May 8, 2023

The art of future thinking - how to develop a futures thinking mindset with the FUTURE framework

Our world is evolving at an unprecedented pace, driven by rapid technological advancements, shifting geopolitical landscapes and complex societal challenges. Traditional planning and forecasting methods often fall short in the face of such uncertainty. This leaves many individuals and organisations struggling to understand these changes, evaluate their impact and reduce risks, or to take advantage of emerging opportunities.

Much of this struggle comes down to the mindset that most people have when approaching problems of the future. The common thinking is that the future is inherently unpredictable and that there is too much complexity to make sense of it all. But there are approaches based on decades of use worldwide and sound academic research that enable us to not only imagine different future scenarios but also to take informed action in the present. By adopting a futures thinking mindset, you can equip yourself with the tools and perspectives needed to navigate the complexities of an ever-changing world.

This article aims to offer a guide on developing this mindset – a skill which can set you apart in both your personal and professional life.

Embracing the future – why futures thinking matters

Traditional planning methods often rely on linear projections and historical data to predict future outcomes. While these approaches can work in stable environments they struggle to when faced with rapid change, increasing complexity and growing uncertainty. As a result, individuals and organisations that rely solely on these methods may find themselves unprepared for future disruption and opportunities.

Futures thinking provides a more flexible, holistic approach to planning that goes beyond mere extrapolation. By exploring simultaneous multiple possible futures considering a wide range of factors, futures thinking enables individuals and organisations to:

  • Identify emerging trends and patterns, uncovering opportunities for innovation and growth.
  • Make better-informed decisions by considering a broad spectrum of potential outcomes.
  • Build resilience and adaptability by preparing for various scenarios and contingencies.
  • Foster collaboration and creativity by encouraging diverse perspectives and interdisciplinary thinking.

Futures thinking is an essential tool for navigating the complexities of our modern world, so it should not be surprising that organisations that are future prepared outperform those that are not.

The FUTURE framework for a futures thinking mindset

Developing a futures thinking mindset requires cultivating a set of core traits and behaviours that enable individuals and organisations to navigate uncertainty, seize opportunities and thrive in the face of disruptive change. To help individuals better develop these traits, consider the FUTURE framework:

The FUTURES framework: Flexibility, Understanding, Timeliness, Upbuilding, Resilience & Evolution contribute to a futures thinking mindset
The FUTURE framework: Flexibility, Understanding, Timeliness, Upbuilding, Resilience & Evolution contribute to a futures thinking mindset

Flexibility - Adapting to change, embracing new ideas, and revising strategies.
  • Embrace change: Actively seek and incorporate new ideas and perspectives.
  • Strategic pivoting: Quickly adjust plans in response to evolving situations.
  • Open-mindedness: Remain receptive to unconventional solutions and approaches.
Understanding - Gaining deep insights and empathy for informed, compassionate decisions.
  • Active listening: Attentively hear others to fully understand diverse viewpoints.
  • Empathetic engagement: Connect with others’ experiences to inform decision-making.
  • Continuous learning: Pursue knowledge and insight in all experiences.
Timeliness - Acting at the right moment, balancing urgency with consideration.
  • Proactive response: Anticipate needs and act before situations become critical.
  • Mindful decision-making: Weigh options carefully to make timely, effective choices.
  • Trend awareness: Stay informed about emerging trends to capitalise on opportunities.
Upbuilding - Strengthening skills and structures for future challenges and opportunities.
  • Skill enhancement: Regularly upgrade personal and team capabilities.
  • Constructive feedback: Provide and seek feedback for continuous improvement.
  • Resource optimisation: Efficiently use available resources for maximum impact.
Resilience - Quickly recovering from setbacks, adapting positively to adversity.
  • Optimistic outlook: Maintain a positive attitude during challenges.
  • Stress management: Develop strategies to effectively handle pressures.
  • Learning from failure: Use setbacks as opportunities for growth and learning.
Evolution - Proactively growing and adapting practices for relevance and effectiveness.
  • Innovation adoption: Integrate new technologies and methodologies regularly.
  • Evolutionary mindset: Embrace change as a constant and growth opportunity.
  • Continuous improvement: Always look for ways to refine and enhance processes.

By using these 6 pillars of the futures thinking mindset, you will be better equipped to anticipate future trends, adapt to change, and unlock new opportunities for growth and development.

Cultivating your futures thinking toolkit

Successfully deploying your futures thinking mindset requires a set of tools and techniques which can bring impact to your work and help you navigate the complex landscape of the future. In this section we’ll outline five essential tools that you can start using today.

