Emerging Technologies

What is 'futures studies' and how can it help us improve our world?

A futurist explains.

A futurist explains.

Abhinav Chugh
Content and Partnerships Lead, World Economic Forum
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  • Futures studies is the systematic study of possible, probable and preferable futures.
  • It can be used to help leaders and communities manage uncertainties and increase their resilience and innovation.
  • We spoke with futurist Dr. Stuart Candy about the latest developments in this field and how it can help us solve pressing global challenges.

Futures studies, or futures research, is the systematic study of possible, probable and preferable futures. The field has broadened into an exploration of alternative futures and deepened to investigate the worldviews and mythologies that underlie our collective prospects.

Governments and leaders around the world are increasingly looking to systemic foresight to manage uncertainty and build resilience. For example, the government of the United Arab Emirates has a Ministry for the Future, and the UN Secretary General recently proposed a global Summit of the Future in 2023.

Futurists collaborate with businesses, governments and other partners to explore future scenarios and help people think about –– and prepare for –– things that haven’t happened yet. Dr. Stuart Candy, USC Berggruen Fellow and Associate Professor of Design at Carnegie Mellon University, is a professional futurist and experience designer known for pioneering experiential futures, a range of practices for bringing possible scenarios to life through tangible artifacts and immersive storytelling.

As we welcome Dr. Candy into the Forum Expert Network, we discuss his motivations to explore this domain, what developments have him most excited, what he wishes people knew about his work, and how we could make the concept of the future more inclusive and accountable.

What drew you to the field of foresight and speculative design?

I happened across the foresight field, or futures studies, back in high school. It was immediately inspiring to me –– wide-ranging and imaginative, analytically insightful, ethically engaged and practically applied. However, over some years of working with foresight in government, I found that policymakers had limited capacity to envision alternative futures, and even where the field had a certain currency, its legacy methods weren’t necessarily having great impact.

So, I began re-visiting longstanding creative interests of mine that had perhaps begun to fall away during my formal education in history and law –– making things, films, theatre, games –– and asked: how might thinking about futures be made more accessible and compelling through these modes?

What began as a trickle has, over time, become more like a flood: practitioners, scholars, activists, and others around the world are now working in countless different ways on these intersections. A range of these are documented in our recent collection Design and Futures.

What global challenge does your work address?

The central challenge this work addresses could certainly be called global, but equally, it's psychological. It is an aspect of the human condition that exists at every scale of action and institution, from the personal to the planetary. That challenge is: how to engage the various possible worlds we might find ourselves in later –– not just intellectually, in the abstract, but more deeply as potential lived realities? The field traditionally has been very strong on frameworks for organizing thought, but less so on converting those anticipations into embodied insights and making them stick.

Design and futures were largely non-overlapping worlds when we started joining the dots in the mid-2000s, and a decade ago, the term "speculative design" wasn’t even in the mix. However, new framings that speak to different groups are part of the vitality of how the work has taken off, and I’m glad to help people explore futures more effectively under any banner. I have now spent well over a decade bringing futures often into new spaces, especially by growing and gardening those connections between foresight and media, arts, and design, which is intended to help acculturate –– build into our cultures –– these ways of thinking.

I would add that to my mind, designers have special duties because they create fragments of the future on behalf of everyone. Similarly, to the extent that a leader in any context has an outsized capacity to shape things, they have a commensurate responsibility to practice and enable high quality futures thinking.

What is the most critical challenge that you face as a futurist?

Perhaps the most critical challenge is the need for futures literacy in the culture. Take politics and journalism, institutions that inherently deal with the future but that do not have a well-established habit of "rigorous imagining". Lack of futures literacy is apparent when otherwise discerning journalists demand that you provide predictions for their piece on "the future" (note the singular form) of any issue they are covering.

It is also apparent when policymakers, technologists, pundits, and other public figures issue a constant stream of authoritative-sounding forecasts, but no one checks back later to see how they fared, or asks how this diet of images of the future might be exerting influence and serving some interests more than others. Raising collective futures literacy, or "social foresight", not just across organizations but also throughout society, is an essential way for us all to navigate the predicaments that we face as a species.

What is the most exciting new development in collective foresight and why?

The greatest development right now is the rapid widening of those who initiate, run, and take part in foresight work. It’s incredibly exciting. People in various sectors, bringing diverse cultural, organizational, and disciplinary backgrounds and sensibilities, are picking up the tools to build strategic foresight and experiential futures approaches in particular, and adapting them for their own contexts and needs.

