Futures Thinking and Strategic Foresight – Summary of Become a futurist, by the Metafuture School

I recently completed a course on Futures Studies – Become a futurist, by the Metafuture School. Here are some of the key insights.

General planning thinks about one future. Futures thinking, in contrast, thinks about multiple possible futures. (The field of futures/foresight used to be about concrete things like predicting future demand, but there’s so much uncertainty that this was a waste of time.)

Thinking about different futures helps us remember that different possibilities exist, and that they are man-made.

We should see the future as an asset – an input into the world we wish for. It’s an input into questioning and changing today. Ivana Milovević said that “The future is not an empty space but, like the past, an active aspect of the present”.

Strategic Foresight is the creation of alternative and preferred futures, with an understanding of the worldviews and metaphors that underlie them, and the working out of what we need to do differently to manifest them. By thinking about different possible futures, we can deliberately work to bring about the one that we want to see. “The grass is greener where you water it.”

The point about worldviews and metaphors is crucial – if we ignore this, then the work is superficial and incremental. In most of our questions there are assumptions about reality, culture, and the right way to do things. If you’re doing foresight, you’re questioning these things. So we need to question the cultural basis of our questions, seeing them not as universal, but as problematic as well. “Our questions are actually congealed knowledge. Thus questioning also has to be questioned.”

Metaphors and frames shape people’s responses. If you think of crime as a ‘beast’ you will be inclined to put money into policing. If you think of it as a ‘virus’ you will be inclined to put money into education and ending poverty. Librarians are moving how they see themselves from ‘keepers of the collections’ to ‘innovators of the gardens’.

So we need to ask: how is the world changing? And do I have the appropriate paradigm or worldview to handle this? What do I need to change about how I see the world to have more choices, and see more possibilities? You need to transform your culture and your metaphors, otherwise you won’t be able to see or realise these desired futures. So you need to find a new story that will help create a new future.

The way you think about the world is a risk. It could be too narrow – so you need to involve different perspectives in thinking about possible futures. Ask: who’s not in the room?

The general approach to Futures is:

  • Challenge the Used Future (old practices that persist even though they don’t help us now)
  • Scan the environment for emerging issues and weak signals
  • Don’t wait until the bad times
  • Create alternative futures
  • Find the macro-pattern
  • Make the vision real
  • Link story to strategy
  • Focus on change agents
  • Make sure everyone is in the room. (When you’re running a workshop creating a vision, you need funders in the room. You need experts with data, citizens with ideas, administrators who can carry things forward, and funding agencies who can provide money. It’s crucial to include people who object to change – put them in charge of the old paradigm that you’re disrupting, as you make things safe in the new paradigm for them.)

The course recommends two different methods for doing this – a shorter method and the longer 6 pillars method if you have more time.

Short method

Outline the broad question that you’re interested in, e.g. ‘the futures of nursing in 2030’.

  1. Where from? What is the history of the issue? E.g. write down 3 events that led to the present.
  2. Where to? What are your forecasts and fears relating to the issue, if current trends continue?
    E.g. by year X, Y will be true.
  3. Assumptions. What are the critical assumptions you have made about the issue when creating your forecasts?
  4. Alternative futures. Develop 3 or 4 alternative futures based on different assumptions/trends.
  5. Want. What is your preferred future? Pick characteristics of your desired future. E.g. certain things that you’d like to be true.
  6. How. Create the preferred future through backcast: Imagine that we have already got to the desired future. How did we get to the preferred future?
  7. Inner story. Transform the old story to the new metaphor. What is a supportive metaphor for your preferred future?

6 Pillars Method

1 Mapping

Tool one: Futures Triangle

Label the sides of your triangle: Pulls, Pushes, Weights.

Pulls: What’s your vision of the future?
What does it look like? What are its characteristics? Where do you want the organisation to be in 30 years? Where do you want to be in 30 years?

A good vision enables, ennobles, is rational, emotive, neither too near nor too far.

