Working to Understand the Future Is the Key to Planning for It

Nation's Cities Weekly, August 5, 1996 | Go to article overview

Working to Understand the Future Is the Key to Planning for It


Portions of the following article are excerpted from the article, "The Art of Forecasting: A Brief Introduction to Thinking About the Future," with permission from The World Future Society.

There's a popular myth that futurists are in the business of predicting what will happen in the future. The truth is quite different. Futurists know better than most people that the future is not predictable: We cannot know what will happen in the future.

Then what do futurists do? Quite simply, they try to suggest things that might happen in the future, so that people can decide what they want to make happen. By looking at current trends, for example, it is possible to make a projection of what might be the case in the future.

If the population of a city is growing at two percent a year, we can suggest that the city will have more people in the future than it has now and even calculate how many additional people might be added. But that does not mean the city will definitely have those additional people, because a lot of things could happen to stop or even reverse the city's population growth.

Knowing the possibilities of the future--that is, what might happen--enables people to choose. Unless they know that they have alternatives and what they are, people can't choose what they want to have happen in the future. Once the possibilities are identified, we can try to make the desired possibilities become realities and prevent the undesired possibilities from evr being realized.

Thinking ahead does not, of course, guarantee success. Nor does its absence ensure failure. Sometimes bad luck can overcome the most careful planning and good luck can make a fool look like a genius. But most of the time, victory belongs to the people who think ahead and not to those who don't.

Who Are Futurists?

In recent years, a number of scientists, scholars, government officials, business leaders, and others have become seriously interested in anticipating what lies ahead. They see anticipating the future as an essential activity because of the increasingly rapid changes in today's world.

Futurists are often called on to suggest the possible consequences of actions or technologies in order to anticipate their possible effects. Unintended, unknown, and delayed consequences may prove even more important in the long run than the direct and intended effects.

There is no fully accepted term for this emerging field, but a variety of terms are used: futures research, future studies, futurism, futuristics, futurology, conjecture, and futures analysis. Related fields sharing similar methods and concerns are called by such names as strategic forecasting, issues management, trend analysis, impact assessment, and long-range planning.

Futurist Versus Planner

Futures research is often confused with planning, and the same person may do both. However, it is useful to distinguish between the two functions. When doing futures research, we try to explore the myriad possibilities of the future in order to understand the various opportunities and challenges that may lie ahead; we can then decide what we want to achieve.

Once we have decided on our goals, we then want to plan how best to achieve them. In planning, we set forth the steps we will take to reach our goals. Often that involves money, so we may need to start thinking about budgeting our time and money.

Myths

Myth: Futurists try to predict the future and fail miserably.

Fact: Futurist try to identify events that might occur in the future. …

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