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.

New Words in Futuring: Emerging Vocabulary for Social Workers #1 (December 2018)

As I’ve continued on a futures learning journey, I’ve noted a great deal of new vocabulary springing up.   Think back – there was a time when the term “social media” was really cutting edge.  It is not clear which of these terms will “stick” and evolve into powerful forces, but it is clear that they are all in circulation and connected to trends associated with a futures lens.   I’ll be producing these lists periodically when I gather enough to make an interesting list.   Where possible, I’ll always insert a link or two to provide context/background.   Please note that most of these resources are not organized or written by social workers.   My point in sharing them is these tend to be terms that people are talking about but ARE NOT generally in high circulation formally in social work circles.  Yet these terms represent areas of civic, cultural or scientific relevance that will impact vulnerable people and/or our profession (in either positive or negative ways – or sometimes a combination of the two).   I believe we need to be discovering, talking about, and contributing to the discourse around these (and other) emerging issues related to the future.   This is an “in process” and ever evolving exercise.  If you have any futures terms you think might be of interest to social workers – please send them my way at nissen@pdx.edu.   I’d love to include them in future lists.

Afrofuturism . A movement in literature, music, art, etc., featuring futuristic or science fiction themes which incorporate elements of black history and culture.  Oxford Dictionaries .

Afrofuturism

What the heck is Afrofuturism? (2018)

Octavia’s Brood

Algorhithmic racism .  Increasing attention being paid to the embedded “built in” bias inherent in the digital world.

Algorhithms of Oppression (2018) by Safiya Noble

Discrimination Algorhithms (2018)

Computational propoganda.   A term and phenomenon that encompasses recent digital misinformation and manipulation efforts. It is best defined as the use of algorithms, automation, and human curation to purposefully distribute misleading information over social media networks (Woolley & Howard, 2016).

Computational Propaganda, Bots, Targeting and the Future (2018)

Political communication, computational propaganda and autonomous agents (2016)

The future of computational propaganda

Fourth Industrial Revolution – what comes after the first industrial revolution (water and steam power), second (electric power), third (electronics and and information technology) – leads to the fourth which is the “fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital and biological spheres,” Schwaub, 2016.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution is here – are you ready? (2018)

The Fourth Industrial Revolution is upon us (2017)

Internet of things the interconnection via the Internet of computing devices embedded in everyday objects, enabling them to send and receive data.

The internet of things market projected to double by 2021 (2018)

The internet of things:  Opportunities and threats (2017)

Ethics and law in the internet of things world (2018)

Managed retreat (climate change) – pre-emptively moving away from areas considered high risk from a climate change perspective (most recently – areas likely to flood due to sea level change).

Adapting to climate change through managed retreat (2017)

Managed retreat as a response to natural hazard risk (2017)

Meme-iverse – official definition not found, but heard at a recent conference of futures practitioners.  Refers to the overall zeitgeist of favorite and/or high circulation memes and/or realizing the power memes are having to create culture shifts, e.g. “the meme-iverse shows that folks are interested in XYZ.”

Memes:  Shared experience, implicit meaning and social commentary (2017)

How memes are being weaponized for political propaganda (2018)

Are memes the future of social change? (2018)

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

Leadership and the Future

Thinking about this this morning…these creative ideas from author Bob Johansen really inspire me.   

I like the start of them…but I’m the process of doing some gentle editing based on my social work sensibilities.   I’d love to hear what folks in my social work community think of these and how they might enhance them…? Hive mind!  More to come as this project evolves!!  


Leaders Make the Future Ten New Leadership Skills for an Uncertain World
Bob Johansen


1. Maker Instinct. Ability to exploit your inner drive to build and grow things, as well as connect with others in the making. Leaders need this basic skill to make and remake organizations.

2. Clarity. Ability to see through messes and contradictions to a future that others cannot yet see. Leaders must be clear about what they are making but flexible about how it gets made.

3. Dilemma Flipping. Ability to turn dilemmas – which, unlike problems, cannot be solved into advantages and opportunities.

4. Bio-Empathy. Ability to see things from nature’s point of view, to understand, respect, and learn from its patterns. Nature has it’s own clarity, if only we humans can understand and engage with it.

5. Constructive De-Polarizing. Ability to calm tense situations where differences dominate and communication has broken down – and bring people from divergent cultures toward positive engagement.

6. Quiet Transparency. Ability to be open and authentic about what matters – without being overly self-promoting. If you advertise yourself, you will become a big target.

7. Immersive Learning Ability. Ability to immerse yourself in unfamiliar environment, to learn from them in a first-person way.

8. Rapid Prototyping. Ability to create quick early versions of innovations with the expectation that later success will require early failures. Leaders will need to learn from early setbacks and learn to fail in interesting ways.

9. Smart-Mob Organizing. Ability to create, engage with, and nurture purposeful business or social change networks through intelligent use of electronic media and in-person communication.

10. Commons Creating. Ability to seed, nurture, and grow shared assets that can benefit all players – and allow competition at a higher level. This is the most important future leadership skill and it grows from all the others.
The ability to flip from the frightening VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity) to a hopeful VUCA (vision, understanding, clarity and agility) will be the ultimate dilemma for leaders in the future.

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).