The Futures Cone, use and history

From time to time people ask me about the Futures Cone, and how it came about. Let me give a brief history of how I came across it before adpating to suit my use of the concept. I first began using the Futures Cone diagram in 2000 when working as a foresight analyst for Swinburne University (before becoming an academic in the Master of Strategic Foresight).  The text in this post is excerpted from a chapter I recently submitted to the upcoming Handbook of Anticipation, ed. Roberto Poli (Springer International). Fingers crossed for an easy road to publication.

Futurists have often spoken and continue to speak of three main classes of futures: possible, probable, and preferable (e.g., Amara 1974, 1981; Bell 1997, and many others). These have at times lent themselves to define various forms of more specialised futures activity, with some futurists focusing on, as it were, exploring the possible; some on analysing the probable; and some on shaping the preferable, with many related variations on this nomenclature and phraseology (e.g., again, Amara 1991, and many others).  It is possible to expand upon this three-part taxonomy to include at least 7 (or even 8) major types of alternative futures.

It is convenient to depict this expanded taxonomy of alternative futures as a ‘cone’ diagram. The ‘futures cone’ model was used to portray alternative futures by Hancock and Bezold (1994), and was itself based on a taxonomy of futures by Henchey (1978), wherein four main classes of future were discussed (possible, plausible, probable, preferable). Some years later I found out that this idea of a cone graphic was used even earlier than Hancock and Bezold (1994) by Charles Taylor (1990), in which he wrote of a “cone of plausibility” that defined a range of plausible futures extended over an explicit timeframe, including a kind of ‘back-cone’ into the past. He also included “wildcards” in his approach, but other futures categories mentioned here were not explicitly depicted in the diagram given by Taylor as they were by Hancock and Bezold.

Over the years that I have been using the Futures Cone in foresight teaching and practice, I have found it useful to adapt it and add more classes to the initial few. The most recent version of the Futures Cone as I now use it is as depicted in the figure shown.


The 7 types of alternative futures defined below (or 8 if one also includes a specific singular ‘predicted’ future, which I generally don’t do any more) are all considered to be subjective judgements about ideas about the future that are based in the present moment, so the categories for the same idea can obviously change over time as time goes on (the canonical example of which is the Apollo XI Moon landing, which has gone through most of the categories from ‘preposterous’ to ‘projected’ and thence into history as ‘the past’). In brief, these categories are:

  • Potential – everything beyond the present moment is a potential future. This comes from the assumption that the future is undetermined and ‘open’ not inevitable or ‘fixed’, which is perhaps the foundational axiom of Futures Studies.
  • Preposterous – these are the futures we judge to be ‘ridiculous’, ‘impossible’, or that will ‘never’ happen. I introduced this category because the next category (which used to be the edge of the original form of the cone) did not seem big enough, or able to capture the sometimes-vehement refusal to even entertain them that some people would exhibit to some ideas about the future. This category arises from homage to James Dator and his Second Law of the Future—“any useful idea about the future should appear ridiculous” (Dator 2005)—as well as to Arthur C. Clarke and his Second Law—“the only way of finding the limits of the possible is by going beyond them into the impossible” (Clarke 2000, p. 2). Accordingly, the boundary between the Preposterous and the Possible could be reasonably called the ‘Clarke-Dator Boundary’ or perhaps the ‘Clarke-Dator Discontinuity’, since crossing it in the outward direction represents a very important but, for some people, very difficult, movement in prospection thinking.
  • Possible – these are those futures 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).
  • Plausible – those we think ‘could’ happen based on our current understanding of how the world works (physical laws, social processes, etc).
  • Probable – those we think are ‘likely to’ happen, usually based on (in many cases, quantitative) current trends.
  • 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 associated converse class—the un-preferred futures—a ‘shadow’ form of anti-normative futures that we think should not happen nor ever be allowed to happen (e.g., global climate change scenarios comes to mind).
  • Projected – the (singular) default, business as usual, ‘baseline’, extrapolated ‘continuation of the past through the present’ future. This single future could also be considered as being ‘the most probable’ of the Probable futures. And,
  • (Predicted) – the future that someone claims ‘will’ happen. I briefly toyed with using this category for a few years quite some time ago now, but I ended up not using it anymore because it tends to cloud the openness to possibilities (or, more usefully, the ‘preposter-abilities’!) that using the full Futures Cone is intended to engender.