Drivers / Pushes: What are the trends pushing things into this future?
E.g. new technologies, social trends, demographic, policy, legal or funding changes.

This course mentions 2 sources of insight into future trends: Futures Platform and Shaping Tomorrow. There will also be figures in your industry who are doing this type of thinking – e..g Azeem Azhar and Ben Thompson in technology.

Weights: What are the barriers holding back change?
Who benefits from the status quote – or loses if it changes? What are the deep structures that resist change?
E.g. organisational structures, policies, regulations, procedures, knowledge structures, ways of thinking, historical narratives, existing investments in infrastructure, technology, education, social contacts, demographics. Barriers might also include a paradigm fixation – a focus on what has worked in the past, or what the organisation was established to do.

Once you’ve produced a triangle, explore its implications for your strategy.

Perhaps you want to find a way to lighten the weights, or to ride an inbound wave of pushes. Or you may find that no-one really understands where you’re trying to get to, which suggests that you need to create a compelling vision. You may identify some messages that you want to communicate.

You may end up with competing images of the future.

You can use the triangle to outline desires or preferences, or for more pragmatic thinking.

An example futures triangle on China’s futures (N.B. much of this article seems suspect, and likely orientalist):

Tool two: Futures Landscape

Ask people where they are spending most of their time:

  • The jungle (day-to-day survival, competition, scarcity)
  • The chess set (strategic thinking dominates)
  • The mountaintop (broader strategic futures and the ‘big picture’)
  • The emerging future and vision (the transformative, purposeful, directive vision for the future)

Then reflect on whether you might want to change this and expand your thinking.

2 Anticipating

Ask: What might disturb things?

Emerging Issues Analysis (Graham Molitor): Spot weak signals that could be dramatic if they come to pass.

Futures wheel: take an emerging issue. As a group:

  • Brainstorm first and second order consequences
  • Then think about the wider impact that each of these would have on industry and/or society.

Then think about how we might enhance or suppress each effect.
(Disagreements are good – capture divergent understandings in separate bubbles.)

3 Timing

Ask: are there deeper patterns to the future you’re interested in?

There are 4 common patterns: pendulum (e.g. moving between centralisation and decentralisation over time), linear (things getting better over time), cyclical (rise and fall), spiral (going into the future, but with some of the past going with you).

Knowing your context will help you think through how you want to try and change things.

Aside: The Sarkar Game is a group educational roleplaying game that helps people think about group dynamics and power relations over time, through the interplay between Worker, Warrior, Intellectual and Capitalist. Here’s an article with several interesting examples of it being played (see also this overlapping writeup).

4 Deepening

Causal Layered Analysis is a great way to explore what’s blocking the success of a desired outcome – the blocker is usually at a deep level, so needs unpacking and understanding before it can be resolved.

Causal Layered Analysis suggests that there are 4 levels of reality:

  1. Litany: The data we see every day. Headlines. The surface problem. The official public description of the issue.
  2. Causes / System. Systemic – social/economic/political/technical/environmental. Incentives and structures that bring about the surface litany. How might we incentivize the outcomes we want to see?
  3. Worldview / culture/ ways of knowing. The big picture, the paradigm that informs what we think is or is not real. Sits beneath the systemic stuff. The cognitive lenses that we use to understand or shape the world. What’s the worldview that we want people to have? What are alternative discourses?
  4. Deep metaphor / the unconscious story. Myths and metaphors – you generally cannot take a rational approach here. Is our metaphor supporting our strategy? Do we need a new metaphor?

We need to work at all 4 levels. And we need to unpack how all stakeholders see the future.

Once you’ve worked out the myths, metaphors and worldview, you need to map that to systems and incentives/measurements.

You can do Causal Layered Analysis for a current situation, or for a desired future situation.

5. Creating alternatives

Create scenarios to think about risks, find new possibilities, clarify hidden assumptions, understand different people’s perspectives, or to help resolve a conflict by getting people to imagine different futures.

