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Futurist (definition): (Twelve) Types of Futures Thinking
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by Acceleration Studies Foundation 00 The Future

What is a futurist? Futurists are those who look to and provide analysis of the future.

The Oxford English Dictionary traces earliest English usage of the term futurist to 1842, referring to Christian scriptural futurists. The next usage occurs with the Italian and Russian Futurists of the early 20th century (1900's-1930's), an artistic, literary, and political movement that sought to reject the past and rather uncritically embraced speed, technology, and violent change. Curiously, early modern visionary authors like Jules Verne, Edward Bellamy, and even H.G. Wells were not characterized as futurists in their day, but rather as philosophers of foresight, a closely related term.

The use of futurist and its synonym futurologist in the modern context of thinking about and analyzing the future began in the mid-1940's, when German professor Ossip K. Flechtheim coined the term futurology and proposed it as a new science of probability. Flechtheim argued that even if systematic forecasting did no more than unveil the subset of statistically inevitable processes of change and charted their advance, it would still be of crucial social value.[1]

Also in the mid-1940's the first professional "futurist" consulting institutions like RAND and SRI began to engage in long-range planning, systematic trend watching, scenario development, and visioning, at first under WWII military and government contract and beginning in the 1950's, for private institutions and corporations. The period from the late 1940's to the mid-1960's laid the conceptual and methodological foundations of the modern futures studies field. Bertrand de Jouvenel's The Art of Conjecture in 1963 and Dennis Gabor's Inventing the Future in 1964 are considered key early works, and the first U.S. university course devoted entirely to the future was taught by futurist Alvin Toffler at the The New School in 1966.[2]

Today the term futurist most commonly describes authors, consultants, organizational leaders and others who engage in interdisciplinary and systems thinking to advise private and public organizations on such matters as diverse global trends, plausible scenarios, emerging market opportunities, and risk management.

More generally, the label includes such disparate lay, professional, and academic groups as visionaries, foresight consultants, corporate strategists, policy analysts, cultural critics, planners, marketers, forecasters, prediction market developers, roadmappers, operations researchers, investment managers, actuaries and other risk analyzers, and future-oriented individuals educated in every academic discipline, including anthropology, complexity studies, computer science, economics, engineering, evolutionary biology, history, management, mathematics, philosophy, physical sciences, political science, psychology, sociology, systems theory, technology studies, and other disciplines.

The formal study of the future today goes by a number of names, including futures studies (the academic field's preferred term), future studies (a term that remains popular in lay writing), foresight and strategic foresight, prospective studies (Europe), prospectiva (Spain and Latin America), prognostics (Eastern Europe), futuribles (France) and a range of lesser-used synonyms (futurology, futuring, futuristics, etc.).

The following definition covers the most common futurist types/definitions that ASF researchers have identified to date. They may be loosely grouped into social and methodological foresight categories, and the latter types of each are seen in increasing rarity in the population. Thus these twelve may roughly comprise a set of developmental stages for futures thinking in general. As with many developmental models, most of us would be expected to engage in all of these types at least fleetingly, depending on context. Yet many of us, due to specialization, are likely to spend most of our time in certain clusters, and some, by choice or background, will have had little productive exposure to several types. Professional foresight practioners should seek proficiency in all of these types, and be able to competently use each of them as needed. How many of each do you use in your personal and professional life?

\Fu"tur*ist\, n.

Social Types

1. [Preconventional futurist]. One who thinks about the future in relation to self (ego, personal vision), but without either concern for or broad understanding of the norms and conventions of society.

2. [Personal futurist]. One who uses foresight to solve problems primarily for themselves, within the conventions of society, and whose current behavior is oriented to and influenced by their future expectations and plans.

3. [Imaginative futurist]. One who habitually develops future visions, scenarios, expectations, and plans in relation to self and others, knowing but sometimes breaking the conventions and norms of society.

4. [Agenda-driven futurist]. One who creates or works toward top-down developed (received, believed) ideological, religious, or organizationally-preferred agendas (sets of rules, norms) and their related problems, for the future of a group.