The above descriptions are best considered not as rigidly-separate categories, but rather as nested sets or nested classes of futures, with the progression down through the list moving from the broadest towards more narrow classes, ultimately to a class of one—the ‘projected’. Thus, every future is a potential future, including those we cannot even imagine—these latter are outside the cone, in the ‘dark’ area, as it were. The cone metaphor can be likened to a spotlight or car headlight: bright in the centre and diffusing to darkness at the edge—a nice visual metaphor of the extent of our futures ‘vision’, so to speak. There is a key lesson to the listener when using this metaphor—just because we cannot imagine a future does not mean it cannot happen…

Then there are all of the imaginable ones (i.e., inside the cone), beginning with the sub-class of those that we judge to be unreasonable, (i.e., ridiculous), or impossible—‘preposterous’ in my alliteration— and the further sub-class of those that we judge to be ‘reasonable but which would require knowledge we do not yet possess but which we might possess in the future’ and so ‘might’ happen—‘possible’.

Then there is the sub-class of those that we think are reasonable based on what we currently know, and so ‘could’ happen; thus, ‘plausible’. And so on through the rest: the sub-class of futures based on the playing out of current trends—‘probable’; and finally the default extrapolation of current dynamics—the (single) ‘projected’ future, the only class in the whole schema containing only a single future, although different people will ‘project’ different futures, so it is really a single-member class containing many ‘single’ futures, as it were. The similarly single-member class of ‘predicted’ future, which had a similar underlying rationale—namely, what ‘will’ happen depends a lot on whom you ask—is very rarely used, except to make a specific point.

The class of preferred futures—what ‘should’ or ‘ought to’ happen—can take in any or all of the classes from preposterous to projected, because these futures must be at least imaginable (so inside the cone), and because people’s idea of what they prefer—and how they judge others’ preferences—can range from the default projected future thought to be coming all the way outward to (what is considered) outlandish preposterous-ness.

To this set, one may also add Wildcards—by definition low probability events (sometimes referred to as ‘mini-scenarios’) that would have very large impact if they occurred (Petersen 1997, 1999). Since they are considered ‘low probability’ (i.e., outside the Probable zone), any member of any class of future outside the range of probable futures could be considered by definition a wildcard (although this usage is not common, as the focus tends to be on ‘high impact’ events). Thus, in this view, some wildcards are considered plausible, some possible, some preposterous, and—the scariest of all—some we have not even imagined or dreamed of yet (i.e., potential)… These last are not even classifiable as ‘black swans’ (Taleb 2007), but rather as, perhaps, ‘scarlet splofflings’ (Q: ‘what the hell are they?!’ A: ‘exactly!’).

This taxonomy finds its greatest utility when undertaking the Prospection phase of the Generic Foresight Process (Voros 2003) especially when the taxonomy is presented in reverse order from Projected to Preposterous. Here, one frames the extent to which the thinking is ‘opened out’ (implied by a reverse-order presentation of the taxonomy) by choosing a question form that is appropriate to the degree of openness required for the futures exploration. Thus, “what preposterously ‘impossible’ things might happen?” sets a different tone for prospection than the somewhat tamer question “what is projected to occur in the next 12 months?”


Amara, R 1974, ‘The futures field: Functions, forms, and critical issues’, Futures, vol. 6, no. 4, pp. 289-301. doi:10.1016/0016-3287(74)90072-X

——— 1981, ‘The futures field: Searching for definitions and boundaries’, The Futurist, vol. 15, no. 1, pp. 25-29.

——— 1991, ‘Views on futures research methodology’, Futures, vol. 23, no. 6, pp. 645-49. doi:10.1016/0016-3287(91)90085-G

Bell, W 1997, Foundations of futures studies, 2 vols, Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick, NJ, USA.

Clarke, AC 2000, Profiles of the future: An inquiry into the limits of the possible, Millennium edn, Orion Books, London.

Dator, JA 2005, ‘Foreword’, in RA Slaughter, S Inayatullah & JM Ramos (eds), The knowledge base of futures studies, Professional CD-ROM edn, Foresight International, Brisbane, Australia.

Hancock, T & Bezold, C 1994, ‘Possible futures, preferable futures’, Healthcare Forum Journal, vol. 37, no. 2, pp. 23-29.

Henchey, N 1978, ‘Making sense of futures studies’, Alternatives, vol. 7, no. 2, pp. 24-28.

Petersen, JL 1997, ‘The wild cards in our future: Preparing for the improbable’, The Futurist, vol. 31, no. 4, pp. 43-47.

——— 1999, Out of the blue: How to anticipate big future surprises, 2nd edn, Madison Books, Lanham, MA, USA.

Taleb, NN 2007, The black swan: The impact of the highly improbable, Random House, New York.

Taylor, CW 1990, Creating strategic visions, Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College, Carlisle Barracks, Carlisle, Pennsylvania, USA.

Voros J 2003, ‘A generic foresight process framework’, Foresight, vol. 5, no. 3, pp. 10-21. doi:10.1108/14636680310698379

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…