Futuring Practices: Tools, Terms, and Perspectives

While approaches to futuring vary from institution to institution, a multitude of continuities, themes, and terms transcend. These elements consist of a series of tools, terms and perspectives that work together to guide the envisioning process. While my own research has sustained a primary focus on the research and processes of institutions and individuals, I will also highlight “theologies” of the future – how different backgrounds can breed different kinds of approaches to futurist theory.

Futuring Tools: 

“10 Year Forecast”, The Institute for the Future, 2010 (left) vs. “Avatar”, James Cameron, 2009 (right)

Futuring practices rely on a series of tools. These tools are useful approaches to the envisioning of a future, as well as the communication of these ideas to the inhabitants of that future. Scenario development, a tool used throughout a multitude of disciplines and fields, is a great asset to any futurist’s tool-box, allowing for “fictional prototypes” of sorts. The design of scenarios, and, most importantly, the design of ourselves within those scenarios allows for a deep understanding of our potential, preferred, probable, or plausible futures. Scenarios are crafted in varying levels of detail – they can result in designed environments (like what we see in Minority Report or Avatar), they can be imagined in literature, they can be illustrated in a series of diagrams… the possibilities are open to the creator’s judgement, inspired by the content of the scenario, and the community they are engaging with the vision. While scenario development is a crucial aspect in the “prototyping” and portrayal of our future, a few other tools can be implemented prior to this hefty process: signals, r&d, and design fiction. Each of these make up the pieces of a finished scenario: inspiration, people, and prototype.

Examples of Quantitative approaches to “Signal-finding.” via PBS.org and GOOD.is

A signal, such as child obesity or air pollution, is an objective observation of the current environment, it’s inhabitants, and the relationship between the two. Often stemming from a whole lot of numbers, conversations, and observations, a signal serves as a piece of evidence that allows us to better understand the ramifications of today, on tomorrow. Signals can be seen as a piece of inspiration for humanists, inventors, and entrepreneurs to work towards in crafting and designing our world. In a trip north to the Silicon Valley, I met with author and entrepreneur, Jon Gillespie-Brown. Brown refers to a business idea as an “itch.” An “itch,” in business, like a “signal” in futuring, is an annoyance (or a need) that is shared by the majority of human beings. To predict the success of a business, or the success of a future, the itch, or signal, must be shared. Therefore, the next piece of the “futuring puzzle” is people. “Designs for an Overpopulated Planet: Foragers”, Dunne + Raby, 2009 – example of design fiction

R&D is a corporate method that leverages a team of designers, engineers, and researchers to innovate products and conduct user-studies. When applied to the field of futuring, an R&D team can serve as a great asset in the sense that the team can leverage design-fiction methodologies to create diegetic prototypes while simultaneously testing those prototypes on people, through ethnography and people-knowing. By developing R&D teams that create designs for people, inspired by signals, we can begin to craft futures that go beyond “me.”

“New York Times Special Edition”, The Yes Men, 2008 – a prototype of a “preferred future”

Futuring Terms:

Many terms are used within the community of futurists, but I have collected major and frequent ones here. These terms are a result of my research of language used by The Institute for the Future, and Stuart Candy of both The Long Now Foundation and Arup.

  • Forecast: A forecast, often used for business planning and innovation, is commonly the result of quantitative research  and is used to describe a prediction or estimate that can take place anywhere from tomorrow to roughly two years in the future.
  • Outlook: An outlook, like a forecast, is also often the result of quantitative findings. However, an outlook refers to a longer timeline, roughly 10 years and up, and is often used to focus on large-reaching issues like health, for example. An outlook allows us to predict on the basis of current information.
  • Horizons: A horizon, unlike an outlook or a forecast uses qualitative research methodology. Referring to a mid-level timeline (about 3-10 years in the future) a horizon is the limit of a person’s mental perception, experience, or interest and is often used for business planning and technological innovation.
Stuart Candy presents at Long Now. via Sascha Pohflepp’s flickr.
  • Possible Future: A possible future is everything that might happen, un-edited. This means that all of the wild cards and unlikely situations, like an airplane crash, are included in the scenario.
  • Probable Future: The probable future is what is likely to happen because of our current  situation – an extension of today’s trends. While the probable future does commonly consist of the highly likely, predictions of these sorts may or may not become a reality.
  • Plausible Future: The plausible future is everything in-between the possible and the probable futures.
  • Preferable Future: The preferable future is what we want to happen, it is a future scenario that serves as an inspiration for each of us to individually work towards. It does not just happen, it requires action.

Future Framing:

Zombieland” Directed by Ruben Fleischer, 2009 – example of a “mutants in the rose bowl” future.

Peter Lunenfeld has a great way of describing / framing the future in two well designed descriptors: “bespoke futures” and “mutants in the rosebowl” – perhaps more generally referred to as “utopia” and “dystopia.”

“One reason we have so little faith in the future is that the shape of things to come has never been so inadequately imagined. We tend to see utopia as relentlessly personal, while the apocalypse is one of the few shared universals. In other words, while we can posit a future for ourselves as individuals (and even as members of a family) we have little in the way of positive imagination for the realm of the social, much less the political.” – Peter Lunenfeld in “Bespoke Futures: Media Design and the Vision Deficit

Success Measures:

To judge the outcome of a vision, it is beneficial to define a series of success measures to ensure that the scenarios being produced are contributing to the development of a world we wish to inhabit, or a direction we wish to work towards. The Institue for the Future provides three of these success measures: Happiness, Legacy, and Resilience.

  • Happiness: Will this envisioned future create happiness? Can a moment of well-being be constrained and reproduced? Is there a possibility for a collapse in bio-chemistry? Has the futurist accounted for this collapse, and prepared for the ramifications?
  • Legacy: What will my great-grandchildren say? What can I do to make that statement true?
  • Resilience: Is the future evolvable in the sense that it encourages rapid innovation? Does the scenario include ambient collaboration, environments designed for positive feedback? Is there a plan for using renewable sources as rewards – reverse scarcity? Are awe, wonder, and appreciation used to build strategic advantage – adaptive emotions? Is an infrastructure in place to find and link super-empowered hopeful individuals to create an amplified optimism?

Futuring Perspectives:

Though many of the practices that have analyzed and described in this article have primarily focused on the tactics of specific futuring institutions and individuals, it is important to consider the role of futuring in other disciplines and belief systems outside of the “futurist circle,” including the historical, religious, and scientific.

Further reading on alternative futuring perspectives:


Great opportunity resides in the futuring practice to create a model of innovation and communal participation that prescribes to the concept of “preferred futures” while going beyond the self. Is it possible to design an ideal future for more than just ourselves?

Inspiration, sources, and further-further reading- in no particular order:

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