5. [Consensus-driven futurist]. One who helps create or work toward bottom-up developed (facilitated, emergent), group-, communally-, institutionally- or socially-preferred futures.

6. [Professional futurist]. One who explores change for a paying client or audience, who seeks to describe and advance possible, probable, or preferable future scenarios while avoiding undesirable ones, and who may seek to help their client or audience apply these insights (manage change).

Methodological Types

7. [Critical futurist]. One who explores, deconstructs, and critiques the future visions, perspectives, and value systems of others, not primarily to advance an agenda, to achieve consensus, or for payment, but as a methodology of understanding.

8. [Alternative futurist]. One who explores and proposes a range of possible or imaginable futures, including those beyond one's personal, organizational, and cultural conventional and consensus views.

9. [Predictive futurist]. One who forecasts probable futures, events and processes that they expect are likely to occur, in a statistical sense, both as a result of anticipated personal and social choices, and for autonomous processes that appear independent of human choice.

10. [Evolutionary developmental (Evo devo) futurist]. One who explores evolutionary possibilities and predicts developmental outcomes, and attempts differentiate between evolutionary (chaotic, reversible, unpredictable) and developmental (convergent, irreversible, statistically predictable) processes of universal change.

11. [Validating futurist]. One who seeks to evaluate, systematize, and validate the completeness (for critical and alternative futures) and accuracy (for predictive and evo devo futures) of methodologies used to consider the future.

12. [Epistemological futurist.] One who investigates the epistemology (how we know what we know) of the future, and seeks to improve the paradigms of foresight scholarship and practice



Social Types

1. Preconventional futurists
are engaged in the development of a healthy individual ego and care for self, but have not yet learned a mature grasp of the moral reasoning, norms and conventions of society. This important category is an application to futures thinking of the Preconventional, Conventional and Postconventional developmental psychology model of Lawrence Kohlberg, as observed by the futurist Peter Hayward. Preconventional thinkers may also lack a strong caring for others when in this level, as in the first stage of the the Selfish, Care, and Universal Care developmental psychology model of Carol Gilligan. Such futurists can be quite imaginative and creative, but too many in a group can easily disrupt/hijack discourse, as they are ego- or idea-centric and often low in social care or mutual understanding. As a result of their lack of care for convention, they may also be uninterested in and poorly aware of received social wisdom represented in science and culture. We can help preconventional thinkers to improve their discourse not only through early science and civics education, but most importantly by including moral reasoning education and discourse in our early education (and far less effectively, our college-level courses as well), the way Kohlberg did with his Just Communities primary school program. To induce preconventional futurists to be learning-oriented, the professional futurist community must practice valuable gatekeeping techniques, including high standards for admissions to futures studies programs, a complement of standardized tests (which can require an understanding of social norms and values to ensure average-or-above performance) in such programs, and certification and continuing education programs for practicing professionals. The futuring community must stress the importance of learning conventional norms, knowledge, and empathy/caring, key prerequisites to effective social futuring.

2. Personal futurists seek to solve their individual problems using their personal perspective on the future, and to change their present behavior based on their future expectations or goals. They do this primarily within the conventions of society. This requires practical envisioning, problem-solving, planning and managing the present based on your future models, beginning with your own personal life. Is your present behavior oriented to improving your personal future? Do your future visions measurably influence your present actions (e.g., do you "walk your talk"?) Do you acknowledge the need to make changes and sacrifices now for a future vision, or is your vision preconventional? Are your present actions measurably informed by your plans or are they dictated by the contingent "random" circumstances of your environment (e.g. what others tell you to do, what is presently occupying your mind, or what happens to or around you)? How often do you forsee yourself and your environment one hour into the future? One day? One week? One year? Both preconventional futurists and some imaginative, theoretical, and utopian futurists fail to make the leap to self-application, preferring the elegance of theory to admitting and managing the shortcomings of implementation. Serious futurists champion personal action and personal growth as a base for all social foresight work.