Some standard scenarios to think through: best case, worst case, what happens if you don’t change (BAU), outlier.

There are 5 methods for coming up with scenarios:

MethodHow to do itStrengthsWeaknesses
Assumptions-basedState the key question you wish you knew the answer to
What are the key assumptions?
Based on these, articulate 4 different scenarios.
Useful for getting out of business-as-usual thinking, and for highlighting existing assumptionsDepends on the creativity, insight and expertise of the participants
Double VariableIf there are two big uncertainties, you could plot a 2×2 grid, and explore the scenarios that emerge in each, showing the impact of low/high versions of the two dimensions with each other.

(e.g. government- versus industry-led on one axis, and social model of disability versus medical model of disability on the other)
Good at short-medium-run strategyNot as good at picking up foundational changes or outliers or thinking outside the box.
Multivariate scenarioPick a bunch of different drivers (from the futures wheel, or identified some other way) and for each of them, develop a scenario of the future.
Each scenario should be driven by a different factor or based on different assumptions. Technology. Demographics. Economic cycles. Changing consumer expectations. And it is important to have a contingency scenario that describes a dramatic system collapse. That is, where everything goes back to zero, where we all have to relearn everything.
Useful for periods of transition, to ensure that multiple perspectives are included.

Good at creating direction. 
Can be hard to select the right variables.

Less useful for medium-term strategy than the double variable approach
Organisational scenarioDevelop these from current organisational strategies.

Look at: Business as usual, worst case, outlier and best case. 
Thinks more broadly than the double variable method

Sets direction.

Easy to do
Less obviously applicable in the short-to-medium term than the double variable method

Can be hard to reach agreement
Integrated scenario methodOutline the following scenarios:

Preferred scenario (best case)

Disowned (selves and the futures that are uncomfortable, and not what you want)

Integrated (combining preferred and disowned)

Outlier (unknown unknowns and from emerging issues. Even if this doesn’t come to pass, what can we learn from aspects of this future?)
Incorporates disowned future, which makes it more plausible.

Useful for dispelling idealism.
Requires depth

Once you have your scenarios, apply Causal Layered Analysis to each of them.

(Some words of warning/advice: If you don’t think in terms of CLA, then people won’t buy in to things – people can’t buy into the story, and they can’t see themselves in that future. If you don’t follow the previous steps in the Pillars (Mapping, Emerging Issues Analysis, etc), then you just get safe scenarios that are rooted in the present.)

Ask: What’s a day in the life like in this world? This makes it real for people. What does your day look like?

This creates space for pillar 6, renegotiating with stakeholders: what is the ultimate preferred or desired future?

6 Transformation

This step entails visioning and then backcasting.

3 methods for visioning:

  1. Analytic: write down the Causal Layered Analysis for the preferred future. How is reality measured, what is the prevailing system, the preferred worldview or culture, and the underlying narrative?
  2. Interview: get quick-fire responses to get at peoples’ real thoughts and feelings. In each different future, what does your daily life look like? (Work, technology, family, nature, challenges.) What do you wish the future to be like? What is your desired future?
  3. Creative visualisation (by Elise Boulding and others).
    “Step along a path, one step per year into the future. Arrive at a hedge separating the present from the future. Travel through a door in the hedge to your preferred future. See it. Then see an ancient tree. Walk into it, and walk up the spiral stairs to the sixth floor where you meet your future self (or a mentor, teacher or loved one). This person gives you life advice, and an artefact to help on the journey. Then open your eyes and write down aspects of the preferred future.”
    Audio version of the visualisation narrative

Once you have visions and preferred futures, you can negotiate between them.

Then you can back-cast:

  • Start at the future point of the goal having been achieved.
  • Ask: what needed to be true to get there.

This helps avoid people feeling downbeat about how far away the future state is. It can also be useful for negatively-inclined people: instead of just saying “but we won’t get funding”, invite them to work out what will positively need to be true to get funding. Then work out how to make those things true.