Futures Studies: What it is and Why it Matters

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Science fiction has long been known for the many authors who predicted the future in one sense or another, often related to technological advancements or industrial achievements. What many don’t know, though, is that predicting the future isn’t just for the realm of fiction, but is a core principle of a scientific discipline called Futures Studies.

According to the Institute for Futures Studies and Technology Assessment, Futures Studies are “the scientific study of possible, desirable, and probable future developments” as well as the ability to design the possible future toward a more desirable one.

Futures studies uses several important methods for studying the possible futures which are key to writing science fiction, and as such it is important to understand what the field is and how futurists use it.

Overview of Futures Studies

The purpose of futures study is to use scientific methods to understand and chart out the possible, desirable, and probable futures. This scientific pursuit is grounded in our desire to understand what will happen in the future, and is an important part of human culture.

The desire for predicting or studying the future has been part of society for a very long time, often being dated back to the earliest known civilizations, such as the Oracles at Delphi, who were priestesses consulted by ancient Greeks to tell them of the future, or to much later periods, such as Samuel Madden’s Memoirs of the 20th Century. Others see religion and myth as an important part of this desire, trying to make sense of the mysteries of what is to come, which links future prediction to the very beginnings of man itself.

This practice, however, was often done through mythical means, and just as often as a political statement, and no one made a true attempt to analyze the future until much later. Some futurists say that futures studies began when systems science was created back in the early 1900s, since those systems tracked and studied trends and other complex systems to aid in predicting how those trends will continue. Others argue that it began far earlier with Ibn Khaldun’s The Muqaddimah (if you guys want a link to the actual pdf just ask), written in 1377, which laid out history as a system which could be used as a tool to predict future events. And still others believe it began much later, in the 1960s, when it became an academic discipline.  Regardless, futures studies became a true scientific field when the World Futures Studies Federation was founded in 1967.

Futures studies requires the use of many fields and disciplines due to the interconnected nature of the world. Everything in the world can be defined by a system, and the purpose of futures studies is to analyze and combine these systems to create the widest possible picture of the world for use in predicting the possible, probable, and desirable futures.

How Futures Studies is Used to Analyze the Possible Futures

The field of Futures Studies uses many models and methods in constructing possible futures, such as forecasting, trend analysis, cross-impact analysis, causal layered analysis, and many others. These methods are part of a greater analysis spanning many fields of science to form a full view of the possible futures.

Trend analysis is essentially a method of analyzing historical data using several techniques to create a picture of what has happened in the past that is used for the future. The purpose of using trend analysis is to objectively frame historical data so that trends can be identified and used to figure out the reason for a trend.

Trend extrapolation is used to frame historical trends so they can be analyzed. Extrapolation is the identification of trends and mapping them into the future. While straightforward, this technique is not enough on it’s own because of the dependent nature of trends on other systems and trends. After we recognize a trend, then begins the work of figuring out why that trend exists and how the rest of the systems and trends affect it, so that a reliable map of it’s future can be established.

This is a method of taking many events (or trends) and figuring out how each event affects the probability of, and even the consequences of, other events. Every event ties to events that came before it and events that will occur after it, and understanding this web of events is the key to figuring out the possible futures.

In order for this analysis to be accurate, the initial events have to be chosen carefully, to both keep unimportant events out and to make sure to all important events are included. After this first set it created, it is refined by adding closely related events, removing others, etc. until it is suitable for modeling. Then the initial probability of each event is estimated as well as their probability based on each other event, and finally a simulation is run that uses these probabilities to map out possible futures.

This is by far the most complex method, as well as the newest, and assumes that the way we look at an issue will strongly influence how we understand it. To get around this limited view, this method uses vertical analysis, where we look at an issue from four different levels of understanding:

    • litany: comments about the issue that are easily identified (such as in a newspaper or someone mentioning the problem); they are usually exaggerated or politically bent.
    • social causes: this goes deeper into what is causing the issue, and why certain people care and their viewpoints (editorials, analyses of the problem, etc.).
    • worldview/discourse: this is a view of the problem from a more global perspective, such as cultural, religious, political, etc. that doesn’t vary much based on area or people.
    • metaphor/myth: this is the emotional level of the problem, such as how we see and feel a problem (population isn’t just a number, everyone is unique, etc.), instead of how we think of it.

Each of these levels undergoes horizontal analysis as well, to expand the view of the problem from as many angles as possible. By analyzing how an issue is framed, we can figure out all possible futures because we can see the problem as it truly is from many points of view. This technique is best used to complement other techniques, to enhance their accuracy, and to find angles to problems that are previously unexplored.

While these are some of the most useful methods for use with science fiction, there are many other techniques that futurists use to ensure accurate and objective analysis of the future.

How Futures Studies can be Used in Science Fiction

You, too, can use the same techniques employed by futurists to create convincing science fiction worlds. In fact, often science fiction is seen as an extension of the field of futures studies that takes the observations and turns them into a possible future. In this way, science fiction can be seen as an exercise in scenario development that develops a single possible future using a method very similar to causal layered analysis.

Alongside the use of trend analysis and cross-impact analysis to help create a plausible timeline for a future story, causal layered analysis can be used to truly analyze these trends and events and what is sociologically creating them. By really understanding the underlying factors of progress and events today, you can not only offer a realistic and relatable world to the reader, but you can speak to their own viewpoints, and even their emotions, directly.

This is a powerful tool for any science fiction author, as a believable future at only the first or second level of understanding, litany and social causes, won’t mean anything if it doesn’t connect to the reader on the third and fourth levels. Moreover, by widening your view of your own narrative to include all four levels of understanding and then using trend analysis and cross-impact analysis, you can look at all possible events and discover which would be the most powerful for your story.

The tools that futurists use are equally powerful in the hands of a writer, and by understanding how they view and analyze the future you can create far more powerful and connected worlds.

Some Final Words

Futures Studies is the scientific fact to science fiction, and just as Asimov and Sagan used their respective fields to inform their science fiction, so can science fiction authors today use futures studies to inform their stories. The methods used by futurists have developed over several decades and more powerful techniques are introduced frequently; the only thing you have to do is use these tools and your worlds and futures will connect both with events today and with the minds and hearts of your readers.

So what are some valuable techniques you have picked up for writing your own stories and/or creating convincing futures? Join the conversation and ask any questions you have or post anything you want to add that I may have forgotten or didn’t know. If you really want to, throw me an email or message me on twitter or my Facebook fan-page and we can chat more about the field of Futures Studies, or about anything else related to the future. I’m looking forward to hearing from you guys!

Further Reading/Watching

For those of you who want to know more about futures studies, here is a list of resources I have found in my research:

Authorities in Futures Studies:

Richard Slaughter

World Future Society

Word Future Studies Federation

Sohail Inayatullah

John B. Mahaffie

Critics and Controversies:

Eddie Blass’ Researching the future: method or madness?

Rakesh Kapoor’s Future as Fantasy: Forgetting the Flaws

The Integral Futures Controversy (controversial issue)

Science Fiction Authors That were Futurists or Used Futures Studies Techniques:

Carl Sagan  (Futurist)

Isaac Asimov (Futurist)

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I am a former navy technician, but my true passion is for writing and science/technology. I love to research everything from: - Early civilizations and how they formed - Military and Political structure of Medieval Europe and Asia - War strategy and Military structure of the 19th-21st centuries - and, lately, Science and Technology and how they affect the future My love for learning new things has led to starting a blog called Crafting our Future where I talk about science and technology and how they affect the future (deja vu?).

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