The 7 essential steps to forecasting the future like a Futurist

Today future forecasting involves putting a futurist hat on and thinking far ahead to deliver meaningful change for generations to come.

There is an intersection of priorities for Futurists. It’s a dance that requires multi-layered thinking calibered for change implementation and thought leadership.

In this article we will cover 7 ways you can approach the future like a futurist:

  1. Understand the fundamentals of Future Trend Forecasting 
  2. Imagine the future like a futurist
  3. Seek ethical and different perspectives
  4. Embed a variety of research methods and exploration pathways
  5. See the future as a question, not a final destination 
  6. Face the challenges of future foresight work as knowledge work
  7. Last but not least: Think in systems not trends

To start with, we should clarify that the work of a Futurist has no single clear definition that is universally accepted. Some designers call themselves futurists. Philosophers have also been labelled as futurists, technologists have been called futurists, and Forecasters also sometimes call themselves futurists. 

Futurism is an interdisciplinary practice which requires futures thinking and note the plural here in futures.

A futurist relies heavily on evidence-based analysis, qualitative or quantitative, with a mixture of primary or secondary research methods.  Underpinning this multitude of approaches are: social sciences, philosophy, history, and creativity. Remember Future forecasting is a soft science.

Strengthening these approaches requires contemplation, exploration, a forensic approach, inquiry, debate around a variety of fields and disciplines. What you will often notice amongst Futurists of any kind is a deep interest in the human condition and where society is heading. From this ‘soup’, so to speak, a futurist suggests what will happen in the future, based on possible future scenarios.

This is different to future trend forecasting, where the focus is often on present signals and emerging trends, as the core of what will determine the future. Whereas a futurist will see the future as very different from the present, and even unlikely, looking away from the probabilities and into the possibilities.

This is the preferred pathway to uncovering blind spots to our futures thinking, which often limit us to the influences of the present. Hence why governments and large-scale projects often employ futurists as part of their strategic vision and planning, in order to consider a wide set of possibilities that can pop up in the long term. 

Futurists look much further than the near present and current zeitgeist of trends. They dive into macro trend driving forces, societal shifts, frameworks, scenario planning, questions, future scenarios, speculative design, wild cards, design fiction and social dreaming, to name a few.

This creates space for a conception of future events that is not dependent or even blinded by the present state, but instead develops the nimble ability to move in several different directions. 

Meet a futurist and you’ll notice a nonlinear, big picture and interdisciplinary way of looking at the future. You’ll also notice the ability to see how a pattern of behaviour, a cultural or technological shift might fit in the larger picture of history, and the future stories we may be facing.

The practice of future trend forecasting, and here focus on the word Trend, as we deal with unprecedented geopolitical, social, and environmental challenges, increasingly needs to pull from futurist approaches. 

Incorporating possible futures thinking and speculative design into a trend forecasting practice is more critical than ever, given the seismic shifts happening in the 21century. Future trend forecasting must become more visionary and imaginative, at a time when we must envision new ways of living. Our role as members of the foresight and futures community is to inspire big picture and strategic future thinking for systems level change needed for humanity, species and the planet to thrive. 

Therefore, there is an intersection of priorities when it comes to forecasting like a futurist. It’s a dance that requires multi-layered approaches:

  • Trend forecasting research & analysis
  • Futures thinking for possible future scenarios
  • Diverse practices, methods and sources
  • Creative approaches to tease out possible futures

Here are steps I recommend and we use at the Trend Atelier. They are not exhaustive as the field of foresight is complex. We aim to continuously revisit these steps with the most thought provoking and/or commonly used methods and mindsets. 

1- Understand the fundamentals of future trend forecasting 

What makes a trend and what are the basics of future foresight?

Trends are a temporal phenomenon, therefore understanding trend timelines and why they are key to frame the work of a future forecaster and futurist is an essential starting point. But our sense of time is changing, with the speed of innovation accelerating.

However we still run against the principles of whether we are forecasting future trends for the year ahead, 3 years ahead or beyond, which alters the brief we are working with. These time frames determine where we should research and the scope of our future trend forecast. 

