Principles for Thinking about the Future
The future is complex and often paradoxical. We have not been taught principles for thinking about the future or strategies for improving foresight, despite the critical importance of clear forward thinking for our personal, professional, organizational, and societal success. Bengston (2017) identified a set of core principles for thinking about the future based on a review and synthesis of more than 50 years of futures research literature.
Ten Principles for Thinking about the Future
Principle 1: The Future is Plural
A core principle for thinking about the future is that it is plural: Rather than a single future, there are countless possible alternative futures. Plural futures are foreign to our normal pattern of speaking and thinking. In everyday English usage we refer to “the future” as if it is singular; futurists often talk about “the futures.”
Principle 2: The Future is Possible, Plausible, Probable and Preferable
Futurists often distinguish four separate but interrelated types of alternative futures: possible, plausible, probable, and preferable. Considering all four types of futures yields a more comprehensive and insightful forward view.
Principle 3: The Future is Open
Futurists frequently assert that “the future is open,” by which they mean it is not fixed and we have opportunities and freedom to influence the future in a positive direction. There are physical, biological, and social constraints on what is possible, at least within a certain timeframe, but within the realm of possibility the future is mostly open and our choices and actions can help create it.
Principle 4: The Future is Fuzzy
Knowledge of the future is always imperfect and severely limited – there are no facts about the future. This seems obvious, and yet large sums of money are spent every year on sophisticated efforts to accurately predict the future in finance, business, the environment, and many other fields. Unfortunately, the track record of these efforts has been poor at best. But imperfect understanding can still provide useful, even invaluable, guidance. Foresight does not have to be perfect to help us make better decisions and avoid mistakes.
Principle 5: The Future is Surprising
Related to the preceding principle of imperfect knowledge or fuzziness is the principle that the future will surprise us. Although change can be smooth and continuous—a trend line producing an expected future—it is often discontinuous and surprising, and even expected futures tend to arrive in unexpected ways and with surprising consequences. The most surprising future would be one with no surprises.
Principle 6: The Future is Not Surprising
The frequency and important consequences of surprising change might lead one to think that if we could step 20 or 30 years into the future, it would be an unrecognizable landscape. But in many ways—perhaps most ways—the future will look a lot like today and will not be surprising. The future contains continuity and change, stasis and flux.
Principle 7: The Future is Fast
The idea that change is occurring at a rapid and perhaps accelerating pace is widespread. An acceleration of the rate of change in recent decades has been observed, especially accelerating technological change but also social and environmental change. An implication of fast and accelerating change is that the future may be approaching much faster than we think. Significant change is possible in a relatively short time.
Principle 8: The Future is Slow
Abrupt and rapid change attracts the most attention, but the future is also powerfully shaped by slow, incremental change. Examples of slow change having significant cumulative long-term impacts abound: Global population growth, the slow encroachment of development, aquifer depletion, tropical deforestation, loss of topsoil, and infrastructure decay. Perhaps the ultimate example of slow change with massive long-term consequences is climate change, with its effects emerging gradually over many decades.
Principle 9: The Future is Generic
Futurists cannot study the future directly—how do you study something that does not currently exist? Therefore, one of the main tasks of futures research is to study people’s images of the future because these images help shape actions today and have significant consequences for the future. University of Hawaii futurist Jim Dator studied thousands of images of the future from a wide range of sources and found that they consistently fall into four general categories, which he calls the four generic futures: Continue, Collapse, Discipline, and Transformation.
Principle 10: The Future is Inbound
The study of the future is the study of change, and change can be inbound or outbound. Inbound change happens to us and comes from the external world beyond our control. Change that we create and is based on our decisions and actions is called outbound change. Individuals and organizations are often caught off-guard by inbound change because we focus most of our attention on what is occurring within our organization or field.