A Dozen Classic Tools in the Futurist’s Toolbox

 

Today’s forecasters and futurists have a growing number of shiny new gadgets in their toolboxes. For example, there are an array of predictive analytics techniques, Web-based threat intelligence, and “superforecasting” methods. In addition to those new tools, however,they still rely on more traditional ones, which are their versions of wrenches and ratchets. Here’s a quick outline the more popular methodologies, listed alphabetically:

  1. Backcasting: This is a reverse forecasting technique in which you begin with a specific outcome—usually a desirable future—and then work backwards to the present day. It’s a technique that has applications in statistics, but a version can also be used as a type of scenario planning. John B. Robinson, author of the 1990 paper “Futures Under Glass: A Recipe for People Who Hate to Predict,” characterized the tech like this: “The major distinguishing characteristic of backcasting is a concern not with what futures are likely to happen, but with how desirable futures can be attained. It is thus explicitly normative, involving working backwards from a particular desired future end-point to the present in order to determine the physical feasibility of that future and what policy measured would be required to reach that point.
  1. Causal layered analysis: Sometimes known by its acronym, CLA, this technique is also less concerned with predicting the future than with helping to shape it. Prof Sohail Inayatullah, Professor of Future Studies at International Management Centres, argues that CLA is especially useful in workshops made up of individuals from different cultures or individuals who have different approaches to solving problems. It is often used in tandem with scenario building, and it assumes that changing the future requires change at multiple levels:

a) The “litany” level that includes quantitative trends and current issues

b) The systemic level that includes economic, political and historical factors

c) The cultural level that determines worldviews and perceived legitimacy

d) The mythic/metaphorical level that supplies deep stories and collective archetypes

  1. Delphi surveys: This is a structured communication technique in which a panel of experts fill out questionnaires in two or more rounds. The questions ask panel members to make forecasts about issues related to their fields of expertise. After each round, the experts receive anonymous summaries of the findings. After the experts read these summaries, they are encouraged to revise or refine their previous responses. The idea is that the group will eventually form something like a consensus on key issues.
  1. Environmental scanning and monitoring: These days, the phrase “environmental scanning” can be confusing because so many people associate the word “environment” with the natural environment. But the phrase refers to the broader meaning of environment, meaning the whole of the human world, from scientific trends to reports of new inventions to pop culture references. The idea, according to some experts, is to develop “a kind of radar to scan the world systematically and signal the new, the unexpected, the major and the minor.” The goal is to stay on top of promising new trends and technologies, keep track potential threats, stimulate future-focused thinking among employees, and aid in strategic thinking and business agility. However, environmental scanning came into vogue before the advent of the Internet. These days, it is easier than ever to scan trends but perhaps more difficult to make sense of those trends amid the barrage of data and information.
  1. Forecasting: Some people believe that forecasting is all futurists do, but the truth is that many futurists dislike making forecasts. After all, it’s all too easy to get it wrong. No one has mastered the science of long-range forecasting except at the level of physical objects obeying well understood laws (e.g., orbits of planets, trajectories of mortars, etc.). That said, futurists do sometimes harness techniques such as Delphi surveys (see above) or time-series forecasting to make forecasting less subjective. A time-series forecast entails gathering data over regular intervals (hours, days, weeks, etc.) to gauge the trajectory of trends. “Moore’s Law”—the forecast that the number of transistors per square inch will double every 18 month or so—is a case in point. There is no physical law to drives the trend, but it has been a fairly predictable one (until recently) for decades. There are rules of thumb that can guide conventional forecasting, and recent research conducted by Philip Tetlock and others has shown that some people are quantitatively better at forecasting than others. Tetlock has coined the term “superforecasters” to identify such people.
  1. Futures wheel: This technique is usually attributed to Jerome Glenn and involves the creation of a branching, wheel-like diagram intended to help people think about trends, events and consequences in a directed way. It can be leverage during a workshop in which people start with a trend or event, identify the most direct consequences, then brainstorm around the less direct, second-order consequences. The goal is to analyze implications and identify actions that could take advantage of positive developments while reducing negative ones.
  1. Polling: We usually associate this process with the prediction of political election results, but it’s used in many other ways as well. Delphi surveys (see above) are one form of polling, but so are other surveys intended to collect data on everything from opinions to behaviors. An expert analysis of polls can often result in excellent predictions, as was famously the case with Nate Silver in the 2012 US elections. On the other hand, some polls have gotten things infamously wrong.
  1. Gaming: Military organizations were among the first to take gaming seriously as a method for predicting the outcomes to events: namely, military conflicts. Military games can entail mock wars or battles that require the movement of many personnel and weapons systems. “These are not fanciful intellectual exercises, but serious, two-week-long simulations used to educate American officers, choose weapons systems they will need for the future, and prepare the US to respond to complex international conflicts,” Prof. Sam Gardiner was quoted as saying in the book Futuring. “In the past, these games have been extraordinarily good prognosticators of events.” Gaming is often strongly related to simulations. Military games are, after all, a form of simulation.

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  1. Modeling and simulations: Simulations can come in the form of games (see above) but may also have digital and/or statistical components. Mathematical regression models, for example, have become a key forecasting tool for economists, social scientists and prediction analysts. Computer modeling is helping to predict everything from climate change to weather patterns (e.g., hurricanes) to traffic patterns and even the spread of contagious diseases.
  1. Scenario planning: Also known as scenario development or scenario thinking, this is the creation of a set of scenarios (usually three to four) that are based on different narratives about how the future may play out. They are usually targeted toward specific subjects that help organizations become more forward-thinking in regard to their products and services. “A good set of scenarios should always be customized to a particular context,” writes Jay Ogilvy, cofounder of the Gobal Business Network. “The scenarios that Royal Dutch/Shell used to anticipate the drop in oil prices in 1986 were far different from the scenarios a major computer manufacturer used to navigate its transition from products to services.” The idea of scenarios is less to predict the future than to change people’s thinking about the future, freeing them up to see a variety of alternatives. This helps them plan for and react to changes in their business environment (which can include social, political, demographic and technological changes as well as business changes).
  1. Trend analysis: This is related to environmental scanning (see above). The OECD notes, “Trend analysis means looking at how a potential driver of change has developed over time, and how it is likely to develop in the future. Rational analysis of development patterns provides a far more reliable basis for speculation and prediction than reliance on mere intuition.” Trend analysis also has more technical meanings. In the financial sector, it a kind of analysis that tries to predict the future movements of stocks. It also represents a kind of statistical analysis.
  1. Visioning: Developed by German futurist Robert Jungk, visioning is the process of imagining better futures. The idea is to make images of the future so real and compelling that those images “act as ‘magnets,’ or goals to achieve, or ‘spurs’ to present action,” writes Australian futurist Richard Slaughter. Visioning can be done by individuals but is often carried out in workshops. Clem Bezold, one of the founders of the Institute for Alternative Futures, identifies five stages in building a vision:

1) identification of problems

2) identification of past successes

3) identification of future desires

4) identification of measurable goals, and

5) identification of resources to achieve those goals

    In addition to these twelve tools, there are a number of ancillary techniques that have been used by futurists in the past. They include, but are not limited to, social network analysis, systems analysis, failure analysis, morphological analysis, and strategy mapping. Many futuring techniques are used in the context of workshops, so “workshopping” is sometimes considered a technique in itself.  In practice, these tools are often used in combination. For futurists, as with any professional or tradesperson, the goal is to select the right tool for the job at hand.

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