By Millett, Stephen M.
The Futurist , Vol. 45, No. 5
When I was working on my doctorate degree in history, people would quip: "Why study history? There's no future in it!"
On the contrary, there may be a great deal of history in the future. Throughout my four-decade career as a historian engaged in futuring, I have used the past to explore the future. Like the study of history, futuring is heavily based on facts, evidence, solid research, and sound logic more science, less science fiction.
Futuring is an example of what I call "applied history," or the use of historical knowledge and methods to solve problems in the present. It addresses the question "What happened and why?" in order to help answer the question "How might things be in the future and what are the potential implications?" Futuring, at least in a management context, combines applied history with other methods adapted from science, mathematics, and systems analysis to frame well-considered expectations for the future. This process will help us to make decisions in the present that will have positive long-term consequences. In the language of business, futuring is an aspect of due diligence and risk management.
History provides indications of the future. Identifying historical trends helps us see patterns and long-term consistencies in cultural behavior. History may not repeat itself, but certain behaviors within cultures do. We can spot patterns in persistent traditions, customs, laws, memes, and mores. Debating whether a historical event is unique or a manifestation of a long path of behavior is like arguing whether light is a particle or a wave-the answer depends entirely upon your perspective.
The past provides precedents for future behavior. When you understand how things happened in the past, you gain much foresight into the things that might happen in the future--not as literal reenactments, but rather as analogous repetitions of long-term behavior that vary in their details according to historical conditions.
Let me hasten to qualify my view of history by saying that I see no immutable forces in the flow of history, no invisible hands of predestination, fate, or economic determinism. Time may be like an arrow, in the words of Sir Arthur Eddington, but I very seriously doubt that it has a prescribed target. I am also skeptical of the concept of political or economic cycles recurring with regular periodicity. If there were any determinism or predictability whatsoever in human behavior, it lies in our evolutionary biology and cultures. Luck, randomness, and the idiosyncrasies of free will play important roles in determining the future as well.
While the study of history has been rich in philosophy, it has lacked theories such as those found in the natural and social sciences. Most historians have not pursued such theories, because they see each period of history as being unique and as having little or no practical applications for problem solving today. Futuring as applied history, however, needs basic principles upon which to build forecasts that can be used for long-term decision making.
A Framework for Understanding the Future
The study of the future is very sparse in both philosophy and theory. Theories (which may also be seen as mental or analytical models) provide a framework for forecasts and give them a credibility that increases managers' willingness to take calculated risks. In addition, they can help us utilize our knowledge of demonstrated trends, interactions, and causes to better anticipate the future. The theories do not have to be rigid, but they do need to provide an explicit framework that can be modified, expanded, and even rejected by experience.
To that end, I have been working on a set of theoretical principles for futuring from the point of view of an applied historian. I offer them now as working guidelines until others can offer better.
Futuring Principle 1[much greater than] The future will be some unknown combination of continuity and change. …