3. Imaginative futurists envision the future in a way that includes a mature understanding of the perspectives and conventions of others. They will also occasionally subvert, reinterpret, or break those conventions as well, sometimes with highly valuable results. After developing a healthy (and mostly preconventional) ego, and learning how to solve personal problems (at least enough to stay alive) gaining a broad world model and a healthy, active imagination is next most foundational skill for all futurists. Do you have an extensive understanding of the values, norms, and conventions of others? Can you usefully break them? Can you imagine justifiable exceptions to every rule? Can you envision personal, organizational, national, and global futures? Imaginative foresight, aided by hindsight and insight, is one of the most valuable and practical mental habits we can develop. The better our imagination, the better our ability to envision. Futurists do themselves a favor by reading as their primary method of gaining information, because reading aids the development of high quality, personalized, and imaginative mental constructs, based on minimal and efficient symbolic input. Visual symbolism is also important, but it must be accompanied by demanding imaginative work, or it builds only a surface-level visioning capacity. Serious futurists recognize the importance of reading extensively and selectively.

4. Agenda-driven futurists are any individuals who seek to promote a group's preferred future agenda in society and to solve problems related to this agenda. This work does not require extensively engaging the future visions of others, except in relation to their impact on one's (received, believed) social agenda. This represents the the most common type of socially-motivated futures work. Agenda-driven futuring involves the furthering of one's family's, organization's religious, corporate, political, or other agendas in society. A mother caring for her family is an agenda-driven futurist, as would be any strategic planner or politician engaged primarily in the advancement of one's group agenda in relation to other agendas. Scriptural futurists are an ancient example in this category. Italian Futurists, an artistic movement originating in Italy around 1910, were artistic futurists with a group agenda to explore the dynamic and violent qualities of life in the motion and force of modern machinery. Any pop futurists who have a market-motivated agenda to appeal to cultural norms also fit this category, as do fiction authors advancing social rather than strictly personal ideologies. Competition among conflicting group-oriented ideological agendas for the future is a natural component of healthy, open cultures.

5. Consensus-driven futurists seek to facilitate the emergence of collective consensus on preferred futures, and to guide groups, actively or passively, toward some at least partly democratic-preferred vision. Such individuals value social dialog and cooperation as much or more than competition and individual action. Mediators, facilitators, and visioning consultants are an important example of professional futurists who are also consensus-driven futurists, as are, at a less conscious level, managers and line workers who value the process of discovering group- and socially-preferred futures, as well as carrying out agendas. This type of professional futurism requires empathy and skill in cooperative process, the ability to articulate a range of individual visions, and it occurs most frequently in well-educated, tolerant, democratic cultures. Many socially-responsible corporations and international and nongovernmental organizations engage in this type of futurism, and highly valuable foresight methods like Delphi and prediction markets empower this type of futurism, which is helpful in our rapidly globalizing world. Consensus sometimes comes at the cost of individual or organizational excellence, but facilitating its emergence, in a way that protects innovation and variation, is essential to any serious foresight development process.

6. Professional futurists explore change for a paying client or audience. They also seek to describe and advance possible, probable, or preferable future scenarios while avoiding undesirable ones, and aim to help their client or audience apply these insights (e.g., manage change). Such work ranges from the informal to the formal, and might include something as simple as giving your "expert" advice to a friend in a written document, in exchange for services, to working in a staff position in a Fortune 500 company. This label encompasses the activities of some of the more successful self-declared futurists, who act as paid speakers, consultants, facilitators, or foresight employees in organizations. Achieving competency in this domain is a key objective of several professional communities engaged in strategic foresight (Association of Professional Futurists, Association for Strategic Planning, Institute of Business Forecasting, etc.), as well as the primary objective of several academic futures studies programs. Improving the professionalism and respectability of futures practice is a major way of improving social foresight. Do you use a range of personally selected methodologies to attempt to discover and chart a course toward a set of preferred objectives? Have you done this for a client or your company at any point in your career? If so, you are a professional futurist.

