Examples of Universities Doing Futures Work

(This list will likely evolve with time! Not intended to be an exhaustive inventory – just good to have some ideas about how different schools approach this topic. Check back if you’re interested to see updates.)

Stanford 2025: An exploration of undergraduate experiences of the future

Future Foresight: Dubai

Georgia Tech: Creating the Next in Education

Arizona State University: Center for the Study of Futures

University of Houston: Foresight Program

Envision UC Davis: A Forecasting Game

Hawaii Futures Studies: University of Hawaii at Manoa

Carnegie Mellon Design

Turku University/Finland

Qualities of Good Questions – An Essential Futures Frame

Just loved this list of qualities of good questions from Kelly (2016). Good questions are the key to being ready for new futures and ultimately, when executed well, the most human of our strengths. I’ll post a fuller review of the book (which I liked very much!) later, but until then, here’s one from the web. Consider these and add more! Thinking about this “what are the most important things for social work to do to be ready for a dynamic, unpredictable and turbulent future?” I think part of the answer…is challenging ourselves to ask better, deeper, more disruptive questions with courage and creativity…!

“A good question is like the one Albert Einstein asked himself as a small boy ‘what would you see if you were traveling on a beam of light?’ That question launched the theory of relativity (E=MC2) and the atomic age.

  • A good question is not concerned with a correct answer.
  • A good question cannot be answered immediately.
  • A good question challenges existing answers.
  • A good question is one you badly want answered once you hear it, but had no inkling you could before it was asked.
  • A good question creates new territory of thinking.
  • A good question reframes its own answers.
  • A good question is the seed of innovation in science, technology, art, politics and business.
  • A good question is a probe – a ‘what if’ scenario.
  • A good question skirts on the edge of what is known and not known, neither silly nor obvious.
  • A good question cannot be predicted.
  • A good question is one that generates many other questions.
  • A good question may be the last job a machine will ever learn to do.
  • A good question is what humans are for (pp. 288-289).”

Kelly, Kevin (2016). The inevitable: Understanding the 12 technological forces that will shape our future. New York: Penguin Books.

Jobs of the Future

There is a huge literature and tremendous public discourse about the future of work. Here’s a few resources that can help you get a sense of what is out there. As social workers – we have two dual tracks of inquiry: 1) How will this future of work impact vulnerable communities, and 2) How will the future of work change the actual practice of social work? Here’s a bunch of interesting “jobs of the future” that I’ve collected – several might directly, and a few others, indirectly – be places where social workers might find themselves. Collecting these stretches my thinking about how much has changed and how quickly. Just to get your brain warmed up…here’s a few jobs that didn’t exist 10 years ago…

Popular jobs today that didn’t exist 10 years ago:

  • App developer
  • Social media director
  • Uber driver
  • Drone operator
  • User experience designers
  • Airbnb host
  • Cryptocurrency manager
  • Influencers/evangelist
  • Genetic counselors
  • Big data scientist
  • Cloud services specialist
  • Chief listening officer
  • Digital marketing specialist
  • Podcast producer
  • Search engine optimization analysts
  • Content moderator
  • Virtual assistant
  • Telemedicine health specialist
  • Sustainability director

Public Interest Technologist

Jobs of the Future…!

Nuclear Fusion Energy Sales

Robot Paramedic

Quantum Computer Programmer

Virtual Reality Spotter

Ultra-Exotic Destination Travel Agent

Professional Luddite/Digital Detox Services

Here’s where these came from!

Chief Productivity Officer

Excess Capacity Broker

Drone Manager

Private Industry Air Traffic Control

Medical Mentor

Self-Driving Car Mechanic

Autonomous Transportation Specialist

Personal Medical Interpreter

Human-Technology Integration Specialist

Wholeness Mentor (think life coach but more so)

End of Life Coach

Here’s where these came from.

Commercial Space Pilot

AI Lawyer

3-D Food Printer Engineer

Augmented Reality Architect

Dismantlers (talent that relates to ending industries at the end of their life cycle/or in profound disruption) – mentioned in this list:  prison system, hospital and healthcare, income tax system, government agency, education system, college and university, airport security, airport customs

Atmospheric Water Harvesters (and other technological approaches to weather management)

Global Data Integration Specialist

Sharing Economists

Future Sports Specialists

Sensor Anthropologists

3-D Printing Specialists (body parts, houses, and much more)

Personal and Global Internet of Things Integration Specialists

Energy Transition Specialists (as the national electric grid breaks down)

Bio-factory Doctors, Strategists and Developers

Micro-College Specialists

Bio-meat Factory Engineers

Extinction Revivalists (people who revive extinct animals)

Robotic Earthworm Drivers

Avatar Designers

A Selection of Online Talks That Can Boost Your Futures Literacy – March 13, 2019

Ruja Benjamin – From park bench to lab bench. What kind of future are we designing? (2015)

Ruha Benjamin – The new Jim Code: Race, carceral technoscience, and liberatory imagination (2019)

Yuval Noah Harari – 21 Issues facing the 21st century 2019

Douglass Rushkoff – How to be “Team Human” in the digital age 2018

Amber Case – Cyborg anthropology and why it maters (2014)

Jane McGonigal – Gaming can make a better world 2010

Joy Buolamwini – Algorithmic Justice League 2018

Anab Jain – Why we need to imagine different futures 2017

Peter Diamandis – Imagining the future: The transformation of humanity 2017

Walida Imarisha – Living the legacy: Afrofuturism & possibilities for Oregon 2018

Nnedi Okorafor – Sci Fi stories that imagine a different Africa 2017

Nicolas Negroponte – A 30-year history of the future 2014

Michael Bennett, Ytasha Womack, Wale Oyedije, and Aisha Harris – Afrofuturism: Imagining the future of Black identity 2015

Greta Thunberg, Youth climate activist and the global youth movement leader. 2018

Marina Gorbis – The history and future of work 2015

Octavia Butler – Why you should read the Afrofuturist legend Octavia Butler

Bettina Warburg – How the blockchain will radically transform the economy 2016

UNESCO/Riel Miller – How to build “Futures Literacy” 2018. This author has a book called Transforming the Future which is available free online here.

