You may be wondering what, exactly, a futurist is. Don’t worry—you’re not alone. A futurist is someone who models next-order outcomes using a broad spectrum of weak signals, strong signals, trends, and other factors. Futurists work in an interdisciplinary field combining hard sciences (mathematics, engineering, sciences, technology), social sciences (game theory, economics, cultural anthropology) and other fields, such as design, philosophy and management theory. Futurists do not make predictions. They make projections in order to create a state of readiness, to determine strategic actions, to aid in decision-making, to build long-range plans, or to simply imagine alternate future states.
The term “futurology” comes from the Latin (futurum, or fu-ture) and the Greek suffix -logia (the science of), and it was coined by a German professor named Ossip Flechtheim in 1943, who, along with author H. G. Wells several decades earlier, proposed “futurism” as a new academic discipline.
A futurist is someone who studies next-order outcomes using signals from the present.
Modern foresight, or futures work, originated in storytelling in the late 1800s. H.G. Wells, who was a novelist and journalist, developed something he called “predictive writing.” While Wells is known best for his novella The Time Machine, his most important work was actually a series of articles about the future called “Anticipations of the Reaction of Mechanical and Scientific Progress upon Human Life and Thought.” Using signals from the present, he wrote about next-order implications of science and technology on everyday life, imagining a national highway system, automated machines to replace was was then the human servant class, and even prefab houses. Eventually, he described the rise and collapse of capitalism. He passionately argued for an academic approach to futures studies, and thought that there should be a methodical approach to foresight. That’s important because Wells himself didn’t use a methodology — it was clear that he thought there ought to be a formalized process. He used his skills as a journalist and as a storyteller to speculate about the future.
During and after World War II, Nicholas Rescher and Olaf Helmer developed the Delphi forecasting technique while at RAND, which used structured conversations with experts as a way of collecting data. They were interested in signal data and trying to understand change. It wasn’t until the 1960s that the second wave of futurists began their work, developing statistical models and using computers to determine how society might look in the future. Back then, futurists were primarily concerned with the far-future ramifications of what was then quite novel: space travel, the Pill, desalinating the oceans, artificial intelligence, personality-affecting drugs, overpopulation and geopolitical instability.
Herman Kahn, who was also at RAND, combined the data he had access to along with game theory — he wanted to understand outcomes. It was Kahn who first used the word “scenario” to describe a plausible future state in rich detail. He understood the power of data-driven storytelling. In the 70s, Pierre Wack built on Kahn’s scenario planning for use in the private sector while he was at Royal Dutch Shell, and that process was further perfected by Peter Schwartz at Royal Dutch Shell in the 1980s.
There are different lineages and schools, and the trained futurists use a methodology of some kind. Arthur C. Clarke, Herman Kahn, Anthony J. Weiner, Theo Gordon, M.S. Iyengar, Eric Jantsch all imagined what was scientifically probable, while Yujiro Hayashi, Daniel Bell, Bertrand de Jouvenel and Alvin Toffler wondered what those ideas might mean for government policy, journalism, democracy, academic independence and our collective economic welfare.
I’m a quantitative futurist and my academic background is economics and game theory. So my lineage traces back to Kahn and Wack. When Kahn was working on a project to describe plausible outcomes of nuclear war, he used U.S. Air Force intelligence, warfare technology trends, scientific research and demographic trends to develop scenarios for senior government leaders. He specifically veered away from science fiction because he didn’t want military officials to reject his work, but he also didn’t want to represent the scenarios as facts, since the future was uncertain. The richly detailed narratives proved incredibly powerful on their own. You might have read them in On Thermonuclear War — it inspired the films Dr. Strangelove, WarGames, the Manhattan Project. Science fiction can definitely play a role in asking us to “think the unthinkable,” as Kahn would often say.