There are the different types of foresight research, from primary, secondary to qualitative and quantitative. Those are the 4 most common techniques. 

Credit: The Different Types of Research by Geraldine Wharry for the Trend Atelier

Data driven research also known as quantitative research is an increasingly important generator of trend insights as well.

Data is a highly useful tool for forming a very persuasive argument, being closely related to statistics and economics. It is considered ‘factual’ and ‘scientific’, understood to be unaffected by the subjective and contextual uncertainties that creep into ethnographic observation.

But data is nothing without context, it is just noise without human interpretation and understanding. It is important to know what questions we want the data to answer. With the advent of Big Data and Artificial Intelligence, we have an overwhelming amount of data, yet we haven’t evolved with this information, even though our modern society is obsessed with it.

There are future trend agencies that use data to forecast, but data is also very anchored in the present so it can’t always be used for a long-term future vision. Data results can only predict within 6 months with a decent amount of certainty.

The point is there are different ways of using data and it’s key as part of your toolbox but not everything.

Intuition is another foundation of future foresight.  

Quote by Frank Capra

There are different types of intuition which can be used for forecasting.

Albert Einstein once said: "The Only Real Valuable Thing is Intuition”.

We reason logically through a problem, methodically and step by step. But often we intuitively reach a solution and construct a rational explanation afterwards.

Because the route of a future foresight project is sometimes unclear and the solution is not always obvious, a forecaster and futurist must therefore also rely on “gut intuition”. But make no mistake, this feeling for a direction is not just an emotional influence, it reflects earlier experiences and expertise, also called ‘Expert intuition’.

To develop your intuition, you can harness some creative research techniques from empathy to multi-sensory research. Most futures research is carried out to a varying degree of emotion and rational.

To promise 100% accuracy is tricky. Trends are constantly re-arranging themselves to form new trends.

There is the fundamental task of cross-cultural analysis to dig insights from multiple industries and cultures.

Cross-Cultural analysis is important for placing research in context. The implications of an emerging pattern might not be apparent without placing it in a wider context.  Recognising connections across sectors will allow Futurists to build a more comprehensive picture of an emerging trend. When similarities appear across industries it could be evidence of a ‘cultural conversation’. When an idea enters the cultural consciousness, commercial industries will often try to respond to this because they think it represents a new consumer desire and aspiration.

Drawing from multiple industries, sectors and culture will help you to better orientate yourself in the cultural climate. 

The collective cultural consciousness is an important concept. It allows us to think sociologically about the behaviour of groups and understand how populations all move towards a similar set of values apparently independently of each other. 

In the Trend Atelier we use our own methodology to work out the different future trend areas needed to research to create a diverse and comprehensive forecast. We call it the Trend Eco Systems and the Trend Molecules.

Credit: The Trend Ecosystems and Trend Molecules by Geraldine Wharry for the Trend Atelier

This allows us to define the various timelines we might work around and areas of research to explore to comprehensively forecast within a time scope. 

Analysing and understanding Macro trends, which range from a 5 to 10 year prediction, is extremely important in the work of a futurist in order to anticipate and better adapt to potential changes that may occur in our socio-economic environment.

Each circle you see in the Trend Eco-system is called a Trend Molecule and describes a field necessary to research (the infographic above specifically deals with the Fashion Industry).

It is important to note the high degree of interconnectivity between the different Trend Molecules in the Trend Eco System. Every element has an impact on the whole (similar to cross cultural research). For example:

  • A new scientific discovery can trigger the development of a new technology that may be useful to society. 
  • New economic opportunities may arise that can cause businesses to react, creating new shifts in socio-economics.

2- Imagine the future like a futurist

As part of the possible futures futurists must explore, there are important approaches that rely on imagination, from speculative design to design fiction and social dreaming.

Allowing your imagination to wander is a key part of being a futurist and means working on the inside as well as the outside of yourself. Futurist and philosopher Yuval Harari has a daily meditation practice.

