Orienting Ourselves to a Changing World: Maps Can Chart the Future of Baby Boomers

By Vian, Kathi | Generations, Fall 2010 | Go to article overview

Orienting Ourselves to a Changing World: Maps Can Chart the Future of Baby Boomers


Vian, Kathi, Generations


By drawing maps, or visual representations of what's to come, we can help to begin the work of forecasting future challenges and solutions.

We tend to think of the future as a time, near or distant, when our lives somehow will be different from today. But by looking a little closer, we may discover that we think more often about the future as a place-a place we know and don't know, a place populated by some of the same people we know today, though older and perhaps living in different types of communities, with different types of housing, different modes of transport, and different therapies for what may ail us as we age. If we're inclined to think in larger, more abstract terms, we may imagine today's familiar geographies transformed by trends in science and technology, social innovation, and politics.

If pictured as a place, the future invites us to map it. Much of our metaphorical language about the future comes from the language of maps. We navigate future opportunities and pitfalls. We survey the future landscape, looking for landmarks, signposts, and paths forward. We identify hot spots of innovation and disruption. In fact, we can scarcely talk about the future without using the language of maps.

Map Making and Futures Methodology

Maps are logical tools for exploring the future, for orienting ourselves to a changing world. At the Institute for the Future (IFTF) in Palo Alto, Calif., map making is a core methodology of futures research. Each year, we produce a Map of the Decade as part of our Ten-Year Forecast Program. We also map the emerging technology horizon and innovations in the landscape of health and well-being. Maps serve as visual forecasts and help us to see the future.

Maps of the future can take many forms. They can be geographical, situating us in real spots on the globe, highlighting key statistics or trends for those places. But some of the most useful maps are those that chart a more abstract landscape: the convergence of trends, the juxtaposition of innovations, or other signs and signals we may encounter as we traverse a decade.

One of a map's key objectives is to bring order to the wilderness of the future-the unexplored territory. We can use basic structures such as the matrix, the mandala, or the flowchart as a way to provide an at-a-glance view of the future. Underlying each of these structures is the fundamental practice of juxtaposition: what do we learn when we position trends, signals, or mini-forecasts alongside each other? How does the juxtaposition of a set of external variables with internal variables help us think about both sets in new ways?

Mapping Baby Boomers: The Next Twenty Years

In 2007, IFTF decided to apply this type of mapping methodology to explore the future of baby boomers over the next twenty years and so created a map, "Boomers: The Next Twenty Years" (see insert). As we wrote in the map's introductory section, this was neither a map of aging nor a map of baby boomers as they age.

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