How Futurists Work/Think


Last year a colleague at the International Big History Association ( asked me how futurists work/think. This was for a book she was writing for high school students on Big History. The final chapters of these types of books tend to focus on the future, hence the request for some ideas from someone who does this for a living. I tapped out a quick, off-the-top-of-my-head answer and sent it off. In thinking about how long since I’ve posted here, I thought I’d better get back into gear, especially as there are some ideas to share coming soon… Here is the essence of what I wrote:

Most professional futurists assume that the future is not predetermined, inevitable or “fixed” in some absolute way, so that there are thought to be many alternative potential futures (plural) that might lie ahead. They study ideas about the future (often called “images”) in order to gain insights into the range of alternative futures that might be coming, including those due to natural as well as human effects, depending on the scope of the futures assessment. They also look for evidence of potential futures in the present (this is generally known as “scanning”) to see which of the many alternative futures that lie ahead might indeed be coming about.

Some futurists also focus on which futures are desirable or preferable and work to help bring these about while also trying to help avoid undesirable futures from happening. Futurists have all manner of orientations – from analysts to advisors to advocates to activists – and they choose their focus accordingly. In the same way that historians study the past in many ways and with a variety of orientations, foci of interest and time-scales, so futurists do a forward-looking future-focused analogue of history – attempting to understand the forces of continuity and change that will combine to create the future we will live through. The historian and futurist W. Warren Wagar even characterised futures inquiry as a form of applied history. In this view, the role of futurists is to help chart the course of human history as wisely as possible and advise on how to make the future we eventually live through a present and subsequent history that we will be glad to experience.

There has been an unwelcome announcement from my university in the past few months since the last posting – the Master of Strategic Foresight, into which I’ve been teaching since it began in 2001 – is to be shut down as part of a review of postgraduate programs. No new intake is planned for next year and I will be teaching it out over 2017, after which it is done. However, my Faculty are wanting to continue some form of foresight teaching, so there are discussions under way to see what this might look like and how it might work.

My fellow foresight colleague and conspirator Peter Hayward and I are planning a “wake” for the MSF for later in the year, most likely to be an “anti-debutant” ball. There is something so incredibly amusing about a retro-style, formal, doll-yourself-up in Black Tie farewell ball for a foresight course, that it is impossible to pass up this opportunity to really celebrate the course and to go out in style.😉



Image Credit: Wadem/Flickr

Q&A with a (Big History) Futurist


Here is a Q&A I did with Kathryn Ford, Project Coordinator at the Big History Institute at Macquarie University, for Issue 6 of the BHI newsletter, Threshold 9.

Interestingly, ‘Threshold 9’ (i.e., the ‘next’ Threshold in the 8-so-far main Thresholds of Big History) has been on my research agenda for quite a few years now, so it is a great pleasure to be able to talk more widely about the broader long-term future (as well as Threshold 9) in an issue of BHI’s Threshold 9😉

I hope you enjoy it. Once the videos from the conference are uploaded, I’ll be writing about and linking to some of them in later posts.

Until then, remember: “keep looking to the future”. (I wonder what that would be in Latin😉

Big History Institute newsletter Threshold 9 Issue 6: Q&A with a Futurist.


Image credit: Carmen Lee, Big History Anthropocene conference 2015.

The “e-maelstrom” of holiday email

keep-calm-and-delete-emails-1I’ve returned from the Christmas (and, here in the Southern Hemisphere, summer) holidays and, after settling back in to my office, I began the daunting task of dealing with the torrent of emails that came in over the 3 or so weeks I was away (hence a need to let off some nervous energy in a blog post…😉

You know what I mean – a veritable maelstrom of email arrives during a break from work when you’re not looking. Hmm, a maelstrom of email: an “e-maelstrom”, if you will.🙂

I’m not sure this qualifies for the Washington Post’s new words competition – take a word, change one letter and give it a new defintion – but it surely has resonance for many of us at this time of year (and especially here in the Southern Hemisphere where our holidays tend be longer owing to summer). And I’m sure the concept applies equally well to any return to work following time away from email.

Anyway, a new year has begun – but not, I would argue, on the 1st of January, which is an entirely arbitrary day in the Earth’s orbit around the Sun. Better candidates for clicking the numbers over might be one of the solstices or equinoxes, but my personal favourite is perihelion – the point in its orbit at which the Earth is closest to the Sun. The orbit is not circular but slightly elliptical, so there is a closest point – perihelion – and a furthest point – aphelion, since not all points are equidistant owing to the non-circularity. And therefore, although you might not have thought about it, the seasons don’t have the same length. Indeed, we lose a few days of summer here in the Southern Hemisphere as a result, while also getting a higher flux of solar energy than that experienced during summer in the North.

