Futurology is an interdisciplinary field that analyzes past and current conditions, events, and trends for the purpose of forecasting future developments. Alternate terms include future studies, futuristics, forecasting, and futurism. During this time of rapid technological, scientific, and social change, futurology is more important than ever. However, the goal of futurology is not to predict specific events or one-time occurrences, but to improve our probable or alternative futures.
Futurology is a relatively new field of study, first espoused by science fiction author H. G. Wells, who called for the establishment of “Departments and Professors of Foresight” during a 1932 BBC broadcast. The term futurology was first used during World War II by political scientist Ossip Flechteim, to describe this new field of knowledge based on a probable and systematic analysis for the future. During the Cold War, Herman Kahn, Olaf Helmer, and other experts at the RAND Corporation think tank laid the methodological foundations for futurology by employing the scenario technique, game theory, and systems analysis to analyze military strategy.
With these foundations set, it was possible to conduct the first course devoted to futurology, taught by Alvin Toffler at The New School for Social Research in New York in 1966. Most of Toffler’s key ideas are encapsulated in his book Future Shock, about the effects of accelerated rates of change on society, including “super-industrialization” and “information overload.” Toffler named some well-known and influential futurists of his time in his 1972 edition of The Futurists, such as R. Buckminster Fuller, Marshall McLuhan, and Margaret Mead. During the 1960s and 1970s, many futurist groups were formed, including the World Future Society in 1966.
Sir Arthur C. Clarke was another leading futurist and active member of the World Future Society, as well as a foreteller of global network communication satellites. He maintained that no one could predict the future but it was feasible to map “possible futures.” Other futurists, some more specialized than their predecessors, include Ray Kurzweil in the field of artificial intelligence, Eric Drexler in nanotechnology, Patrick Dixon in business, Arnulf Grubler in energy and environment, and Greg Stock in genetic engineering.
Today, futurists can include professional and academic visionaries, consultants, policy analysts, professors, and writers from many disciplines, including anthropology, computer science, economics, education, engineering, environmental science, history, library and information science, mathematics, physical sciences, political science, and sociology.
Regardless of a futurist’s profession or academic expertise, all encourage “big picture” or crossdisciplinary thinking. According to futurist Edward Cornish, there are six “super trends” to understand if one wishes to see the big picture or the “Great Transformation” of what is shaping our future. They include technological progress; economic growth; health improvement; mobility increase; environmental decline; and decultura- tion. Futurists may advise companies, government agencies, and various organizations on possible scenarios and outcomes based on these super trends.
Based on these trends, futurists, or futurologists, employ a wide range of methodologies to examine and forecast the possible, probable, and preferable. The “possible” refers to what could happen; the “probable” refers to what would likely happen under circumstances subject to human control; the “preferable” is a prescriptive judgment as to what should happen. Forecasting is the attempt to estimate or predict future conditions based on current trends. It is important to define time periods in regards to short-term (1 to 5 years), medium-term (5 to 20 years), and long-term (20 to 50 years or beyond) forecasting of the future.
Another method often employed is that of “backcasting”—asking what changes in the present would be required to arrive at foreseen alternative futures. It is useful to analyze the many possible points of divergence from a timeline, as forecasting will construct multiple scenarios. Scenarios are one of the more popular methods used in futurology, especially by government, corporate, and military analysts who use them to aid decision making. A scenario is not a precise forecast of the future, but a probable description of what might happen. Driving factors of a situation are identified and plausible scenarios based on different outcomes are constructed.
The Delphi method is a type of forecasting that involves a panel of experts who judge the timing, probability, and implications of situations, trends, and events surrounding a particular problem. Participants maintain anonymity, frequent feedback is given, and the process is repeated several times until a consensus emerges. This method was used by RAND experts during the Cold War when they were asked to give their opinion on the probability, frequency, and intensity of possible enemy attacks.
In any attempt to forecast the future, a certain amount of risk, uncertainty, and unpredictability will exist. When the theory becomes more specific or forecasts farther into the future, the amount of uncertainty increases. This topic of uncertainty and unpredictability of forecasts is a source of controversy and debate among futurologists. Some argue that the future is at heart unpredictable, and that the true way to predict the future is to create it yourself. Others believe that advances in science, technology, models, and statistics will allow us to improve our understanding of probable futures.
Futurology is not only a discipline or profession, but also a state of mind. Futurologists have a passion and a skill for visualizing the risks and opportunities that we may face and how we can shape our futures.
Rebecca M. Blakeley
See also Ray Bradbury; Clarke, Arthur C.; Toffler, Alvin; Jules Verne; Wells, H. G.
Cornish, E. (2004). Futuring: The exploration of the future. Bethesda, MD: World Future Society.
Thompson, A. E. (1979). Understanding futurology: An introduction to futures study. North Pomfret, VT: David & Charles.
Toffler, A. (1970). Future shock. New York: Random House.
Toffler, A. (1972). The futurists. New York: Random House.