Rising to the challenge of the 21st century: the role of futures research and practice

This short essay is adapted from a short piece I wrote during my time as Visiting Senior Research Fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, for their publication Global-is-Asian.


More than ever, futures research is needed to support people’s critical understanding of the challenges we face in the 21st century, and support the development of actionable responses through public policy and social innovation. The field has evolved since the 1950’s through differerent stages, a linear / predicticive modality, systems thinking and the birth of alternative futures, critical futures studies, and participatory and action oriented approaches. The key issues in applying futures studies include the need for depth exploration, links with effective communications strategies, and the actionability of foresight through policy development and social innovation.


The age of ad hoc and naïve long-term thinking is over. While humanity stumbled through the 20th century, through two catastrophic world wars and a cold war that led us to the brink of annihilation, and unbridled industrialization with profound ecological impacts, we will not have such wriggle room in the 21st century. The megacrises we face now require us to proactively identify and address a myriad of emerging issues using rigorous futures research, empowering and inspiring proactive anticipatory policy development at every level.

The need for rigor and credibility arises from the inherent slipperiness of the future as a domain of inquiry, too often exploited by quacks with either grandiose claims which pander to bias or predictions that leave people with a false sense of certainty. Credible futures research does not carry the pretenses of iron-clad certainty, but through analysis reveals the potential implications of social and ecological change, and what public policy responses (and flexibility) this demands from us in the present.

By anticipating emerging issues, we can proactively address emerging issues rather than become the proverbial “boiled frog”. Arguably, a litany of frogs are already in the pot, either simmering away or already at full boil: from issues such as climate change, sustainable food production, water management and equity, peak oil, and population growth, to digital surveillance / souveilance, nano-medicine, life extension, neuro-enhancement and designer-human technologies, robotics, alternative currencies, peer to peer production, augmented reality and intelligent cities, runaway financialization, globalization driven social strategification, urbanization and slums, threats to indigenous cultures, virtual education, potential technological singularities (e.g. artificial intelligence), militarization of space, super-power re-alignment and regionalization, shifting expectations for political expression and finally …. the urgent need to understand and care for the many aspects of our global commons.

Rather than boiled frogs, futures research can help us become “leaping frogs”. People need grounded yet inspiring visions of sustainable and empowering futures in every aspect of life, to motivate and empower change, and counter the paralysis and escapism caused by fatalism. Futures research can help us to leap creatively toward proactively addressing our challenges. If our guiding visions in the 20th century revolved around industrial and technological advancement, 21st century visions must also include and emphasize ecological, cultural, aesthetic and spiritual / moral development.

A futures research synopsis

Visionaries, prophets and Cassandras have been with us from the beginning. Systematic futures research, however, is only approximately 60 years old.

In the post WWII context, the emphasis on planned development in both Western, ex-colonial and Socialist states drove the development of new research tools, for example trend extrapolation and statistical modeling. Future oriented research began through the disciplines of planning, statistics, econometrics and the policy sciences. Generally speaking, futures research in this period assumed the future could be predicted based on existing trends and the application of institutional policy mechanisms.

The next stage in futures research, based on systems thinking, emerged in the early 1970’s. The limitations of forecasting-as-predication, and an appreciation of the complex interactions between multiple trends / variables in a system began to emerge. Trends could no longer be naively extrapolated into the future, what about their interactions? Drawing on pioneers in systems dynamics at MIT such as Jay Forrester, The Club of Rome’s produced their groud-breaking study, the Limits to Growth, which was followed by a host of other systems modeling efforts, which revealed alternative development paths. New distinctions emerged, for example the difference between probable, possible and normative (preferred) futures, wildcard (low probability but high impact) events, and a new acknowledgement of the human capacity to envision and create change. With scenario building as an important new tool “the future” became the plural “futures”.

The next stage in futures research, termed “critical futures studies” emerged in the mid 1980’s. Richard Slaughter in his 1984 PhD incorporated how perspectives condition and frame futures studies and research. Futures research is fundamentally skewed if it ignores how language and discourse frame an issue. Research on global futures by the RAND corporation differs from the Tellus Institute, not by a matter of degrees but by a matter of discourse. What is rational and valuable from one vantage point may be insane (or inane) from another. And, power permeates our visions, images and articulations of the future. The vision for large scale industrial modernization had led development efforts, but who or what have been left out  of this image of the future? Critical futures encourages us to ask: ‘Who is written out of the future?’ Women, children, community, the poor, indigenous people? And how can they be written back in? Ivana Milojevic, for examples, argues that because futures research is dominated by men (much like the field of planning has historically been), futures research outcomes and strategies have reflected men’s interests: technology, economic growth, innovation. A feminized futures research would be geared toward community, child care, education and relationships. As futures research may be gendered, it may also have cultural, ideological and discursive blind spots. How then do we reflect on and break out of the limitations of our perspectives? Sohail Inayatullah created the tool Causal Layered Analysis to explore how unexamined discourses, worldviews, ideologies, myths and metaphors underpin conceptions of we hold about the future, and to provide a way to discover alternative vantage points that lead to alternative futures. Zia Sardar argued, in the domain international development, our futures were already colonized, and Ashis Nandy asked, what do our utopias (our preferred futures) disown?

Finally and most recently, from the mid 1990’s, the field has developed participatory and action-oriented futures approaches, strengthening its capacity to engage a wide variety of stakeholders from across various parts of a social system to create common ground and common vision, and enable actionable outcomes for policy development. Many call this actionable and organizationally embedded style of futures research ‘strategic foresight’.

These four levels in the development of futures studies and research are not mutually exclusive, but rather integral to the continuing maturation of the field. A holistic approach incorporates each of them depending on the contextual requirements of the research and public policy development requirements.

Using futures research for empowerment

There are a variety of ways to employ futures research, however I’d like to highlight three key aspects: exploration, communication and action, all of which require well developed strategy.

Exploration in futures studies means expanding our awareness in relation to an issue. This requires environmental scanning to explore signs of change and innovation (via emerging issues analysis). As William Gibson is said to have said (although I have no proof of this!), “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.” Exploration implies understanding change, deepening our awareness of how our perspectives shape our research, and developing alternative futures via scenarios.

Communication in futures studies is critical. In a classic sense this means knowing how to frame futures research for a particular audience to have maximum impact, for example drawing on George Lakoff’s cognitive linguistics. In an educational setting it can mean giving students the tools of critical media literacy, to enable our youth to critically examine popular images or narratives of the future which may be fatalistic and energy-sapping; or like futurist David Wright, to teach students to create media about the future, using the tools of the social media revolution. It also means developing communications platforms that allow groups to harness their collective intelligence in thinking about futures, an example being the Institute for the Future’s “Foresight Engine”, a massively multiplayer online scenario gaming system.

Action in futures studies means linking an organization’s or community’s vision with its strategies and day to day work. Re-freshed visions for inspiring futures need to be linked with viable strategies, social innovation and action. Futures research needs to be concretely linked with policy development and social innovation, such that deepened strategic understanding and envigorated vision become resources for how we live in the present. Finally, action also means embodying our preferred futures by following Gandhi dictum to “be the change we want to see.”

Today more than ever we need empowering approaches to our global and local futures. Futures research offers some approaches that, in tandem with other disciplines and perspectives, help us address our world’s challenges. Futures research forms an important ingredient in the recipe for empowering people in the present to create inspiring futures in many aspects of life. It is not a promise or guarantee, but with a bit of love and care, from little seeds come the alternative futures we seek.