However, futures thinking is by no means a young practice. Throughout the 20th century, it was concerned with anticipating the future, for use within post-war political planning or as inspiration to the science fiction writers of the era, such as H.G. Wells. In recent years, the practice has shifted its focus away from predictions of the future, known as forecasting, toward the critical exploration of future possibilities, known as foresight.
While it is still not formally defined or well established as an academic discipline, there are maxims that are commonly agreed upon. “You can’t know the future” is one of them. In other words, futures thinking looks beyond the scope of ‘probable futures’ to examine the full realm of ‘possible futures’ (see Fig. 1), with the goal of identifying unforeseen opportunities or de-risking propositions. It seeks to unpack the question of “what could happen?”, rather than attempting to answer “what will happen?”.
Futures thinking is primarily concerned with systemic factors, and is less concerned with immediate problems. It recognises that everything is interconnected, and that in order to make meaningful and long-lasting impact, one must understand and intervene in the overall system rather than addressing only individual elements. If we applied this approach to a project about meditation, for example, we would also consider adjacent subjects such as mental health, self-help, work performance and online self-image.
Where futures thinking and Design Thinking meet
Many designers who already practice futures thinking do so by applying it as a tool or method to be deployed at certain stages of their design process. In some cases, foresight has been used before the design process even begins, as a provocation to rouse the team and encourage new, creative thought.2 In these instances, futures thinking is viewed as supplementary to the design process, but not baked into its methodology or mind-set.
We challenge this notion of futures thinking as a method or tool to be deployed by designers and argue that it delivers more meaningful impact when built into design as a mind-set. We believe that futures thinking is an approach with a set of principles that can be integrated into design methodologies from start to finish.
Futures thinking as a mind-set for design
The methodology that we have crafted introduces the divergent, exploratory mind-set of futures thinking to the outcome-oriented mind-set of design. This helps us answer both the long-term question of “where do we want to be?” as well as the short-term response to “so what do we do next?”.