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.

Futures-Inspired Quotes – A Developing List

“I’m smart enough to know I’m dumb.”  Richard Feynman

“Keep being what people aren’t ready for.”  Emma Magenta

“Study hard what interests you the most in the most undisciplined, irreverent and original manner possible.”  Richard Feynman

“Any useful statement about the future should at first seem ridiculous.”  Jim Dator

“I see a time of seven generations when all the colors of mankind will gather under the sacred tree of life and the whole earth will be one circle again.”  Crazy Horse

“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”  Alvin Toffler

“The future started yesterday, and we’re already late.”  John Egend

“Things are getting better and better, and worse and worse, faster and faster.”  Tom Atlee

“Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”

― Arundhati Roy

“Prediction is very difficult, especially if it is about the future.” Niels Bohr

“Let us put our minds together and see what life we can make for our children.” Sitting Bull

“Fail to dream about the future, and you forfeit your role in its creation.” Max Elder

““We believe it is our right and our responsibility to write ourselves into the future.” Walidah Imarisha and adrienne maree brown

“Without memory, there is no culture. Without memory, there would be no civilization, no society, no future.” Elie Wiesel

“The present was an egg laid by the past that had the future inside its shell.” Zora Neale Hurston

“The start to a better world is to believe that it is possible.” Lily Tomlin

“In dealing with the future, it is far more important to be imaginative than to be right.” Alvin Toffler

“My interest is in the future, because I’m going to spend the rest of my life there.” Charles Kettering

“Envisioning and making the future must be a massively public endeavor.” Marina Gorbis

“Hope locates itself in the premise that we don’t know what will happen, and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act.” Rebecca Solnit

“We cannot expand our self, and our collective self, without making holes in our heart. We are stretching our boundaries…it can be painful. Of course there will be rips and tears. When we imagine a better future, we should factor in this constant discomfort.” Kevin Kelly

Collecting Definitions of Strategic Foresight – the Core of Futures Work

Strategic foresight is a decades-old discipline that allows us to create functional views of alternative futures and possibilities (Salvatico & Spencer, 2017, p.1)

Foresight competency models include six basic progressive and interrelated sets of intellectual tasks:   framing, scanning, futuring, visioning, designing, and adapting (Hines, Gary, Daheim, & van der Laan, 2017).

Ultimately, the power of foresight lies not in its tools and methods, but in its ability to alter perspectives.  For this reason, strategic foresight is not just useful within strategic planning, but it also provides a new lens through which to reframe all of our outdated, Industrial Age processes that are no longer effective in our VUCA environment (Salvatico & Spencer, 2017, p. 2).

Foresight is a systematic, participatory, future-intelligence-gathering and medium-to long-term vision-building process aimed at present day decisions and mobilizing joint actions. Foresight arises from a convergence of trends underlying recent developments in the fields of ‘policy analysis’, ‘strategic planning’ and ‘future studies’. It brings together key agents of change and various sources of knowledge in order to develop strategic visions and anticipatory intelligence.    (European Commission Research Directorate General: A Practical Guide to Regional Foresight (FOREN), 2001).

The future is not just something that happens to us but something we create every day with the decisions we make (Savatico & Spencer, 2017, p.4).

Strategic foresight calls for a systematic analysis of identifying driving forces of change before developing policies and plans. These efforts are aimed at finding solutions and policy responses that are likely to bring positive outcomes. Hence,
these activities enable better preparedness, because they generate explicit, contestable and flexible sense of the future.   By doing so, old and obsolete imagery of the future (that organizations sometimes hold on to) can be refreshed. New imagery of the future makes it possible to reveal and test assumptions of our understanding of the world. Moreover, insight about the meaning of possible futures also enables the organization to capitalize on opportunities, particularly ones that are in the long-term future that few people are aware of.  New…strategies can emerge from understanding these opportunities (Duijine & Bishop, 2018). 

Strategic foresight, and more specifically, scenario planning, act as an immune system within our organization, allowing us to create multifaceted strategies that are effective no matter which future emerges (Savatico & Spencer, 2017, p. 4).  

Foresight: Acting wisely in the present, with conscious intent to shape a deeply desirable future. This intention requires us to learn to act in light of explicit and adequate anticipations of the full range of ways one’s future context and its implications may develop. Such anticipations must be tested reflexively and even . meta-reflexively.    Strategic: Having to do with establishing, reinforcing or changing the fundamental trajectory of a person or group into and through the future.  Strategic Foresight: Acting with foresight (see above), paying particular attention to trajectory-altering events, forces, threats, opportunities and commitments.  Strategic foresight informs and provides a context for management/policy, just as management/policy provides a context for operations/administration. Strategic foresight is the applied art/science of the pure art/science of futures research (also called futures studies). Strategic foresight is focussed on one’s context. Its purpose is to ensure the continuing relevance of the person/organization in question.   (Nelson & Forsight Canada, 2015).