Why should every business invest in future research, since the future is coming anyway? Some may think that the future is inevitable and unpredictable – which is partly true. Emphasising the word partly. On one hand, an exact prediction of the future is impossible, since
- there is chance
- reality includes chaotic processes where even a small difference in the initial conditions can make a huge difference in the final outcome
- new information shapes people’s beliefs, attitudes and behaviors and
- technological innovation changes practices
On the other hand, the future is predictable because
- we know the agreed investments
- we have future plans
- demographics are changing slowly
- there are cultural traditions and
- there are cyclical & linear physical processes
So, what does this mean? It means that we shouldn’t think that we can accurately predict the future, even with the best methods and algorithms. Still, we can prepare for the future and steer it in the desired direction. The purpose of future research is to systematically understand what is possible and desirable in the future and what events, actions and policies lead to these futures. The further into the future we look, the more uncertainties and at the same time more possibilities there are.
Future research is not about forecasting accuracy but usefulness in planning and opening minds to consider new possibilities. Future research should help you to understand what you don’t know but should know, to make better decisions today. By anticipating the future, you have more time to act on threats and opportunities.
Quite often businesses use future research to understand how the markets will change and where the organisation should focus their resources. In a similar manner, governments can use future research to understand what consequences their new policies can have.
For example, Shell “have been developing possible visions of the future since the 1970s, helping generations of Shell leaders explore ways forward and make better decisions. Shell Scenarios ask “what if?” questions encouraging leaders to consider events that may only be remote possibilities, and stretch their thinking. Shell’s scenarios also help governments, academia and business in understanding possibilities and uncertainties ahead.”
Studying the future is studying the change. Events which might make the difference in the next 5-25 years or more. Therefore, the key question in future research is: “What difference does it make?”
Studying the future should not be seen only as a quantitative projection of history but a multidisciplinary examination of changes in several different areas. The goal of future research is not to create an exact description of the future but to show what is possible and which events might affect the future.
Nice, but how do we actually explore the future?
There are several different methods which could be used to explore and analyse the future. Some of them might be quite familiar to many business practitioners, such as roadmapping and SWOT analysis. One quite often used categorisation of methods is Popper’s Foresight Diamond. In this diamond the methods are divided into two axes: Creativity – Evidence axis and Expertise – Interaction axis.
In creative methods, the time horizon is usually longer and fewer restrictions are used. The purpose is to create new ideas and explore possible, probable and desirable future paths. Creative methods help to detach from the historical continuum and think about how the world could be changed. They are great for opening minds as well as building team spirit.
On the contrary, evidence-based methods rely heavily on data, evidence, and facts. They strive to understand how the world would look like if historical development would continue as it is, without significant changes.
The expertise – interaction axis defines the role of participants in the method. In expertise methods, the participants are experts in their field, who have good knowledge of the facts related to the field, a view of how the field could change in the future and can affect the future by decisions. In interactive methods the participants are different stakeholders around the problem which together form the view of the future.
The choice of the technique depends on the problem studied and the time horizon. With different methods, different outcomes can be achieved. Quite often several methods are used together to create more robust results. For example, extrapolations can be used for modeling the evolution of individual variables in morphological analysis, which then again can be used for building scenarios.
Let’s build the future together
Today, increasing numbers of organisations use future research methods to plan their strategies and direction, but rather often the time horizon tends to be short, and the future is seen to develop similarly as always.
In this article, I outlined the role of future research and scratched the surface, of what methods there are to explore the future. Hopefully, I managed to arouse your interest in the topic. I am interested to hear your thoughts! To read more about how future research can be utilised in strategy design you can download our whitepaper of Designed Strategies.
“The best way to predict the future is to invent it” – Alan Kay