There’s more participation and interest than there has ever been, which is as thrilling as it is overdue. Organization leaders and governments, too, are taking the cue to improve their foresight approaches which is necessary in this time.

How are emerging technologies in the sphere of media (such as AR/VR) enabling this?

Playing with emerging media tools and technologies is a fun and productive aspect of opening up new ways of thinking through experiential futures. For instance, for the World Economic Forum’s own Global Technology Governance Summit this year, with my Carnegie Mellon students we designed online media –– websites and podcasts that behaved as if they were "from" decades out, each examining technology governance dilemmas and interventions that might be waiting in the wings.

Another project, for the UNESCO Futures Summit, pictured a future after the Sustainable Development Goals are achieved, via a digital showcase of world-changing organizations and initiatives in the year 2045. Here, we created a digital trade show for visitors to wander and explore at their leisure, using an online collaboration software Miro. Earlier this year, we created TikToks from the future, just as an experiment. The result was a range of wonderfully mundane, sometimes provocative or hilarious, vignettes of everyday futures, made with zero budget, and exploring food, autonomous vehicles, real estate, travel, and more.

Yet, the medium itself does not necessarily need to be cutting-edge or experimental to be effective. To support the UN Development Programme’s annual innovation gathering, mid-pandemic, my collaborators and I created physical artifacts from alternative futures for global development and sent them in the mail for people to receive at their homes, ahead of a global event that took place entirely online.

Every storytelling approach offers different ways to think and feel into what alternative scenarios might be like. Since no one can visit the future to get hard information about it, we must use whatever it takes to stoke our collective imaginative and deliberative capacities.

What is most misunderstood about your work? What do you wish people knew?

The role of a futurist is more like that of an artist or writer than an accountant or lawyer. It’s as much an art or craft as a profession, and there are as many kinds of futurists as there are ways of thinking about the future. The tradition I identify with is notable for being radically imaginative, critical, inclusive, and democratic. And to me, taking words like "future" and "futurist" back from the ways they have been abused, pre-populated or colonized with a tremendous amount of baggage is part of the project in hand.

It could also be helpful for more people to be aware that experts in the field generally don’t call it "futurism" –– that word refers more to an art movement early last century that’s unrelated.

What has been the biggest impact of mapping futures?

Building the habit of mapping futures can be life changing. For institutions or organizations, it can really shift how they operate. Likewise at an individual level –– and it’s remarkable to get to see this among my students. I think a reason it can have such impact is that it’s a way of situating the "what" and "how" of daily effort within the larger "whys" in our lives. Investing in foresight capacity helps to knit vital day-to-day work to the meaningful longer-term and bigger-picture questions, and to keep those ties alive.

I believe the biggest collective impact of all this is unfolding right before our eyes, but it’s a large story, so you must look for it on a timescale of decades or generations rather than months or years. We, as humans, are learning how to codesign our futures. This is ultimately a transformation in culture and governance.

How can we democratize futures studies and make it more accessible?

Well, I love that question. It’s central to what we have been up to. My own approach to developing and socializing experiential futures widely has been to keep several hats at the ready, sometimes wearing more than one at once. As a creative, I devise projects and interventions to make particular questions, and new horizons of thought, available for particular occasions and audiences

As an educator, I learn from these experiments to devise new frameworks, and distribute them to emerging practitioners and whoever else can use them in their own context. And as a strategic consultant, I collaborate with organizations, governments and communities on their challenges to apply what we are learning, and show how it can work, which helps address those challenges while also earning greater legitimacy and visibility on behalf of a wider futures community, growing the audience of users and learners for the underlying practices.

If you’re wondering about what a broader "we" can do, just about every organization has potential to grow their foresight capacity, and make more space to engage with alternative futures, which can help support creativity and innovation on one hand as well as risk mitigation and resilience on the other.

One project we’ve developed over some years which I think exemplifies this hybrid activity rather well, is a card deck called The Thing From The Future. It’s a tool for diversifying and deepening imagination. We’ve used it with UN agencies and the International Red Cross, as well as the BBC, NASA JPL, US Conference of Mayors, Skoll World Forum and other partners all over the world. It is a game that has the purpose of lowering the bar to using imagination with skill, and having conversations that matter, but playfully.

The future is not just something that happens to us, it is something we have the ability to shape. And part of what is interesting is, the more people and institutions tune in, participate, and act, the truer this becomes.

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Related topics:
Emerging TechnologiesFourth Industrial RevolutionGeo-Economics and Politics
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