Futures Thinking: Scanning the World

Looking for the distant early warnings of tomorrow.

In Futures Thinking: The Basics, I offered up an overview of how to engage in a foresight exercise. In Futures Thinking: Asking the Question, I explored in more detail the process of setting up a futures exercise, and how to figure out what you’re trying to figure out. In this entry in the occasional series, we’ll take a look at gathering useful data.


Like the first step, Asking the Question, Scanning the World seems like it would be easier than it really is. In my opinion, it may actually be the hardest step of all, because you have to navigate two seemingly contradictory demands:

  • You need to expand the horizons of your exploration, because the factors shaping how the future of the dilemma in question will manifest go far beyond the narrow confines of that issue.
  • You need to focus your attention on the elements critical to the dilemma, and not get lost in the overwhelming amount of information out there.

You should recognize up front that the first few times you do this, you’ll miss quite a few of the key drivers; even experienced futurists end up missing a some important aspects of a dilemma. It’s the nature of the endeavor: We can’t predict the future, but we can try to spot important signifiers of changes that will affect the future. We won’t spot them all, but the more we catch, the more useful our forecasts.

The biggest problem you’ll face is wrestling with the limitless number of issues and forces related to your key question. In nearly every case, there will be too many for you to investigate them all. Moreover, only a few of them will be truly critical to determining the outcome of your problem. So how do you narrow down the drivers?


Look Backwards

In many ways, the best training for futures work is the study of history. Scenario-based forecasting can be thought of as anticipatory history–scenarios are often written as if looking back from the narrative “present” (which could be 2015 or 2020 or 2050 or whichever point your scenario is set) at how that world came to be. It stands to reason, then, that getting a handle on understanding what led to the real present will help you understand what will shape the future.

Digging up college history textbooks can’t hurt, but (as noted before) you probably aren’t trying to develop scenarios of the future of the world. Instead, you will need to dig up multiple perspectives (if possible) on how the subject of your dilemma got to where it is today, and then work your way backwards. How did your company come to need to look for new place to build a widget factory, for example? If the primary answer is “increased demand,” start looking at what drove that increased demand, and then what triggered that change, and so on.


The reason you want to find different perspectives is that you’re looking for patterns not answers. Are there cause-and-effect loops that seem to show up time and again? Do your various sources all point to similar processes? Your future scenarios won’t simply be re-tellings of the past–but they should reflect the kinds of drivers that have already proven to be important.

How far should you look back? The futurist rule of thumb is to look back twice as far as you want to look forward. If you’ve decided that your scenarios will be set 12 years out, then you’ll want to look back roughly 24 years. That may require you to look at parallel or competing organizations, but again: your goal is not to come up with universal causes, but to spot patterns.

Ask Around

If you’re reading this, you’re clearly of above-average intelligence (and good-looking too!), but even the most brilliant among us can’t and won’t know everything. The next step in scanning is to find other people who may have useful insights into your dilemma. Some of these may be experts in the field, or people with a good grasp of the history of your organization.


But make a point of talking to outsiders, too. In your “looking backwards” exercise, you will have come across a number of recurring patterns and important drivers shaping the past. Find people–in academia, in industry, even in the blogosphere–who seem to have interesting things to say about these forces external to your organization. And if you’re really feeling daring, find a few people who have nothing to do with your dilemma or drivers at all, but offer intriguing insights about the world in general–science fiction writers often fit that role.

You’re not going to ask them to solve your problem. That’s your job. You’re going to ask them what they would be looking for in trying to figure out the answer to your dilemma. What are the paths they would follow? What are the issues they’d be concerned about? What would they want to know?

You’ll also want to ask them what they see as important changes happening in the coming years, both in their area of expertise and in general. Here, you’re trying to gather both important data points specific to the problem, and (again) recurring patterns. If the design specialist, the environmental scientist, and the science fiction writer all call out “smart objects” as something to watch, it’s probably worth investigating.


Follow Your Nose

This is the step that will be the hardest–and probably the most cursory–at first, but increasingly important as you continue to engage in futures thinking.

Simply put, this is the process of gathering information and looking for items that stand out as interesting. That’s it. Your sources will be quality general-interest magazines (such as The Economist or New Scientist) and Web sites (such as Fast Company or Worldchanging), as well as specialty resources related to your main topics of interest. This will mean drinking from a firehose of information–I follow something on the order of 300 RSS newsfeeds, as an example. It also means learning how to tease out the useful and interesting from that flood.

Unfortunately, there isn’t an easy heuristic for doing so. I can’t tell you how to determine “usefulness” and “interestingness”–it’s something you’ll figure out through practice and experimentation. Fortunately, the more you dig through your newsfeeds and information resources and apply what you’ve found, the better you’ll get at spotting the useful and interesting.


And as you continue your futures thinking practice, you’ll almost certainly find it useful to engage in scanning even when you’re not actively working on a project. You’ll find yourself reading through magazines and blogs, noticing the stories and headlines that others might miss in the noise, but stand out to you like beacons. Keeping track of the “distant early warnings” of future changes will become a habit, and hopefully a pleasure.


Johannis Hevelii Selenographia, from Selenographia, 1647


Point Lay Alaska DEW Line, by Tech. Sgt. Donald Wetterman, USAF, public domain image.