1. Scenario planning - imagining alternative futures and their implication

Scenario planning is a technique that encourages you to create multiple plausible future scenarios based on current trends, uncertainties, and driving forces. By exploring these scenarios, you can identify potential challenges and opportunities, prepare for various outcomes, and make more informed decisions.

A graphic showing a robot and the words "The Tomorrow Project" which is the title of an anthology of articles about the future.
The Tomorrow Project, sponsored by Intel, invited fiction authors to write speculative fiction stories about the future.

To begin scenario planning, start by identifying the key uncertainties and driving forces shaping you or your organisation. Next, combine these factors in different ways to create distinct future scenarios. Or you could use one of several archetypal scenarios which explore more generic futures but ones that might still have tremendous impact. Finally, analyse each scenario's implications for your organization or field, and identify potential strategies or actions that could be taken to succeed in each future.

Generative AI, with its advanced predictive capabilities, is revolutionising the field of scenario planning. By analysing vast amounts of data and identifying patterns that might escape the human eye, it can generate diverse and realistic future scenarios, assisting organisations in strategic planning.

This technology facilitates the exploration of multiple 'what-if' situations, enabling companies to prepare for various potential futures. The adaptability of generative AI in modelling complex scenarios means it can be tailored to specific organisational needs, providing a more robust, data-driven foundation for decision-making. Its capacity to rapidly process and simulate scenarios aids in quicker response times, ensuring organisations are agile and better equipped to handle the uncertainties of the future.

Check out the Scenario Generator, as part of the free membership tier, to generate your own unique scenarios tailored to your organisation.

2. Trend analysis: identifying patterns and drivers of change

Trend analysis is like having a magnifying glass that allows you to spot emerging patterns and drivers of change in the world around you. This technique involves systematically collecting and analysing data, anecdotes, and expert opinions to identify trends that may shape the future.

A trend card, which explains a trend and its implications. This image shows "Firms in Flux" as the trend, and explores the industrial policy, Talent 2.0 and DIY innovation as key signals of this trend.
An example of a Trend Card from the Singapore Centre for Strategic Futures

To practice trend analysis, start by collecting information from various sources, such as news articles, research reports, and expert interviews. Try to collect trends across Social, Technological, Economic, Environmental and Political domains. Next, organize the data into themes and look for patterns or emerging trends. Finally, assess the potential impact of these trends on your area of interest, considering how they might influence the future landscape.

Also consider using Generative AI tools to help reduce the burden of trend analysis. By sifting through large datasets, it can detect subtle shifts in consumer behaviour, market dynamics, and technological advancements, often before they become mainstream. The Trend Impact Report feature of the free membership tier can help you keep on top of emerging trends without any effort.

3. System mapping: understanding complex relationships and dynamics

System mapping is akin to assembling a jigsaw puzzle, piecing together the complex web of interrelated factors that shape your area of interest. By understanding the relationships and dynamics within a system, you can identify potential leverage points for change and anticipate unintended consequences.

A system map comprising of circles with text and various arrows linking them. The circles represent concepts related to emerging global challenges such as "truth under fire" and "erosion of culture and history".
An example of a System Map by Policy Horizons Canada for the Next Generation of Emerging Global Challenges

To create a system map, start by identifying the key components and relationships in your area of interest. Next, visualize these elements and their connections using a diagram, such as a mind map or flowchart. Finally, analyse the system to identify patterns, feedback loops, and potential areas of intervention.

4. Backcasting: working backward from a desired future to identify the steps needed to get there

Backcasting is like reverse engineering the future, starting with a vision of the desired outcome and working backward to identify the steps necessary to achieve it. This technique helps ensure that long-term goals remain at the forefront of decision-making and provides a clear roadmap for action.

Backcasting is a way of working backward from an ideal future, creating the steps or events required for that future to be realised.
Backcasting is working backwards from your preferred future to identify the steps needed to get there

To practice backcasting, begin by envisioning a desired future state for your area of interest. Next, identify the milestones and intermediate steps needed to reach that future, working backward from the end goal. Finally, develop an action plan that outlines the specific strategies and tactics required to achieve each milestone.

5. Wild cards: anticipating low-probability, high-impact events

Wild cards are the unpredictable, game-changing events that can send shockwaves through your carefully laid plans. While these low-probability, high-impact events may be difficult to foresee, considering their potential effects can help you build resilience and adaptability into your strategic foresight practice.

