The year is 2020. Political extremists and religious fundamentalists have gained power around the world. A handful of charismatic leaders control production and impose policies that hobble economic activity. Groups deemed "socially unacceptable" are being oppressed, even exterminated.
An unattractive scenario? No doubt. An unlikely scenario? One hopes. A scenario worth reckoning with? Absolutely—at least for students in the Studies of the Future program at the University of Houston at Clear Lake (UHCL). The "Disciplined Society" is one of five scenarios (most of the others, fortunately, are more appealing) that the students must consider as they investigate aspects of their own futures: what professional skills they should acquire, what kinds of companies they should work with, what lifestyles they can aspire to.
"It's a very pragmatic degree," says Wendy Schultz, 43, a visiting professor from Oxford, England, where she is a consultant. "We help people to sense the changes occurring around them and to connect those changes to their personal goals. If you're secure about adapting to change in your own life, you'll be able to help your company cope with change."
Which is why, on a summer evening at the Clear Lake campus, not far from the NASA Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center, Jorge Sepulveda, 36, Steve Seay, 42, and Sue Skinner, 48, are in a small-group breakout, writing imaginary newspaper headlines inspired by the Disciplined Society. In futurist terms, they're "incasting" — assuming that a major transition has taken place and working backward to deduce the events that might have led to it. Incasting is different from forecasting — looking at current events and speculating on where they might lead. It's also different from predicting — which, as any real futurist will tell you, is nearly impossible.
"We can't predict what the future will be," admits Professor Oliver Markley, 61, who has been affiliated with the program since 1978 and who is the principal investigator at the Institute for Futures Research, the program's research arm. "But we know it will be different from the present. We want students to ask themselves, 'Since I don't know what's going to happen, what competencies will make me as flexible as possible?'"
UHCL has been helping students improve their future flexibility since the program was founded, in 1975. The university offers the country's only master of science degree in "studies of the future," and the program attracts students from throughout the United States and from as far away as Pakistan, Sweden, and China. Students can take classes full-time, part-time, or during intensive six-week summer sessions. Classes include a lively mix of undergraduates, grad students, and businesspeople — among them, employees from such companies as American Express, Coca-Cola, and Texaco.
Students learn about the future of marketing, the future of the environment, even the history of the future. But for Sepulveda, a Chilean entrepreneur, and for Seay and Skinner, who are both master's students in human-resources management, the most compelling topic is their future. They're enrolled in a course called "The Changing Future: A Personal and Professional Approach." It might better be called "How to Be Your Own Futurist."
The course is mostly social science, with a dash of self-help. In each class, students share "hits" from their "scan journals," which record intriguing or unusual information that they've culled from magazines and Web sites.
Students also do an exercise that involves completing the phrase "It Could Never Happen That . . . ." According to one student, for example, it could never happen that world hunger would be eliminated, or that she would become vice president of R&D for a major food company. (The next step, of course, is to imagine how these scenarios might actually come to pass.)
The goal of these and other assignments, says Markley, is for students to develop 360-degree vision — which means paying attention to STEEP (social, technological, economic, ecological, and political) trends.
Those trends can lead to a wide variety of outcomes, and partly for that reason, people are often reluctant to envision the future. But they shouldn't avoid that challenge, says Schultz. Thinking about the future is the first step toward creating it, for organizations as well as individuals, she argues: "Imagine a company where everyone is asking, What if? Imagine what a lively, dynamic place that would be."
You can visit the Institute for Futures Research on the Web www.cl.uh.edu/futureweb
A version of this article appeared in the October 1998 issue of Fast Company magazine.