Future Studies 101 (Breakdown of a thesis)

In this post I would like to make you a little bit more familiar with the field of future studies or rather, how it works. Although in some ways it has been prevalent since the 1960s, future studies has always been quite a controversial field and therefore did not gain much traction in economics or the industry in general. (Take the pointless debate on Climate Change as an example)

In 1975 the University of Houston was the first one to provide a M.S. Program in the field. 40 years later, despite having become increasingly important, there are merely 15 programs primarily dedicated to the studies of future. Now, the reason for future studies and future thinking having become so important and essential for today’s business or decision-making in general is quite simple. We are currently in the middle of a societal upheaval. From Hunter & Gatherers, to the Agricultural Society, to the Industrial Society, we are now advancing into a new society – the Information Society (Rolf Jensen, Dream Society). Without getting too much into the details of Jensen’s book (I will write a review about it sometime soon), it states that all kinds of information will gain a lot of importance and will ultimately resemble some sort of commodity. And it does. Through our “Connectedness” we have the choice of thousands of news outlets, we get our information whenever we want it, wherever we want it and from whomever we want it. Patients know more than their doctors, people become meticulous in debating rather irrelevant “stuff” and a day without “Newsfeed”, which is a word that has found its way into so many languages, exposes the addiction of even the most composed person of the information society to its new commodity.

In short –  trends emerge, consumer behavior changes drastically because of these developments, industries follow along consequently, and businesses are either to decide and adapt or to crash eventually. Hence, in this ever so fast changing world, future-oriented thinking comes in very handy. It provides the necessary knowledge of change components and drivers that might influence the way you are making decisions or holding your position in the market. It gives you the opportunity to see these changes rather quickly and allows you to make decisions based on thorough, analytical research.

According to the APF (Association of Professional Futurists), there are 5 distinguished processes that lead to the desired result – an inspiring, strategic fundament for professional decision-making and achievement (in whatever field).

Framing
Scanning
Describing
Visioning
Planning

I will strongly rephrase them and briefly interpret what these procedures are about according to my understanding of them. I’ll refer to my previous post (China’s Migrant Workers in 2025) to break down the thesis and to show you where you can find these steps in practice. Please note that the methodologies were new to me and I was not familiar with the APF at that time.

Framing
Many times when futurists are asked for advice, there is a problem, an issue, a question, that needs to be resolved or answered. Framing is about identifying the scope and the background of the project. It is about asking the right question and setting the frame for this endeavor.

The screenshots below shows an excerpt, the table of content and what of the content belongs to Framing.
As you can see in my report, Framing was quite a bit of work. I first constructed the main subject question as well as sub-questions that would later help me to get an answer the main question (Research introduction). The following was intensive literature study which was a necessity for me to understand the background of the subject – in this case, the history of China’s economy, migration, CSR-development etc. (Not really sure if I’m quoting someone or if I came up with it myself,, but my mindset was “If you want to understand the future, you first need to understand the past and present”.)

 framingresearch intro

Scanning
Scanning, as the second part of the whole ordeal, is to literally scan the environment, the scope, and lookout for what is going on. In practice this means – identify, analyze and evaluate drivers of change, major trends and the key uncertainties (A key uncertainty refers to an event whose outcome you don’t know and cannot predict.). It is important to communicate these intelligible, so that the results here are easily understood in a confrontation with the resulting scenarios later on.

Once again, below you will find the headlines that introduce the steps mentioned above. Please feel free to check out the previous post and the complete report for a better picture of the whole process.You can find it here.

scanningscanninggg

Describing
In this step the scenarios are created. Based on the outcome of the previous steps it is now possible to confront trends and key uncertainties with each other and look for correlations. The result will be a matrix of 2 to 4 (with other methods/techniques sometimes 5) scenarios with a catchy headline. The following pages will then describe these scenarios in a creative but intelligible narrative, taking into account all the drivers, trends, uncertainties, stakeholders and their factor of influence (previously determined), as well as knowledge from past events (literature study).

Describing was part of my biggest concern. I’ had previously done literature studies and trend analysis but creating scenarios was the part where knowledge of story telling was needed that I barely had. This itsself triggered another literature study. Yes, A lot of reading had to be done.

register2222describe

Visioning
Having a set of scenarios that illustrate a number of plausible future is a good thing. However, for effective decision-making in strategy, it is necessary to lay focus on the most plausible and the most realistic scenario. Visioning describes the process of doing just that and supporting your choice of scenario with as much evidence as possible.

The application of this procedure in my report was based on common knowledge, logic and expert intuition.

register23333visioning

Planning
Finally, the crucial part of translating your findings into strategic, future-oriented advice. Important here is to give planning advice in a realistic manner. Major changes in the market or consumer behavior can force businesses to make drastic decisions – it is however, necessary to put things into perspective and take into account the issues that make Strategic Change Management inevitable – How fast is change happening?  In what position are we today? Do we have the capacity to change? The willingness? How do we change? Inside-out or outside-in, transformational or operational, process-based or project-based? Et cetera et cetera …

I wish I could say that I am proud of the strategic advice I give in my report but I realized that following through with the whole process of future studies was much more time-intensive than I had anticipated. Therefore, the resulting advice, in my opinion, scratches barely on the surface of what is most efficient. But then again, my own personal focus was on the wellbeing of migrants – not global brands from the textile industry. (Involving brands in the strategy-making, instead of advicing policy changes or resolutions for NGO’s, was unfortunately a mandatory part of my thesis.

register25555555planning

At last, I’d like to add that future studies does not only serve your favorite fashion brand or your go-to smartphone brand, like this post and my report might make it out to be. It is about the future of everything – the environment, technology, poverty, human rights etc.. And that is to me what makes it all the more interesting.

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