Methodological Types

7. Critical futurists seek to critique the assumptions, analyses, and conclusions of other futurists, not in relation to their own agenda, to achieve consensus, or for payment, but as a methodology of understanding. We all evaluate from the confines of our own values, but critical futurists seek to be broadly aware of the benefits and limitations of all value systems, their own included. This represents a foundational futures methodology, and at the same time, can be seen as the highest "social", or "normative" level of foresight development. Applying Kohlberg's (and pehaps Hayward's) definitions, this is also the first level at which one can become a fully-realized postconventional futurist, as critical futures work isn't beholden to social convention, consensus, or market. All prior levels (Imaginative to Professional futuring) are thus conventional, in most cases. One may be only superficially engaged in criticism, but the best examples employ a multidisciplinary, integral (e.g., Wilber's AQAL) approach. As futurist Richard Slaughter (1999) explains: "[The best] Critical work... attempts to ‘probe beneath the surface’ of social life and to discern some of the deeper processes of meaning-making, paradigm formation and the active influence of obscured worldview commitments (eg ‘growth is good’;‘nature is merely a set of resources’ etc). It utilizes the tools and insights that have emerged within certain of the humanities and which allow us to interrogate, question and critique the symbolic foundations of social life and – this is the real point – hence to discern the grounds of new, or renewed, options. Properly understood, the deconstructive and reconstructive aspects of high quality critical futures work balance each other in a productive dialectic." Methods in this area, such as futurist Sohail Inayatullah's causal layered analysis, help us gain a new understanding of the social construction of meaning and the range and interaction of human values.

8. Alternative futurists explore and propose future ideas that go beyond their own (personal), and their organizations and cultures (social) conventional or consensus views. After a critical understanding of social systems, the careful, comprehensive presentation of real alternatives (charting "the possibility space" for human choice) represents the next most basic methodology of futuring for individuals, organizations, and society. This process can use subjective or objective methods. Alternative futurism is engaged in by that subset of artists, authors, social pundits, news and entertainment media that don't explore just one perspective, but seek to address a number of possibilities beyond their own views. The most methodological of such futurists develop systematic scenarios (e.g., GBN) that highlight important dimensions of human choice, and inform difficult political/normative choices. The best alternative futurists have strong imaginations and empathy for others, and are integral interdisciplinarians who understand the plurality of human agendas, consensus/coordination mechanisms, and critical dialogs. One U.S. academic program, the M.S. in Political Science at the University of Hawaii, has pioneered an Alternative Futures specialization.

9. Predictive futurists seek to understand and forecast what is probable and predictable about personal, organizational, national, global, and universal futures, either as a result of anticipated collective personal and social preferences (e.g., a political pollster, operating on short predictive timeframes with a verifiable degree of accuracy and margin of error), or for autonomous processes, independent of alternative possibilities of human choice (e.g., the rate of technological change accelerating measurably on average across a planet, once it has electricity, or socialist democracy, or other attractor), or both. Methodologies range from the personal and qualitative predictions of pop futurists all the way to scientific theory, formal models, data-backed analysis, logic, and empiricism. The best predictive futurism requires a strong undergraduate education in science, and a respect for scientific method as a predictive way of knowing, one less subjective than culturally relative social discourse and nonscientific (non-"natural") philosophy. Predictive work is particularly challenging, falsifiable, and specific, and it is underutilized in most futures organizations. It was pioneered by some of the founding institutions of the futures studies field (RAND, SRI, etc.) but has yet to reach its full potential. Technology roadmappers, who extrapolate technological futures from historical trends and recent developments in science, are an important new example of this type. Emerging theories of MEST compression and other mechanisms of accelerating change are another. Other predictive futurists, though many do not identify themselves as such, include most scientists, forecasters, actuaries, underwriters, investment managers, systems modelers, and operations researchers, as well as those foresight consultants, business, political, legal, social, and personal futurists who engage in prediction. Improving the predictive social science methods of futures work (forecasting, modeling, hypothesis testing, statistics, measurement) will be critical to advancing the status of futures studies programs in coming years. As with other types of futuring, improvement in each level can be aided by the development of higher levels of futurism as well (see below).

