As you probably picked up from earlier entries in the Futures Thinking series, foresight work is intensely information-based. If you’re going to make grounded projections of future possibilities, you have understand both what has led us to the point we’re at today, and what kinds of issues seem to be shaping up as emerging drivers. A few pieces to trigger some creative thoughts can help, too.
As I suggested in Futures Thinking: Scanning the World, a good deal of the reading you’ll be doing will be in the form of websites and journals. This isn’t surprising; part of the service provided by foresight workers is sensitivity to early warnings of big changes. It will be tempting to focus on science and technology materials, in part because there tends to be an overlap between people interested in futures work and people interested in new tech toys, and in part because the pace and pattern of change is easier to see in science and technology than it is in many other realms. It’s not necessarily more “objective,” but it’s perceived as less ambiguous.
Many futurists use a checklist approach to make sure they’re covering a sufficiently wide set of topics, in terms of both research and brainstorming during a foresight exercise. The traditional heuristic is STEP: Society, Technology, Economics, and Politics. In the 1990s, this was expanded to STEEP: Society, Technology, Economics, Environment, and Politics. It’s not hard to find futurists using their own personal variations on this theme — for a while, I played with SCEPTIC: Society, Culture, Environment, Politics, Technology, Infrastructure, and Commerce. It’s actually kind of amusing to see what kinds of acronyms you can come up with that both make sense and tell a bigger story. (One off the top of my head: PLANET — Politics, Law, Arts, Nature, Economics, Technology.) But whatever your method, the goal is to make sure that you’re covering a sufficiently wide array of issues, and not just those of narrow interest to your industry or personality.
As useful as websites and journals are, there’s real value in books, too. You need to recognize that the copyright date on a book reflects when it came out, not when it was written — assume that the information in the book is at least a year older than the copyright date, and possibly two. The goal, then, shouldn’t be to look at books as guides to cutting edge information, but as sources of useful interpretation and analysis.
Books are also useful for discussions of practice — that’s pretty timeless — as well as inspiration (here, largely fiction).
What follows is a short — and rather incomplete — list of books I’ve found especially interesting in my work. I would love to hear what other books you think I should check out.
These two books are good resources for understanding methodologies of futures work. Schwartz co-founded Global Business Network, and Johansen is a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute for the Future. (Disclosure: I’ve worked with Peter, and currently work with Bob.)
- Art of the Long View, Peter Schwartz
- Get There Early, Bob Johansen
Foresight is anticipatory history. These three books offer very different perspectives on how to think about the past — which, in turn, help to shape how we should think about the future. Polanyi is a classical theorist, looking at ideas and states; Zinn is a populist, looking at the lives of regular people; Diamond is an ecologist, looking at the intersection of culture and environment. I end up mixing these three approaches in my own work.
- The Great Transformation, Karl Polanyi
- A People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn
- Collapse, Jared Diamond
Easily the largest section of my personal library, I could have made the list of Analysis books ten times longer. The ones I’ve picked here, however, offer for me a set of cogent insights into how we live with the tools we make. The ideal result from reading a book in this category should be an epiphany moment where you can see all sorts of links from the book’s ideas to other books/ideas you’ve encountered. All of these books gave me that kind of moment.
- Smart Mobs, Howard Rheingold
- The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs
- Everyware, Adam Greenfield
- Plan B, Lester Brown
- Radical Evolution, Joel Garreau
- Brave New War, John Robb
- No Logo, Naomi Klein
The highest compliment I can give a science fiction book is that it’s “plausibly surreal” — it manages to feel like a relentless extrapolation from today even as it overwhelms with unexpected consequences of that extrapolation. I’ve read each of these are books multiple times, and I still get a giddy feeling of discovery every time.
- Accelerando, Charlie Stross
- Transmetropolitan series, Warren Ellis & Darrick Roberts
- Holy Fire, Bruce Sterling
- The Bohr Maker, Linda Nagata
- Rainbows End, Vernor Vinge
- Red Mars/Green Mars/Blue Mars trilogy, Kim Stanley Robinson
Few of these books are particularly recent, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing (although some may be out of print — consult your local library!). Part of what makes Smart Mobs, for example, still relevant even though it came out in 2002 is Rheingold’s insightful sense of the social, not simply the technological, aspects of mobile network and communication technologies. Sure, he doesn’t talk about smart phones, but all of what he has to say is as relevant to the iPhone as it was to a Motorola StarTac.
Reading all of these books won’t make you a futurist… but (at the very least) they’ll give you a bit of insight into how a futurist thinks.