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  • Jackie Nagtegaal

What is futures studies?

Yesterday I read an article, When Futurism Led to Fascism, in WIRED magazine, and it made me think of all the misunderstandings that exist in the futures field. I often get asked, "what exactly is futures studies? Is there really such a thing as futurism?" My kids joke that I keep a crystal ball in my jacket pocket. And then, there's the Marinetti-crowd, an orbit in itself, much like the tech-junkies with their solutionist approach, who believe even the most complex social situations can be solved with the right algorithm.

I thought of diving into it a little and sharing some musings on the development of the field of futures thinking. A field which offers a variety of symbolic, intellectual and practical responses to the world problematique. 

Since the dawn of time, human beings have been concerned with the element of time. The setting of the sun causes in us an anticipation of tomorrow. It's our primal desire to survive, and to survive we have to adapt according to the changing seasons of time. In order to do this, some concept of planning is needed. To plan, one has to have a future perspective, or more eloquently put by John McHale, ‘human survival itself is very largely predicated on the conscious capacity to organise present actions in terms of past experience and future goals.’ Or as Bertrand de Jouvenel frames it, 'the undertaking of conscious and systematic forecasting is simply an attempt to effect improvements in a natural activity of the mind.'

The concept of futurism, although as old as time, was really brought to the centre stage in the Western world by H.G. Wells, who became known as Mr Futures. He claimed that most forecasts at the time, took the form of fiction. This was not necessarily true, as the previous century saw the emergence of futurists, and as the middle class journals and reviews expanded, so did future views. 

From there various different viewpoints and musings on things to come sprouted in different locations. From the John Robert Seeley, who praised the value of historical studies as it helped the student to 'modify his views of the present and his forecast of the future' to William Baxter, a science journalist at the turn of the century who said, 'understand the rate of change and the future is an open book.'

When one deals with the development of futurism, and try to define it as a discipline or concept, you come to realise exactly how heterogeneous the field is. It is vast, yet the perspectives are predominantly western.

Futurism is, in a formal sense, readily gaining professional credibility. Although it has been rearing its head for hundreds of years, defining it as field of study has lead to great debates and different schools. The greatest argument is still the art-science-schism. Ikka Niiniluoto's argues that Futures Studies is a 'decision science’ while Herbert Simon holds it's a 'design science'. And so there are multiple views on the emerging field. Wendell Bell, the Yale University philosopher, argues that some of the pioneers like Bernard de Jouvenel said futurism could, by its very nature, not be a science. 

Future studies, simplistically, boils down to anticipating various futures which are possible, probable and preferable. By looking at the present, we can draw certain assumptions of possible scenarios that would or could develop. The role of futurism is to critically engage with this probability and make the future, by intervening in the natural process. 

This has a degree of science to it, as it studies the world in all it magnitude, and human behaviour, in all its complexity to enhance the art of conjecture. 

From my point of view, futures studies is not about scientifically researching the future; rather, it considers options, possibilities for change, different entry points into understanding a particular long-term problem, as well as new and innovative concepts for problem-solving. Futures studies focuses on probabilities, ideas, desires and hopes, as well as the fears people foster or develop in response to the future.

Futures studies is about thinking and creating alternatives, about enabling and encouraging as well as perceiving possible, even likely, but most importantly, desirable futures.

The current state of the world is of great concern. Resources are fast depleting, the world is literally heating up, over population and many pop fear mongering headlines, the continuing doubling of Moore's law are scaring the world into a dystopia, chiming along to Leonard Cohen's version of the future, "I've seen the future, brother, it is murder."

The true future thinker, however, ventures on, with optimism. Knowing the future is still to unfold and what we do and plan influences it. We steer the ship into the valley of time with the possibles beckoning us to make it real. 

Those possibles are ours to make. 

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