These mindful qualities work alongside being methodical. Aside from taking time for reflection, a futurist must stay informed, inspired & keep track of events, trends, global and local events. This adds complexity to the way a futurist thinks, jumping from contemplation to deep research and a variety of exchanges with the world, to draw an understanding of where society might be heading. 

Futurists unlock breakthroughs when using their imagination and creativity.

Approaches such as scenario writing, creating artefacts, simulations, gamification or speculative design are amongst a number of ways Futurists also draw us into experiencing the future, an output also know as 'experiential futures'.

Because these methods can be so emotive and visceral, they allow participants to empathise with the future. Futurists will often be thinking up activities, tools and outputs that will engage with their end users imagination, and cause them to experience a future scenario as if it were already taking place in the present. 

We suggest exploring creative ways of engaging with the futurist inside of you: 

  • Speculative design – see our article on this here
  • Creating visual outputs (2d, 3D, 4D)
  • Engaging with play and card games such as the Thing from the Future game by Situation Labs or The Tarot Cards of Tech by Artefact Group
  • Cultivating quiet spaces such as Meditation, Walks, breath work
  • Engaging and collaborating with people in and outside of your field such as (but not limited to) artists, engineers, scientists, policy makers

3- Seek ethical and different perspectives

We must have a sustainable approach to future trend forecasting. This means reckoning with our obsession with the new and focusing on long term thinking. Futurists and forecasters must incorporate much more than the latest innovations, they must draw on ancient, current and emerging philosophies and systems. We must also harness the notion of collective futures and intelligence and ultimately ask ourselves: whose future is this we are ‘forecasting’?

Ethical and culturally sensitive approaches to future foresight are fundamental.

Here are a few criteria to think about:

  • Not behaving in an extractive manner and respecting the sources, different experiences, and cultures
  • Stepping away from secrecy and competitiveness and embracing community principles as part of building a deep network. A network not just with the function of ‘you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’, but one that is running on the principles of kinship, knowledge sharing and empathy
  • Moving away from hype and fads
  • Staying away from the over commodification of trends engaged with overconsumption
  • Refraining from only catering to what clients and people want to hear about
  • Exploring the what if?
  • Developing the willingness to explore uncomfortable future scenarios and conversations, in a quest for honest solutions

4- Embed a variety of research methods and exploration pathways

Credit: Rafael Popper’s Foresight Diamond Framework for Universal Foresight 

The Foresight Diamond (2008) is a framework that positions methods based on their main type of knowledge source (based on creativity, expertise, interaction or evidence). These domains can and often are interconnected, showing how diverse future foresight exploration can be. They also show how we hunt and gather knowledge to a way to perform what is also called 'horizon scanning' of the future can and should be. 

You’ll see in Rafael Popper’s Foresight Diamond Framework for Universal Foresight that futures research can be carried out in several ways from scanning, benchmarking, interviews, cross impact and cross-cultural research, surveys, panels, workshops, conferences and so on. 

One area that isn’t explicitly listed in the framework is community.

It is something that is perhaps more intangible yet underpins much of the work of futurists and forecasters. We must connect with innovators, any number of stakeholders, peers and a variety of demographics, roles and people in order to envision the future. Foresight is human centred so one must exchange, tap into network intuition, reach out to people and create a deep network of insights reflecting different voices.

We must consistently engage in conversation and diverse ways of seeing the future.

To build a variety of research methods and mindsets is complex and takes years. A foresight professional could even mainly specialise in one, for example speculative design, or specialised in quantitative foresight. Understand that future foresight research has phases and techniques and that you do not need to master them all but should explore them. It is important to note that the research process, albeit overwhelming and complex at times, will start to speak to you and there will come a point where you can see the picture of possible futures ahead.

This is what we call the HUNT phase in the Trend Atelier methodology,  as part of our HUNT- IDENTIFY-GATHER model.

The HUNT is the research phase when cross cultural and trans-disciplinary exploration is executed, to cross triangulate signals using a mixture of intuition, data, and diverse research techniques. 

