Futures studies is an interdisciplinary field that aggregates and analyzes trends, with both lay and professional methods, to compose possible futures. It includes analyzing the sources, patterns, and causes of change and stability in an attempt to develop foresight. Around the world the field is variously referred to as futures studies, strategic foresight, futuristics, futures thinking, futuring, and futurology. Futures studies and strategic foresight are the academic field’s most commonly used terms in the English-speaking world.
Foresight was the original term and was first used in this sense by H.G. Wells in 1932. “Futurology” is a term common in encyclopedias, though it is used almost exclusively by nonpractitioners today, at least in the English-speaking world. “Futurology” is defined as the “study of the future.”The term was coined by German professor Ossip K. Flechtheim in the mid-1940s, who proposed it as a new branch of knowledge that would include a new science of probability. This term has fallen from favor in recent decades because modern practitioners stress the importance of alternative and plural futures, rather than one monolithic future, and the limitations of prediction and probability, versus the creation of possible and preferable futures.
Three factors usually distinguish futures studies from the research conducted by other disciplines (although all of these disciplines overlap, to differing degrees). First, futures studies often examines trends to compose possible, probable, and preferable futures along with the role “wild cards” can play on future scenarios. Second, futures studies typically attempts to gain a holistic or systemic view based on insights from a range of different disciplines, generally focusing on the STEEP categories of Social, Technological, Economic, Environmental and Political. Third, futures studies challenges and unpacks the assumptions behind dominant and contending views of the future. The future thus is not empty but fraught with hidden assumptions. For example, many people expect the collapse of the Earth’s ecosystem in the near future, while others believe the current ecosystem will survive indefinitely. A foresight approach would seek to analyze and highlight the assumptions underpinning such views.
As a field, futures studies expands on the research component, by emphasizing the communication of a strategy and the actionable steps needed to implement the plan or plans leading to the preferable future. It is in this regard, that futures studies evolves from an academic exercise to a more traditional business-like practice, looking to better prepare organizations for the future.
Futures studies does not generally focus on short term predictions such as interest rates over the next business cycle, or of managers or investors with short-term time horizons. Most strategic planning, which develops goals and objectives with time horizons of one to three years, is also not considered futures. Plans and strategies with longer time horizons that specifically attempt to anticipate possible future events are definitely part of the field. As a rule, futures studies is generally concerned with changes of transformative impact, rather than those of an incremental or narrow scope.
The futures field also excludes those who make future predictions through professed supernatural means.