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New FC: Futures Thinking - the Basics

This week's Fast Company is now up. Futures Thinking: The Basics is an introduction to foresight and futurism, with the goal of making it something that many people can engage in productively.

Long-time futures practitioners may find the method described overly-simple, but my goal wasn't just to present something that could be readily understood by a reader without any futures experience. I also wanted it to be something that the people using the method could easily explain to their peers.

It's a pretty common problem in foresight work -- people engaged in a futures workshop get excited about the project and its implications, but find that they are unable to explain to their colleagues back home what they went through and what it meant. They keep getting caught up in trying to make sense of the process, to explain it in a way that is meaningful to those not in attendance.

The four scenario archetypes I describe are also quite a bit simpler than the "futures archetypes" employed by graduates of the University of Hawaii Futures Studies program. Those four (Growth, Collapse, Discipline, and Transformation), while useful, still require a bit of explanation as to their meaning. Is a slow decline a Collapse? Is Transformation a positive scenario? The advantage of the super-simplified archetypes (listed below) is that they're casual, not jargon, and most people would have roughly parallel interpretations of their meaning.

One technique that's good to start with is to use what some professionals call "futures archetypes"--generic headlines that offer platforms upon which to build more specific stories. Four that can be very easy to use are expectations:
  • The future is what I expect.
  • The future is better than I expect.
  • The future is worse than I expect.
  • The future is weirder than I expect.
The first three are fairly self-explanatory, but the last may be a surprise. The goal with the fourth archetype is to explore possibilities that completely shake things up (a big earthquake, perhaps, or a war, or a revolution in computing power). This doesn't mean fantasy--alien invasions and robot uprisings are probably best left to the movies--but it does mean something outside of your expectations. The phrase I love to use for this is "plausibly surreal."

Yes, once again I work "plausibly surreal" into the conversation.


You yourself, sir, seem plausibly surreal to me.

I have used this approach for a few years in scenariobuilding and it is great. I am now moving towards a stepping stone approach - ask a lot of people when they thing X will be true, and then fill in a big lot of Xs, and work implications back from that. When you do that you see people *blink* in surprise when they suddenly see what causal implications are of their assumptions. Most average people think very linear and can't infer very well.

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