What do futurists and foresight practitioners do? What qualities and skills are required among those who engage in this practice?

The term “futurist” is a generic term – generally referring to people who do work called “foresight” or “futures” practice.   One sees this referred to a number of ways among people who are occupying this role in government, business and academia as well in popular culture.

“Futures” work refers to a developing field of professional and academic practice that has been evolving for many years, most commonly is currently referred to as “strategic foresight” work*.  It specifically involves a disciplined approach to systematic individual and collective tools and processes that assist people in using knowledge, culture, creativity, imagination, logic and data to imagine possible futures and their consequences.   Insodoing, futures practice involves amplified strategic planning to navigate these possible futures – to enhance the probability of contributing or guiding towards desired futures, and decrease the probability or guiding away from undesirable futures.   As futures expert Maree Conway (2015) suggests, “the term ‘futures’ should always be viewed as a collective noun, in the same way we talk about ‘economics’ or ‘politics.’   The term is always plural, because there is always more than one future to consider.”

It is important to note, that all credible people who work in this area are careful and explicit to note that futures practitioners are not in the habit of “predicting” the future in any way.    Foresight practitioners use specialized tools to facilitate personal and systemic discovery, dialogue, insight and related action among interested individuals and/or groups who wish to have more agility, agency and effectiveness, in navigating an increasingly disruptive and unpredictable future.    Use of scanning and sensemaking, scenario planning, deep consideration of impacts of various individual and overlapping possible futures are all examples of activities that would comprise foresight building efforts.

It is related to, but different than, strategic planning.  While historically prevalent, strategic planning often works toward identified goals in a variety of ways, developing “a plan” and acting upon it,  whereas foresight work incorporates a more dynamic “container” for uncertainty, emerging shifts, and dynamic evolution.  Planning and action is involved in strategic foresight practice, but there is an assumption that plans will be in a constant state of revision through an action phase as new information, new disruptions and new dynamics will continue to play a role.   In strategic foresight work, plans are alive and evolving.  

Many suggest that strategic foresight practice, is as much “a way of being” in the world, as it is a set of philosophies, tools and practices. 

What is known about people who are successful in this practice area?    Upon examination, one can find many overlaps and intersections with social work practice.  Our profession has an opportunity to join with others and contribute our own emerging expertise and dedication to equity practice in these futures spaces.    However futures work has it’s own distinct voice, language and perspectives.   The following is a sample of ideas about this I’ve gathered a few ideas from well-known and respected sources.

Characteristics of “foresighters” – Conway, M. (2015).  Foresight:  An introduction.  Melbourne, Australia:  Thinking Futures.  

  • I am open to new ideas, including what others might call weird and whacky.
  • I am curious – I want to know why it is so.  I’m a good observer.
  • I think outside the box – I understand my field of practice but I’m interested in global change as well.  
  • I challenge assumptions about the future – mine and others.
  • I value diversity – I understand the perspectives are neither right nor wrong but just are.
  • I am resilient.  I understand the value of foresight to better understand the future, and that this future may be sometimes difficult to communicate.
  • I trust and value my expertise and knowledge to be able to identify observations relevant and important to my organizations future (p. 31).

What makes a good futurist?  Kedge (2017).  Strategic foresight primer.  Kissimmee, FL: Author.

Someone who will:

  • Crave curiosity (active ability to ask “why” relentlessly, or to build upon and go beyond obvious questions and answers, seek new connections, discover regularly and be effective getting others to do so as well)
  • Act courageously (see and move beyond what feels safe or known, and embrace that new perspectives emerge beyond comfort zones)
  • Welcome diversity (ability to challenge one’s own filters and work in teams comprised of different points of view)
  • Think outrageously (ability to stretch minds well beyond what is expected or “normal,” and be open to unusual and unexpected ideas)
  • Connect the dots (look for pattern in trends and signals)
  • Think in multiples (not one future but unlimited futures possible).

What is the role of a strategic foresight practitioner?  Angela Wilkinson (2017).  Strategic Foresight Primer. Brussels, Belgium:  European Political Strategy Centre. 

  • Futures midwife – helping new ideas be born and help new parents understand how to navigate what is happening.
  • Storytelling coach – using the power of storytelling to open new possibilities.
  • Window cleaner – helping people think outside the box and see beyond their usual constraints.
  • Map maker – enabling a bigger picture to be seen with new perspectives.
  • Psychoanalyst – help move through the anxiety of the unknown and help to create positive thinking, cultivating empathy, and deep reflection on peoples’ roles in understanding and setting paths forward through change.
  • Learning facilitator – engaging user-learners as reflective practitioners (p. 5).

Foresight practitioner role. (2018).  Foresight Practitioner Training Materials.  Palo Alto, CA:  Institute for the Future.

  • Analyst and synthesizer(absorb and synthesize information, create frameworks and metaphors to facilitate understanding and action)
  • Translator (organize discoveries and possibilities into languages and options that fit a particular organizational or community context)
  • Community facilitator (helping groups of many sizes imaginatively explore together and. find shared meaning in complexity, dynamic change and preferred paths forward towards the future)
  • Trusted advisor (present role model for futures thinking, provide informed input at multiple levels of organization, and help to drive future facing strategy).

*It is important to acknowledge that while “modern” futures work might be traced to the mid 1800’s in the Western world, it has other and more Indigenous precursors.   Numerous examples in literature focused on Indigenous perspectives on sustainability, principles of the 7th generation and others are essential resources to gain intercultural understanding beyond dominant cultural frames.

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