10. Evolutionary developmental (Evo devo) futurists use the emerging paradigm of evolutionary development as a framework to analyze universal change, and isolate it into its parallel and interdependent evolutionary (choice-based) and developmental (force-based) processes. This model proposes that all physical change in the universe follows a partially-predictable, partially-chaotic process analogous to biological evolutionary development. In the biological domain, as with the telling example of genetically identical twins, most physical change at the molecular level is evolutionary (random, contingent, unpredictable, unique from twin to twin), yet a subset of change at the organismic level also developmental (predictable, irreversible, convergent, and observed in common between twins). In the same manner, while most universal change in this paradigm is observed to be highly evolutionary, a special subset of laws, trends, and emergent events (such as accelerating technological change and emergent technological intelligence, interdependence, and immunity) appear to be highly predictable, constraining, and developmental. It is our hope that the emerging fields of Evo-Devo Theory in biology, and Acceleration Studies and Universal Evolutionary Development Studies in science and systems theory, will help advance the methods and insights of all futurists in coming years. For more on the way an evo devo understanding of the modern world of accelerating technological change will likely impact the field of paid foresight practice, you may appreciate our remarks on professional futurists. Any foresight practitioner, scientist, researcher, or systems theorist who seeks to balance possibility and predictability ("choices and forces") in examining change, would fit this category, and it may be particularly common among evo-devo biologists, information theorists, systems theorists, cyberneticists, artificial intelligence researchers, and astrobiologists.

11. Validating futurists use a range of mechanisms to evaluate, systematize, and attempt to validate the methodologies used to generate foresight. Such work begins with the history of prediction, but extends into testing, replication, and refinement of predictive methodologies. It helps us determine the completeness of critical perspectives and alternative scenarios, the accuracy of predictions, and helps us validate which processes appear predictably predictable (developmental) and which appear predictably unpredictable (evolutionary). While the community of methodological futurists is small, and arguably smaller today than it was in the field's first zenith (1970-80), promising new methods (technology roadmapping, prediction markets, evo-devo science) continue to developed. We must expect and demand that the world's leading economies (the U.S., China, Europe, Japan, and others) increasingly realize the need to support institutions and communities of futures validation. Only with validation can we build a falsifiable set of methodologies for future modelling. In best practice, alternative futurists possibilty scapes, predictive futurists' forecasts, and evo devo futurists models are regularly backtested against available data, and foretested against reality.

12. Epistemological futurists investigate the epistemology (how we know what we know) of futuring, and thereby seek to advance the paradigms of foresight scholarship and practice. We return to Slaughter for a good (but partial) description: "Epistemological futures work... merges into the foundational areas that feed into the futures enterprise and provide part of its substantive basis. Hence what has been termed the ‘social construction of reality’ philosophy, ontology, macrohistory, the study of time, cosmology, etc are all relevant at this level. It is here that the deepest and, perhaps, the most powerful forms of futures enquiry operate...." To this we must add that epistemological work also clarifies and catalogs the growing body of validated and socially discovered, not socially invented knowledge about the universe. This distinction between invention and discovery in our accelerating scientific knowledge base is key, and it eludes many social relativists/postmodernists. Discoveries like mathematics, the wheel, electricity, or Newton's laws are not subjectively constructed as much as they appear to be independently and convergently discovered objective constants of our physical universal environment. In other words, while much knowledge is evolutionary and socially unique, some appears astrobiologically developmental—we would expect it to emerge in the same general form, on different planets with different social specifics, given our universally-operating set of physical laws, constants, and constraints. Chief among these developmental discoveries is the growing realization, from many independent lines of evidence in science and technology, that human social intelligence and autonomy on this planet are soon (in cosmologic time, at least) to be rapidly exceeded by the accelerating intelligence and autonomy of our technological extensions.


