and foresight because it seems to be the norm in this field to re-invent definitions on a regular basis.

This expansion of terms happens because people want a definition that fits their worldview about futures which is totally understandable, but the resulting myriad of words makes it difficult for the field to explain itself in a common way. What follows is my interpretation of the perils of unfettered terminology that I wrote for my PhD thesis. References are available to download if you want them.

Discussion about what the field should be called emerged in the 1970s (Amara 1974; McHale & McHale 1976; Boucher 1977). Öner (2010, p. 1024) provides a list of FSF terms, pointing out a lack of consistency in usage that leads him to suggest that “the time has come for Futures Studies and Foresight to focus on the definitions of the concepts used in the field”, a task attempted by van der Helm (2013, p. 24) who considered more work needed to be done on “defining the future”. Sardar (2010, p. 7) points out that:

The terms we use to describe the study of alternative futures is important. Disciplines and discourses do not emerge from a vacuum but have a history and a cultural context; and their names can hide as much as they reveal.

Terms such as futurology, futurism, prospective, and prognostics have been used (Andersson 2018) and calling futures studies a ‘field’ has been questioned (Marien 2002, 2010). Foresight is used in a variety of ways – as a cognitive capacity (Hayward 2005a; Ehresmann 2013; Rhisiart, Miller & Brooks 2015), as practice (Giaoutzi & Sapio 2013) and as method (Krawczyk & Slaughter 2010; Popper 2013; Curry 2015a). ‘Futures research’ is also used in opposition to ‘futures studies’, the former taking a more quantitative or ‘rigorous’ position, while the latter is more qualitative in nature (Slaughter 1982). Inayatullah (1993, p. 236) saw this division as “two modes of knowledge – the technical concerned with predicting the future and the humanist concerned with developing a good society [italics in original].” Miller (2018, p. 55) sees the current discourse as defined by forecasting – “futures generated by closed anticipatory assumptions” – and foresight – futures invented by combining open and closed anticipatory assumptions.”

Gidley (2016) calls the division a “bifurcation” of the field into more constructionist/interpretive futures studies approaches and positivist futures research, which neatly reflects the paradigm wars of the social sciences (Denzin & Lincoln 2005; Given 2017). Poli (2013) notes “while both positions have something to offer … they are both unilateral and (in their own way) dogmatic”, suggesting that futures thinking and practice should seek to remain open, rather than conform to any existing disciplinary definitions (Denzin & Lincoln 2005; Adams & Roulston 2006; Given 2017).

Slaughter (1993, p. 292) seems to concur with the open stance when he describes ‘futures movements’ as an addition to future studies and futures research: movements generated by people outside the field who collaboratively create movements “such as the women’s movement, the peace movement and the environmental movement, as well as many NGOs [non-governmental organisations] … the most successful of these movements are among the main agents of change.” This stance also aligns with the third Habermas interest: “the human emancipatory interest; or, simply, the fundamental interest of all persons in freedom, self-constitution and unconstrained conditions of life” (Slaughter 1998, p. 5).

Most recently, ‘anticipation’ has entered the language of FSF, not from within the field, but from a wider movement to establish anticipation as a scientific discipline (Poli 2009, 2017; Aaltonen 2010; Miller, Poli & Rossel 2013; Sharpe & Hodgson 2017; Voros 2017a; Miller 2018). A concept researched in many disciplines from biology to psychology to neuroscience, Miller, Poli and Rossel (2013, p. 3) define anticipation as: “All efforts to ‘know the future’ in the sense of thinking about and ‘using the future’ … the future is incorporated into all phenomena, conscious or unconscious, physical or ideational, as anticipation.”

Notably, anticipation is positioned as “a combination of capacities that allow human beings to consider and evaluate the present in the light of the way they imagine the future [and is] a key contributor to the human activity of decision making” (p. 53), which is not unlike the language and definitions used to describe FSF. Miller (2018) has developed a framework for developing ‘futures literacy’ that potentially incorporates FSF as a specialised form of anticipation – but, as an emergent discipline, the impact of anticipation on FSF is not yet clear. An initial reaction suggests that the differences between the two approaches may be fewer than their similarities (Curry 2016).

Indeed, preferences for different terminology to define what it is futurists and practitioners do and how they do it may be usefully considered to be a fundamental characteristic of the field – particularly since language use is usually culturally, temporally and context determined (Elder-Vass 2012; Alvares & Faruqi 2014; Putnam & Banghart 2017), especially in government or corporate sectors, where ‘seriousness’ is mandatory.

I also wrote in my thesis that the field is probably better off now addressing its theoretical base than its terminology, but the proliferation of definitions is probably now slightly out of control. Just to prove that point, here are some of my definitions:

Anticipatory Assumptions: adapted from the work of Miller (2018), anticipatory assumptions are the taken-for-granted beliefs we draw on when we are asked to imagine the future. Six different types of anticipatory assumptions exist a spectrum of open (seeking emergence) to closed (seeking a specific future).

Foresight: the innate human capacity to think about – to perceive –futures in a systematic way to imagine and engage with alternative futures and to then identify those futures which need to be shaped, nurtured and felt in the present.

Futures: a collective noun, in the same way that we talk of ‘economics’ or ‘politics’. The term is always plural because there is always more than one future available to us in the present. I believe that the term 'the future' needs to be replaced by 'futures' to highlight this point.

Futures Consciousness: closely related to foresight, this is defined as "the human capacity to understand, anticipate, prepare for, and embrace the future. Futures Consciousness is a set of individual abilities and tendencies that can be shifted or developed with practice" (Futures Consciousness Profile Database, University of Turku).

Futures Studies: the broad academic and professional field now developing globally as well as research, methods and tools that are available to us

Please feel free to add your views below and join in the conversation. All views are very welcome.