Owing to the variations of the Earth’s position and movements – the well-known  Milankovitch Cycles – the seasons (which are governed by the cyclically-variable axial obliquity or tilt of the Earth’s axis, as well as its axial precession) do not necessarily line up or have any connection with the independent variations in the shape and position of the orbit (including changes in its eccentricity or “ovalness”, as well as its own apsidal precession). However, in this epoch, perihelion occurs close to the December solstice (northern winter, southern summer) around Dec 22 and even closer to conventional New Year’s Day. Currently, perihelion is around January 3 or 4, depending on your time zone and whether we are in a Leap Year (which we are), so I think we should use the Earth’s physcially-meaningful perhelion as the natural starting point to mark the start of an orbit, and thus also of a year. It makes much more sense to do this, in the same way that 0 { }^\circ C makes much more (physical) sense than 32 { }^\circ F to mark the freezing temperature of water (at 1 atm pressure).

So Merry Perihelion everyone and a Happy New (apsidally-defined) Year! And I hope dealing with your own e-maelstrom won’t be so bad now that you can “name the Dragon”😉

Now, back to it…

On examining Preposterous! futures


In my futures work, I use a cone diagram (above,* and again below**) to show how our judgements about ideas about the future tend to fall into a number of categories:

Potential – everything beyond the present moment is a potential future, and it includes the “dark” area outside the edges of the cone that we cannot even imagine (yet), and so we are usually not aware of these explicitly, only implicitly, through an (often grudging) awareness of our ignorance. This category comes from the assumption that the future is not pre-determined, inevitable or “fixed”, which is the foundational axiom of Futures Studies.

Projected – the default, business as usual, extrapolated “continuation of the past through the present” “baseline” future.

Probable – those we think are “likely to” happen, usually based on current trends.

Plausible – those we think “could” happen based on our current understanding of how the world works (physical laws, social processes, etc).

Possible – these are those that we think “might” happen, based on some future knowledge we do not yet possess, but which we might possess someday (e.g., warp drive).

Preferable – those we think “should” or “ought to” happen – normative value judgements, as opposed to the mostly cognitive, above. There is also of course the converse – the un-preferred futures – but we generally don’t tend to use this derived specialised sub-category as much.

And, perhaps the most important of all:

Preposterous! – these are the futures we judge to be “impossible”, or that will “never” happen. This category arose from two main influences: Arthur C. Clarke’s Second Law – “the way to discover the limits of the possible is to move beyond them into the impossible” – and futurist James A. (Jim) Dator’s Second Law of the Future – “any useful idea about the future should appear ridiculous” (i.e., otherwise it is not new enough and not stretching our thinking enough beyond the conventional).

The judgement of “impossibility” or that something will “never” happen usually arises from the crossing of some unspoken assumption(s), so it is useful to examine the assumption base upon which the judgement of preposterousness is being made, and to examine whether that assumption base still holds true.


I’d like to call the Possible/Preposterous boundary the “Clarke-Dator Discontinuity”, or just the “Clarke-Dator Boundary”, in homage to these two fearless futures thinkers (see the image above** or the diagram below, showing the red arrows indicating the expansion of thinking into this zone).


Preposterous! futures will be a category for posts dedicated to trying to expand thinking about the future beyond the merely “possible” and fully into the realm of the (so-called) impossible; in other words, exploring the territory beyond the Clarke-Dator Boundary in the Futures Cone – the boundary of the Possible and the Preposterous! Some of the most important changes in human society and history have arisen from things thought to be totally preposterous. So let us cheerfully explore the vast territory of preposterousness beyond the Clarke-Dator Boundary!

* (Thanks to Clare Cooper [Twitter: @artsguts] for the ‘action shot’ above of my presentation at the Big History Institute Anthropocene conference on 11 Dec 2015)

** (Thanks to Bridgette Engeler [Twitter: @incognitosum] for the image taken a moment later showing the arrows indicating the expansion of thinking beyond the Clarke-Dator Boundary.

Welcome to The Voroscope

On December 21, 2015, a group of graduating students in the Master of Strategic Foresight program that I teach into at Swinburne University presented my colleague Dr Peter Hayward and I with caricatures of our likenesses – Peter is Captain Foresight, and I am The Voroscope. (The image is from a tweet by Rob (@Like_Rob) taken at the time.


The latter is, of course, a most utterly perfect name for a blog that might seek to examine the whole of the Universe as well as the future, hence the coming-into-being of this blog.

So, welcome to The Voroscope – “an instrument of science and the future,” for examining everything that may exist in the totality of space and time, everywhere and everywhen, from the Hot Big Bang to the Big Chilly Rip, and for examining all manner of potential futures, from the Projected to the Preposterous! – and beyond…