What is a futurist? Futurists are those
who look to and provide analysis of the future.
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
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.
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.
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
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?
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
futurist]. One who helps create or work toward bottom-up developed
(facilitated, emergent), group-, communally-, institutionally- or socially-preferred
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).
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
Studies - A Note on Belief, Multidisciplinarity, Science, Systems Theory,
Most, but not all futurists also engage in
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.
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
Explained and Freedom
Evolves, Daniel Dennett;
Intelligence, Dan Goleman;
the Mind Works, Steve Pinker;
The Eye, The Brain, and the Computer, Martin Fischler
Optimism and Authentic
Happiness, Martin Seligman;
Intelligences and Changing
Minds, Howard Gardner;
through Hyperspace, Cliff Pickover;
Adapted Mind, Barkow, Cosmides and Tooby;
Demon-Haunted World, Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan;
Electric Meme, Robert Aunger;
Meme Machine, Susan Blackmore;
Animal and Nonzero,
Mother of All Minds, Dudley Lynch.
Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins (Chapter 7 introduces the "meme");
for Thought, Howard Rheingold;
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
Feedback? Improvements? Let us know at mail(at)accelerating.org.