Culture Magazine

The Vital Pragmatism of Futurists

By Realizingresonance

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Photo courtesy of iStockphoto.

Last year in the article Vital Mysticism of Oracles I noted that predictions and those willing to cast them have always been a human necessity, especially for those who seek to influence the world. I further suggested that until the recent development of objective forecasting techniques the practitioners of foresight used mysticism in order to mask cryptic and vague prognostications, thus maintaining credibility and vitality with little accuracy or practical usefulness. Today the forecaster and the futurist have replaced the astrologer and the oracle, and the vitality of mysticism has been supplanted by the vitality of pragmatism. Knowing what to expect tomorrow, next month, next year, or even fifty years from now, is more important than ever in our world of accelerating transformation, but we need our conceptions of the future to have utility. Anticipating the future in order to act and influence it is ever the imperative. The pragmatic necessity of exploitable intelligence about the future means the work of futurists is vital for action today.

Firms and organizations regularly attempt to forecast quantitative metrics over the short term and medium term, with the long term covered by a plan that is sometimes more of a political platform than an honest map of future expectations. Short term quantitative forecasting has merit as far as it goes, providing helpful anticipation of the points and probabilities of key performance indicators, creating credibility through precise statistical articulation and objective evaluation. Nevertheless, formal forecasting methods still rely on incomplete analysis, massaging of raw data, and abstract models and assumptions, making the forecaster as much an artist as a scientist. The professional forecaster draws a more or less realistic looking map of the tentatively expected future, from which the professional futurist uses as a launching point for a deeper, wider, and longer exploration of futures scenarios.

Futurists don’t stop with the baseline forecast, that likeliest–therefore expected–future. This is because the most likely future is still not likely, and the further we cast our future glance the more uncertain our expectations must prudently become. The plausibility of various future outcomes broadens out in an expanding cone, with more and more possibilities to consider the further we look ahead in time. It is clear that forecasting alone is insufficient for our journey into the future. A more robust matrix of diverse futuring tools, in service of a systematic mapping of plausible alternative futures, allows us to prepare for the realities of ambiguity, uncertainty, contingency, wildcards, and disruptive change. Futurists engage in research, scan the external environment for weak signals of change, and consider the broad economic, political, institutional, social, cultural, demographic, technological, legal, and environmental factors, as well as further implications within these wider contexts. Complex outcomes are distilled into manageable scenarios presented as stories and images that are easy to understand, relate to, and act upon. Futurists provide services that are integral in their persistent practicality.

Research, scanning, scenario analysis, and other tools for foresight add incredible value to our baseline forecasts, and futurists contribute to planning through the application of strategic foresight. Mapping expected and plausible future scenarios sets the stage for envisioning our desired future and developing a strategic plan for influencing it to our preferences. Futurists help to create powerful images for our audacious yet achievable goals which they can backcast from, building a strategy for managing change in the direction we want to head toward. Analyzing internal strengths and weaknesses against external opportunities and threats, identifying untapped blue ocean market potentials, applying systems models to illuminate the webs of positive and negative feedback loops, and bringing a deep awareness of the fundamentals of change and transformational leadership. These are the futurists’ services. Value added, pragmatic, and vital.

We need to know about the future. No matter our romantic sentiments, we simply can’t live only in the present, taking life one moment at a time. No matter our cherished traditions, we simply can’t hold onto antiquated ideals. We must not fall prey to apathy or denial, and we must also avoid the pessimism of fatalism and the allure of false prophecy. These maxims of temporal existence apply to individuals, families, firms, organizations, governments, and the globe. We have always needed to be future regarding, but the need has grown more pressing, a greater and greater imperative, and this urgency will increase. The oracles of the past have been replaced by statisticians, econometricians, game theorists, climatologists, predictive analysts, forecasters and futurists. There is a requirement for all of these future oriented specialties but the most vital is futurists. This is because understanding the future is more than crunching the numbers, it is a multidimensional yet holistic endeavor.

The vital pragmatism of futuring springs from the usefulness of a properly guided awareness of potentialities, whether risks or opportunities. There is a crucial need for a guide that has the tools and experience to look beyond the forecast. Futures work is pragmatic because a systematic approach to gaining knowledge about tomorrow’s contingencies and building a strategic plan for action reduces the anxiety of uncertainty. Futurists are vital because without them we are likely limiting futures work to a naive narrow numerical forecast of the expected future, or–as is too often the case–to our own cognitive biases and political considerations. The vital pragmatism of futurists also means that futurists value the pragmatism inherent in their mission, not simply as a tool, but as a philosophy and approach which recognizes that, while we can’t perfectly predict the future, we can know the assumptions and drivers of potential futures. The vital pragmatism of a Philosopher Futurist, as I aspire to be, includes the intrinsic reward of discovering a deeper meaning in our consideration of futures.

Jared Roy Endicott

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