Futures thinking

In academic circles futures thinking is associated with futures studies.  Futures studies is described as an interdisciplinary “collection of methods, theories, and findings” (Miller, 2003, p.7) that helps people to ‘think constructively about the future’ (Bell, 1996 cited in Codd et al 2002, p.5).  It has also been summed up as “the rigorous art of imagining”, with applied expressions across a range of fields from big business to education for sustainability.

The emergence of futures studies

The emergence of futures studies is generally credited to the late 1960s and early 1970s.  Three groundbreaking books of that era include Alvin Toffler’s 1970 Future Shock, Alain Touraine’s 1971 The Post-Industrial Society. Tomorrow’s Social History: Classes, Conflicts and Culture in the Programmed Society, and Daniel Bell’s 1973 The coming of Post-industrial Society: a venture in social forecasting.

Shell’s 1969-1970 Horizon Year Planning project led the way within business by constructing possible scenarios for business 15 years into the future.  When one of its least expected scenarios (an unprecedented dramatic oil price hike) became reality less than three years after the project began, Shell’s readiness to act swiftly encouraged other companies to take up scenario development.  However, after a decade of popularity, enthusiasm in scenario planning is said to have waned in the 1980s.  Some commentators blamed its demise on misunderstandings about both the process and purpose of future scenarios as “the method became used over-simplistically, with confusion between forecasts and scenarios” (van Wieringen, Sellin and Schmidt, 2002).

Forecasting versus scenarios

This point about the difference between forecasts and scenarios is an important one because it hints at a range of ‘ways of thinking’ associated with scenario development specifically, and within futures studies in general.  Scenarios have been described as “internally consistent and coherent descriptions of hypothetical futures” often at least 20 years ahead of current time (OECD, no date). Forecasts tend to be more concerned with accurate prediction.  However, various typologies of both forecasts and scenario methods exist, with some overlap, and these are just two of the analytic tools used to imagine possible futures.

Different assumptions about the future

How and why specific tools are designed can be partly explained by the kinds of assumptions that drive different futures thinking projects.  While some futures thinkers might assume that the future can be extrapolated from past and present trends, others expect – or at least create space for – radical and unforeseen transformation.  Likewise, some might prioritise articulating a preferable or probable future for people to then plan towards, where as others open up possible futures in a far more exploratory and divergent manner. These lines of difference raise deeper questions about how, and for what purpose, “the future” is conceived. Some suggest that the goal is to make preferable futures more probable, by visualising what we want to create and then committing to it. Another common goal is to be to be prepared for the remotely possible (as in the case of Shell).  Others might argue that distinctions between possible, preferable, and probable futures are counterproductive, because how we act in relation to them in the present defines their likeliness in the actual future.

Riel Miller (2003), who works on the OECD’s Schooling for Tomorrow project, provides an educational perspective.  For him the aim of futures thinking is “neither prediction nor advocacy” but “to pursue the unknown”, an idea closely associated with complex systems thinking.  Miller suggests that when people are supported to become creative and rigorous futures imaginers, they come to realise that the future is not something that will happen to them tomorrow but is being created by everyone today.  He refers to futures thinking as a “navigational tool” for “changing the nature of decision-making in the present” in ways that are “embracing [of] complexity, interdependency, and real-time decision-making”. In other words futures thinking helps people to think about and design for emergent outcomes within complex systems—outcomes that, by definition, cannot be fully known.

Futures thinking for shifting thinking

Opening up a space for people to envisage possible futures can be a “motivator for getting unstuck” (Ogilvy, 2006) by enabling new insights into interrelated patterns that could be reoriented to disrupt past trajectories and create alternatives.

Want to know more?

If you are inspired to blog about any ideas in this page please go to the FFI blogspace.

If you’re keen to find out more about education futures thinking and New Zealand’s own Secondary Futures project you could read NZCER’s evaluation report Exploring possibilities.

Look at the Strategy NZ: Mapping Our Futures website


Bolstad, R. Taking a future focus in education – What does it mean?. Working paper. Wellington: NZCER.

Codd, J., Brown, M., Clark, J., McPherson, J., O’Neill, H., O’Neill, J., Waitere-Ang, H., & Zepke, N. (2002). Review of future-focused research on teaching and learning. Wellington: Ministry of Education.

Miller, R. (2003). Where schools might fit in a future learning society (Vol. 129). Melbourne: Incorporated Association of Registered Teachers of Victoria.

OECD Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (no date).  The starter pack: Futures Thinking in Action.  Paris: Author.

Ogilvy, J. (2006).  Education in the information age: scenarios, equity and equality.  In Think Scenarios, Rethink Education.  Schooling for Tomorrow series.  Paris: OECD. p.21-37.

van Wieringen, F., Sellin, B., and Schmidt, G. (2002) Future education: learning the future. Scenarios and Strategies in Europe 2002. Available at: http://futuresavvy.net/wp-content/uploads/scenario%20documents/Future-Education-Europe.pdf