a smartphone with The Future is calling ... on it

5 principles for thinking like a futurist

Thinking about the future allows us to imagine what kind of future we want to live in and how we can get there

[Editor’s note: This article is reprinted with permission of the author and EDUCAUSE Review. Originally published in EDUCAUSE Review 54, no. 1 (Winter 2019)]

In 2018 we celebrated the 50-year anniversary of the founding of the Institute for the Future (IFTF). No other futures organization has survived for this long; we’ve actually survived our own forecasts! In these five decades we learned a lot, and we still believe—even more strongly than before—that systematic thinking about the future is absolutely essential for helping people make better choices today, whether you are an individual or a member of an educational institution or government organization. We view short-termism as the greatest threat not only to organizations but to society as a whole.

In my 20 years at the Institute, I’ve developed five core principles for futures thinking:

  1. Forget about predictions.
  2. Focus on signals.
  3. Look back to see forward.
  4. Uncover patterns.
  5. Create a community.

#1: Forget about predictions

If somebody tells you they can predict the future, don’t believe them. Nobody can predict large socio-technical transformations and what exactly these are going to look like. We are getting better at making point predictions. There are prediction markets and all kinds of data-rich tools with which we’re trying to predict elections, market share prices, and the success of product introductions. All of these focus on one particular event, a particular point. But a lot of our work at the Institute for the Future is focused on comprehending big, complex transformations—rather than just one thing, one event. We’re looking at the interconnection between technologies and society and economics and organizations.

One way to think about this is to look at the difference between waves and tides. Waves are what we see on the surface. They are fleeting events, they come and go, appear and disappear. But there is something bigger underneath that is causing these waves. Underneath the waves is the tide, causing all kinds of disturbances of which waves are just one sign. Our work involves trying to understand those tides, the deeper forces underneath the waves.

Futures thinking is about readiness

So, if no one can predict the future, why think about it? Because doing so helps you to inoculate yourself. In the medical field, inoculating yourself prevents you from falling ill. In futures thinking, if you’ve considered a whole range of possibilities, you’re kind of inoculating yourself. If one of these possibilities comes about, you’re better prepared.

Futures thinking is about seeing new possibilities

Thinking about the future is also about imagining. It’s about transforming how we think. It’s about creating a map to the future and looking for the big areas of opportunity. We like to think about transformations, for example, in learning and work, and how they get connected and intertwined in various ways. And then we start thinking about zones of opportunity. How can we shape the future to make it more equitable? How can we amplify learning outcomes? What do we need to do to achieve these outcomes?

The future doesn’t just happen to us. We have agency in imagining and creating the kind of future we want to live in, and we can take actions to get us there.

When we think about the future at the Institute, a 10-year horizon is our “sweet spot.” This is for multiple reasons. Ten years is a safe place. People don’t bring a lot of turf issues when thinking that far out, and they can agree on a desirable future to consider and to prepare for.

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