A trend card, but this time it is a card related to a "Wild card" which is an event that is hard to predict but has a big impact. In this example the Wild Card is a massive earthquake in the Pacific Northwest of North America.
Another tend card from the Singapore Centre for Strategic Futures, this time showing a Wild Card event.

To incorporate wild cards into your toolkit, brainstorm a list of potential events that could disrupt your area of interest, even if they seem unlikely. Next, consider the potential consequences of these events and identify strategies to mitigate their impact or capitalize on the opportunities they might present.

Developing your futures thinking practice

In this section, we'll explore some actions for enhancing your futures thinking practice. Like any change in thinking or when creating new habits, repetition and consistency are key. Find an easy and low friction way to incorporate some of these behaviours into your everyday life.

Establishing routines for reflection and learning

Futures thinking begins with self-awareness and a commitment to learning. Make time in your schedule for regular reflection, where you can assess your current understanding of the world and identify areas for growth. Engage in continuous learning by reading books, attending workshops, and consuming a variety of media sources. This will help you stay informed about emerging trends and sharpen your ability to recognize patterns.

Engaging with diverse perspectives and experiences

To truly understand the complexities of the world, it's essential to expose yourself to a range of perspectives and experiences. Seek out opportunities to connect with individuals from different backgrounds, industries, and disciplines. Attend conferences, join clubs or online forums, and participate in networking events where you can meet people with unique insights. By broadening your social circle, you'll gain a more holistic understanding of the world and enrich your futures thinking practice.

Practicing empathy and embracing uncertainty

Futures thinking requires empathy—the ability to see the world through the eyes of others and imagine how they might experience different situations. As you engage with diverse perspectives, try to understand the feelings, beliefs, and motivations of the people you encounter. This will not only enhance your ability to anticipate future needs and desires but also foster a sense of connection and collaboration.

At the same time, recognise that the future is inherently uncertain. Rather than becoming paralysed by ambiguity, embrace it as an opportunity for growth and exploration. Adopt a mindset of curiosity and openness, and you'll be better equipped to navigate the unknown.

Building a network of fellow futures thinkers and strategic foresight enthusiasts

Futures thinking is most effective when it's a collaborative effort. Seek out like-minded individuals who share your passion for strategic foresight and are eager to exchange ideas and experiences. Establish regular check-ins, where you can discuss emerging trends, share resources, and support each other's growth. By surrounding yourself with a community of futures thinkers, you'll gain invaluable insights and inspiration that can help propel your practice to new heights.

Case studies - futures thinking in action

There are several examples of how organisations have used futures thinking to successfully anticipate and deal with disruptive change. Here are a few:

Royal Dutch Shell

Shell is the OG of Scenario Planning and pretty much wrote the book on it. Actually, several books. Members of their Planning Group went on to found the Global Business Network which is legendary for its reach and impact. Shell were pioneers of scenario planning in the 1970s which led to an accurate anticipation of the 1973 oil crisis and were then able to adapt to a rapid changing energy landscape to climb from 7th to 2nd largest oil producer.

Singapore’s Risk Assessment and Horizon Scanning System (RAHS)

Developed a system which provides comprehensive analysis of potential threats and opportunities, integrating data from multiple sources including social media and expert opinions. Informs policy decisions on issues such as public health, national security and economic development.

Finland’s Committee for the Future

A parliamentary committee dedicated to futures thinking and strategic foresight. Uses scenario planning, backcasting and other foresight methods to guide national policy and investment decisions. Contributed to Finland’s reputation as a leader in education, technology, and environmental sustainability.

Futures thinking for individuals

Individuals can apply futures thinking to help with:

Career planning

Use strategic foresight to identify emerging skills and industries that will be in demand in the future. Keep ahead of changing work environments and embrace new technologies and ways of working.

Personal resilience

Anticipating life challenges and preparing for them by using strategic foresight. Use flexibility and resilience to cope with setbacks and embrace new opportunities with a clearer picture of your idea future.

Embark on a lifelong journey

Cultivating a futures thinking mindset is not a one-time event, but rather a continuous journey of self-improvement and adaptation. As the world is increasing its pace of change, the need for individuals and organisations to possess the skills and mindset to thrive in the face of uncertainty becomes ever more critical.

The art of futures thinking has the power to transform organisations but most importantly individuals. People who practice futures thinking are better positioned to adapt to change, overcome obstacles and make informed decisions about what matters. It is ultimately individuals who make the decisions that shape our world. By adopting a futures thinking mindset, we can create a more sustainable, equitable and prosperous future for all.

Backcasting graphic inspired by: QalamPensil: Backcasting, Nowcasting and Forecasting

Photo by RDNE Stock project:

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