What is a Futurist?
A futurist is someone who has learned how to study the future and how to use this knowledge to enable others to identify options and choices now. By studying the future you can move away from a passive or fatalistic acceptance of what may happen to an active and confident participation in creating the future you want.Learning about the future is essential. When people and organisations are not aware of their choices they may well end up being part of someone else’s future. In order to create the future you want, a futurist may encourage you to think and plan ahead further than before. Some futurists work for companies or government departments, some teach in schools or universities, some work for non-government organisations and consulting futurists work in all these areas.Most futurists believe that the future can be shaped by the careful and responsible exercise of human will and effort. Futurists differ in many of their views, but most agree that individuals, organisations and cultures that attempt to move into the future blindly are taking unnecessary risks. So they would agree that we need to understand and apply foresight in our private, public and professional lives. Futurists believe that ‘forewarned is forearmed’ and ‘a stitch in time saves nine’.
What is social foresight?
Social foresight is the ability to create and sustain a variety of high quality images and understandings about futures and apply these in a range of socially useful ways; for example, to develop policy, guide strategy, avoid or mitigate disasters and pursue social innovations.
Why social foresight?
All normal human beings have the innate ability to think (and act) forward. Without this capacity people would be unable to function in daily life. Some organisations use limited forms of foresight as part of strategy and planning. But societies as a whole tend to be powerfully guided by past perceptions of problems and, overall, lack any developed foresight capacity. Hence we have a contradictory situation:
- humans have and use foresight
- some organisations use limited forms of foresight
- society as a whole largely lacks this capacity, therefore
- it travels blindly into what appears to be an ‘unknown’ future.
A paper published in 1996 called Futures Studies – From Individual to Social Capacity set out a beginning framework for creating social foresight. This approach was then the subject of a three-year research project carried out by the Australian Foresight Institute and published in a series of monographs, papers and books. (See Previous Publications.)
A clear-eyed look at the global context shows that humanity has reached a dangerous stage in its development. Its cumulative impacts over time are having cascading effects that are reducing the capacity of the planet to support life as we know it. (For more see Futures Beyond Dystopia and The Biggest Wake Up Call in History.) Then, when faced with the evidence of widespread human suffering and environmental dysfunction, it’s not unusual to feel depressed and / or powerless. Our view, however, is that to clearly understand how overshoot and collapse scenarios may occur is a significant step toward more constructive outcomes. The clearer we are, the easier it becomes to generate motivation to energise and enable a wide variety of helpful changes, while there is yet time and the future remains open. Futures Studies and Applied Foresight are two of many possible constructive responses to altered global conditions, including quite new dimensions of hazard and risk.
Bringing Integral concepts, perspectives and thinking to Futures / Foresight is considered by some to have helped to stimulate a new stage of development and capacity in the latter. Integral Futures transcends and includes earlier work, re-balances the field in profound ways and provides powerful new methods and perspectives. It can be seen as part of a renaissance in Futures Studies and Applied Foresight. Overall, this is an exciting and invigorating time to be involved in futures work.
Social interests and types of foresight
One of the tenets of Critical Futures Study (CFS) is that in any account of futures or foresight work social interests need to be taken fully into account. (Indeed, one of the structural deficiencies in much early work was a singular refusal to recognise and open to this dimension.) It was a fact then, and it remains one now, that social interests provide much of the driving force, motivation and social resource(s) required for futures and foresight work to take place at all. They powerfully affect the selection of practitioners who are employed. They colour its character, purposes and operational details in a multitude of ways. In earlier work I defined three types of social interests in foresight as follows.
Pragmatic foresight is … about carrying out today’s business better and, indeed, there is a range of fairly straightforward means by which foresight can be used to improve and extend current practice in a wide range of organisations. The fact that it is paradigmatically naïve does not reduce its usefulness in a taken-for-granted way. Most organisations can benefit from some use of pragmatic foresight and there are many consultants and consulting organisations that can supply it.
Progressive foresight … contains some sort of explicit commitment to systemic improvement. Thus foresight in this mode can readily be linked with genuine attempts to reformulate business and organisational practices in the light of wider social and environmental concerns. Hence there is a strong link with what has been called ‘triple bottom line’ accounting, Factor 4, Factor 10 (terms that basically refer to ‘doing much more with less’) and many other such innovations. Such work is about going beyond conventional thinking and practices and reformulating processes, products, services using quite different assumptions.
Civilisational foresight … seeks to understand aspects of the next level of civilisation – the one that lies beyond the current impasse, the prevailing hegemony of techno / industrial / capitalist interests. Civilisational foresight is perhaps the most fascinating and demanding domain of futures enquiry. It seeks to clarify just what might be involved in long term shifts towards a more balanced and sustainable world. By definition it draws on countless fields of culture and enquiry to set up notions of ‘design forward’. Such work allows us to speculate openly about such questions as: worldview design, underlying assumptions and values, civilisational myths and so on, as well as more down-to-earth matters such as infrastructure, governance and economic relations.
From Slaughter, R. (2004), Futures Beyond Dystopia: Creating Social Foresight, Routledge, London, p. 217.