Futures Studies - A Note on Belief, Multidisciplinarity, Science, Systems Theory, and Predictability

Most, but not all futurists also engage in futures studies, or the systematic and rationally-grounded exploration of change. Preconventional futurists, however, would generally not. Also, while personal untested and presently unverifiable belief is an essential element of all knowledge acquisition (epistemology), minimization of such belief is a generally accepted principle in both scientific and scholarly inquiry. Thus some belief-driven futurists, including those religious futurists, astrologers, mystics, and others whose work utilizes personal revelation rather than logic or empiricism, would also not fall within a consensus definition of the futures studies term, as used by most practitioners.

The best futures scholars strive to be transdisciplinary systems theorists. It helps to be open to learning the unique dynamics of all physical systems around us, not just to visualize within the domain we find most comfortable. Seeking multidisciplinarity is a never ending, lifelong process of balanced inquiry, and a very rewarding journey.

As we discuss in our section on Advanced Degree Programs for understanding and managing accelerating change, the more multi-disciplinary your perspective, the better you will be able to understand the fundamental mechanisms and language of the specialists, and at the same time employ them within the models and outlooks of the generalists. Such background will equip you to see the outlines of the Biggest Picture of all, the statistically inevitable developmental trajectories of the cosmos and the constrained future of local intelligence.

Just as developmental biology and ecology provide fundamental understanding of predictable futures on the human and global scales, the canonical example of predictable developmental trajectories on the universal scale is represented in the physical sciences. Celestial mechanics, thermodynamics, general relativity, physical, inorganic, and organic chemistry, and other domains of physical science all give breathtaking insights into the necessary future of many large and fundamental systems in our universe, over astronomical timescales. These are subjects every Big Picture futurist critically needs to understand, at least at the level of the college undergraduate. Those who are not familiar with the basic insights of these subjects are missing many of the fundamental constraints and forces shaping our future environment. As one consequence, their predictions for the future will often be biased more toward human creativity, without balancing that creativity with human discovery, including our increasing characterization of natural constraints on the human enterprise.

While the physical trajectories and dynamics of still-more-complex systems (life, the human species, our increasingly autonomous technology) operate over much shorter timescales, at much faster rates, and are certainly harder to discern and quantify today, the role of the Big Picture futurist and systems theorist is to progressively uncover the regularities, predictabilities, and constraints of such systems. This requires the development not only of basic physical sciences proficiency, but a general complex systems intuition, the ability to device crude indicators and measurement systems for one's predictions, the ability to use a language comfortable with probabilities, and the desire to test one's futures intuition wherever possible against reality.

Futures Studies - A Note on Self-Knowledge and Human Limitations

As we contemplate the possible future we would also do well to keep the known and suspected unknown limitations and biases of the human brain in mind. Below are some valuable books, among many, that we have found helpful to better understanding human mental abilities:

Consciousness Explained and Freedom Evolves, Daniel Dennett;
Emotional Intelligence
, Dan Goleman;
How the Mind Works, Steve Pinker;
Intelligence: The Eye, The Brain, and the Computer, Martin Fischler
Learned Optimism and Authentic Happiness, Martin Seligman;
Multiple Intelligences and Changing Minds, Howard Gardner;
Surfing through Hyperspace
, Cliff Pickover;
The Adapted Mind
, Barkow, Cosmides and Tooby;
The Demon-Haunted World,
Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan;
The Electric Meme
, Robert Aunger;
The Meme Machine, Susan Blackmore;
The Moral Animal and Nonzero, Robert Wright;
The Mother of All Minds
, Dudley Lynch.
The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins (Chapter 7 introduces the "meme");
Tools for Thought, Howard Rheingold;
Why People Believe Weird Things, Michael Shermer;

Understanding the nature, common pitfalls, and limits of human inquiry can help us avoid classic traps and dogmas, including the false threats and promises of many of the most successful memeplexes in global culture, and allow us to see through scenarios which are more a reflection of our own human-centric fears and idealizations than a realistic assessment of what the universe seems busily engaged in doing. We need the ability to be humble and to truly look and listen to see beyond our own individual and collective limitations.

Thanks to Stuart Candy and Wendy Schultz for helpful input, and to Peter Hayward, Rick Slaughter, and Jose Ramos for their futures classification models.

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