What is Futures Thinking?

Launched colorful powder, isolated on black background

What is Futures Thinking? Three Questions to Get Things Started…

When we think about futures work as social workers – our code of ethics, our commitment to equity, our strengths approach – all matter and greatly accelerate progress in the futures space.  But – futures work has the potential to expand and energize our efforts as it introduces some new ideas in the way we conceptualize and actualize our work.   As the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman recently shared at the Institute for the Futures 50th Anniversary Conference in Palo Alto – futures work allows us the opportunity to “update our intellectual software” for the 21st century and all its rapidly complicating dynamics.

Now about those questions – let’s dive in.

  • Can we do a better job of thinking (and taking action) on the future?

In fact, no one is an expert on the future…no one knows what will happen.   But for more than 50 years, a profession has taken up the challenge of discovering, developing and apply a disciplined, creative and strategic way of approaches the challenge of anticipating and planning for the future.   It is influenced by a variety of social sciences (ever hear of anticipatory anthropology?) .    Though some variations exist, futures thinking and/or approaches are largely a matter of applying a disciplined framework to questions related to “what will happen in XYZ sector and what is the best possible pathway for us to commit to as we travel through the next 5-10 year period?”    This is referred to frequently as a “futures mindset.”  Some utilize a method called “foresight” practice, others scenario planning (often coupled with forecasting).    Generally, futures “practice” relates to a variety of methods of strategic thinking/planning that depend upon creative as well as logical extrapolation.   All fit into the category of “futures” thinking or practice.

  • What are key principles of “futures” thinking?  What are examples of how it is being used?

It’s currently in vogue to avoid black/white and either/or thinking.   Most agree that in many cases related to modern life – absolutes are increasingly hard to find and that we have to learn to hold both/and in our minds, often balancing contradictions in tension simultaneously.   Futures thinking requires even more of us – introducing a number of complimentary as well as contradictory principles that require us to “hold in our minds” simultaneously as various matters concerning the future are considered.  The following principles are in many ways the “container” for futures work.  The work of a futures practitioner is to assist groups in keeping them in focus while working through the challenging of plotting a planning project in a particular sector.  Keeping them all in forefront of our minds is challenging!   Consider that:

  • šThe future is plural (many scenarios possible)
  • šThe future is a combination of alternative futures: possible, plausible, probable and preferable
  • šThe future is open (not fixed)
  • šThe future is fuzzy (of course we can’t “know” exactly how the future will unfold, and our foresight is imperfect and limited.
  • šThe future is surprising (not always smooth or continuous). Sometimes it arrives in unexpected ways.
  • The future is not surprising (sometimes the future is boring).
  • The future is fast (the future is always accelerating).
  • šThe future is slow (accelerating change gets all the attention, but a balance of the future is also slow, plodding and predictable).
  • šThe future is archetypical (or generic) – refers to the way that we “think” about the future.  Studies in the area tend to reflect four general generic ways of thinking about the future: continue, collapse, discipline and transformation.
  • šThe future is both inbound and outbound.  Our personal and organizational futures are shaped by two sets of forces: change that happens to us (from the external world) beyond our control – inbound.  Change that we create ourselves – based on our decisions and actions – outbound.

Daniel Bengston (2018).  Principles for thinking about the future and foresight education.   World Futures Review, 10(3), 193-202.

  • What are the most important points of intersection for the social work profession with “futures” practice?

Social workers, among other things, are planners – and it would seem logical that social work might be a great fit for futures thinking.   Unfortunately, little literature exists to suggest that we’ve been active consumers of these tools in our work and/or educational processes.    In short – we can apply these principles to the way we think about “our” issues within our own typical focal areas of practice and research (such as across the Social Work Grand Challenges).  For example – we can use our expertise to imagine “the future of” social problems such as homelessness, child abuse, poverty, mental illness, etc. and then extrapolate how our social work approaches might best evolve to better meet and/or match upcoming likely trends.    At the same time, we can join with other activists and/or innovators who may be operating somewhat “outside” our typical social work practice arenas – folks that are working directly with artificial intelligence, climate change, and/or block chain (and/or the future of the internet).    One particularly “grand challenge” with a climate change focus may be among the best examples of movement in this direction.  

Note: What Futures Thinking Isn’t

  • It isn’t “predicting” the future in any way – results are reasoned, collective and creative sets of ideas generated by stakeholders and explicitly limited and preliminary.    That said, it is often the best that can be generated to anticipate elements such as likely, possible, plausible and unlikely ideas about what the future might hold.
  • At it’s best, futures thinking/work ALWAYS includes a strong focus on explicitly engaging with exploration of “unintended consequences” of various decisions, actions or directions.  Again, not a guarantee, but all too frequently, fundamentally missing from the planning processes of otherwise intelligent people and/or groups.
  • Isn’t ONLY about the future.  The past (history, tradition, culture) matter – as does the present in understanding what may/may not happen in the future.
  • Wasn’t invented in the western modern era.  In fact Indigenous peoples have widely operated with sacred and dedicated focus on generations beyond those currently alive.   Deep cultural as well as scholarly commitment exists to demonstrate these principles in action.
  • It isn’t a parlor game – it is a specific and disciplined set of theory and methods.  That said, it requires fun and creativity (so maybe it is a little like a parlor game!).    At least it incorporates PLAY as well as serious reflection of difficult and even scary possibilities for the future, and then requires smart and committed people to work together to create paths forward with an aspirational tone and intended to build agency, excitement, and momentum towards creating the future rather than just waiting for it to drop.

Latest Posts

Emerging Words for the Future (Spring 2023 Edition)

Over the last couple of years and through my own foresight journey (as a social worker and a human)…I’ve found emerging language regarding the future to be really interesting, illuminating, sometimes troubling, and valuable. Sometimes there are words that are more “pop culture” words that emerge from the mainstream (they are a little like popcorn…not…


Something went wrong. Please refresh the page and/or try again.