Credit: The HUNT phase of the HUNT-IDENTIFY-GATHER future forecasting method by Geraldine Wharry for the Trend Atelier

Research can be open ended and a daily practice, but within certain projects it needs to have a focus and a project brief. Whether focused or open, to forecast like a futurist, you must:

  • Research wide and deep across disciplines and cultures
  • Attend events
  • Interview experts and unconventional sources
  • Carry out primary and field research
  • Approach the research from multiple angles, methods, and points of view

Important: Diversity must be embedded in your work. That diversity should be carried out regularly outside of any particular assignment, for the sole purpose of constantly refining one’s understanding of the world and the direction it might be taking

5- See the future as a question, not a final destination 

In the mindset of a futurist, the future is not just constantly modelling itself on the present and a certain outcome. From the variety of signals and methods used to tease out future(s), of course a futurist can see the emergence of new concepts, behaviours and cultural shifts that will most likely be game changing. 

But a key aspect which perhaps complicates forecasting like a futurist is that you must make time to set your research aside and free yourself of assumptions or pre-ordained ways of thinking which could get in the way of being open to possibilities.

We are influenced to a fault by what is already out there, the signals of the present, and all too often forecast futures which are just an extension of what is already happening and are filled with blind spots. 

Therefore use tools we mentioned above, to broaden your futures thinking such as: contemplation, speculative design and engaging with play.

When you are looking to extract key messages ‘from the future’ so to speak, it can be challenging to IMAGINE, when you’re already aware of a myriad of signals. There will always be new trends, topics, innovations, and one must make peace with this. There can be a fear of not being able to cover everything, but this is a pointless aim.

Being a futurist requires always being in flux and in a constant state of exploration. Foresight is about envisioning.

Therefore, to forecast like a futurist, there should be an element of extrapolation, fun, openness, creativity implemented as part of teasing out the possible future directions that are emerging. 

In regards to research for future scenarios that approach the future as a question, in our Trend Atelier live session we discussed approaches we invite you to consider:

  • Healthy futures research habits
  • Where we fall flat in decoding the future, within a sea of noise
  • Futures that harness the what if for the what should
  • Why for long term future scenarios, imagination is in the drivers seat

6- Understand the challenges of future foresight work as knowledge work

One of the most untold facts about working as a futurist is that it can be very draining at a time of information overload. We are knowledge workers and need productivity and time management tools to facilitate our daily work.

There is a colossal amount of news and information to process and futurists as well as future forecasters often find themselves mentally exhausted. 

That mental exhaustion is not conducive to futures thinking which requires space to reflect and contemplation of ideas and future possibilities. Hence why it is important to build systems for managing digital knowledge and ideas.

It’s important to manage time when doing knowledge work, not only to perform well, but to create the breathing room needed for futurists to decode the world and deliver impactful insights into possible futures ahead. 

This is our mission and role in society. Therefore, we have a duty of care to ourselves, to build in the time for reflection and creativity. We must have the tools in place to manage our knowledge so that we can successfully and mindfully share the bigger picture and guidance people expect from us.

7- Last but not least: Think in systems not trends

The scope of the issues we are facing in the world today are bigger than trends.
If as a forecaster or futurist you're chasing Barbie core, whilst also claiming you want a long term sustainable future, there is dissonance in your process, as trends set forward such as Barbie core are a bi-product of a system promoting overconsumption. 

Thinking and acting like a futurist requires us to seek honesty, embrace new systems and ways of approaching the world.

There are currently a variety of sustainable and systemic approaches emerging from a need to step away from a feedback loop of trends and short term thinking which, in its own way, contributes to the exhaustion of our planetary resources.

Areas we recommend for new systems thinking which can be applied to future foresight are:

In order to deliver long term foresight that empowers decisions for the greater good, whether a futurist, forecaster, strategist, creative, designer, the point is:

We must focus on long term thinking and systems change, rather than colonise our future(s) with short term ideas that do not serve the people, species and planet.

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