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Principles of Good Practice for a Professional Futurist

  • Ecole des Ponts Business School; University of New Brunswick; University of Stavanger


What is a Professional Futurist (PF)? This short unpublished paper, prepared at the request of the Association of Professional Futurists, while I was still on the Board, represents an effort to distill some key attributes of the professional futurist. This is a work in progress...
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Framing Propositions for Professional Futurists
Preamble: What is a Professional Futurist (PF)?
Humans often take for granted the systems we use for imagining what’s next.
And no wonder, it is so commonplace and effective to assume that what existed
yesterday will exist today and that the subway or road that we travel on to get to
work or go to school will be there in the morning. In other words we all have
dependable anticipatory models that allow us to imagine our trip from A to B
and to adapt in real-time if the subway is closed or the road is blocked. Humans
use the future all the time, from our earliest experiences with bringing a spoon to
our mouth or following a rolling ball, the relationships binding time, motion and
action are fundamental to our functioning.
This explains, in part, why the future seems so familiar and even tangible.
Humans prepare for the future so often and so naturally we rarely give much
thought to our anticipatory systems and the fundamentally unknowable nature
of the future. Indeed we are so convinced by everyday experience that the future
is knowable that we are rendered effectively blind to two immense resources
one phenomenological and the other intentional/volitional.
The first resource is novelty. Novel phenomena1 cannot be known in
advance. Not because of insufficient data or inadequate models since
neither precedent nor causal logic precedes this kind of ‘difference’.
The second resource is experimentalism. Experimentalism is a field of
strategic choice or ‘leadership’ that has been largely ignored, in part
because of a preference for colonialist approaches to the future such as
planning, and in part because dominant managerial approaches make
experimentalism impractical. Experimentalism puts its trust in the
richness of emergent reality both as novelty and specificity (time/place
uniqueness and ephemerality) as sources of learning, value and new
instrumental and systemic ‘resilience’. An approach to agency that “walks
on the two legs” of open and closed systems thinking and has the virtue of
privileging diversification, the capacity to be free.
These two resources, treasures of a non-deterministic universe, are made
invisible by efforts to know the future as if it existed and just needs to be
1 Novel phenomena may or may not be sources of causality, new systems/assemblages or changed conditions.
Initially there is no way to know. Which is part of the reason that novelty is so hard to discern.
2% NB: The processes that futurists design and implement should not be conflated with the processes that result in
decisions being taken. Foresight processes may contribute to decision-making and determining the parameters
that are used to construct a foresight process requires many decisions but a foresight process is only part of a
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discovered by better head-lights, lookouts peering from a crow’s nests, and
expert diviners. Of course planning does work and efforts to impose, colonial
fashion, today’s idea of the future on tomorrow have been immensely successful.
Engineers and forecasters use models of closed systems to achieve pre-
determined outcomes ever more efficiently. And it works, as long as the closed
system can remain closed and the ‘best-laid plans’ remain pertinent. But when it
doesn’t we rarely question the way we imagined and then used the future,
instead we rail against the inadequate data, poor models and insufficient
Fortunately failure and death oblige us to abandon old models, to experiment
and invent, to learn to perceive novelty and make use of it. And yet we continue
to treat uncertainty as an enemy. True, uncertainty is the enemy of planning and
engineered processesof closed systems and pre-determined outcomes, but it is
also the source of freedom and diversity and, given today’s dominant value
systems, hope. Fundamental uncertainty is the pre-condition the stage that our
universe sets that allows novelty and experimental evolutionary processes to
be. And thereby poses a challenge to human volition and intention to go beyond
the familiar and successful working assumption of continuity that underpins
planning and forecasting to embrace and use uncertainty as one of the most
spectacular resources available to us.
Knowing when and how to embrace and use uncertainty is what distinguishes
the Professional Futurist (PF) from the engineer or forecaster. Both the engineer
and forecaster anticipate the future, but they do so under the constraining
assumption that uncertainty should be reduced to a minimum (although they
know full well they cannot eliminate it). PFs take a broader view of anticipation
and anticipatory systems, they appreciate planning and forecasting but they are
able to contextualize these closed approaches to understanding the present by
taking advantage of both novelty and the strategic thinking grounded on the
expectation that unknowable complex evolutionary emergence will happen. PFs
bring something new to the process of identifying the attributes of the world
around us and the options for action. Through their capacity to put the
imaginary future to use PF’s are able to use the future in ways that serve not only
planning but also to identify and make-sense of novelty. In this way PFs enhance
both the capacity to experiment and to learn from the novel outcomes of
experimentation. In other words, if so desired, PFs can help to make an
experimentalist stance practical.
The specialization and mastery that defines the ‘profession’ of the Professional
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Futurist is their capacity to design, conduct and interpret explicit (volitional and
intentional) processes of anticipatory knowledge creation. PFs are needed when
the goal is to use the future in more explicit and less reductionist ways than the
planner and forecaster. PFs have a broader understanding of the nature of
anticipatory assumptions and of the systems used to generate them. Contrary to
common perceptions, PFs do not have a better grasp of what will happen or
even how to make the “best” decisions. Quite often the PF is not that well versed
in the technical skills of the forecaster working within a fixed set of assumptions.
The expertise of the PF does not give them an advantage in knowing the
unknowable future but in helping people to expand and refine the way that they
use the future to understand the present (including when and to what end to use
a forecast).2
Do PFs help to prepare for the future and to achieve a “better world”? If the
future is unknowable there is no way to know if preparations are appropriate or
if actions will lead to desired outcomes. In this strict sense PFs cannot help to
prepare for future needs, dangers or opportunities nor offer any assurance that
actions taken today will lead to hoped for outcomes tomorrow. This is the PFs
professional ‘maybe’. Where the profession of the PF does offer ‘value’ with
respect to efforts to prepare and attain is by bringing greater understanding of
the aims and relevant processes for using the future to not just plan but also
discover and invent. The specialized knowledge of the PF is expressed along
three practical avenues: 1) the PF is able to situate planning as one way of using
the future within the broader anticipatory systems context; 2) the PF is able to
design processes where the knowledge creation tools match the specific use to
which the future is being put; and 3) the PF is able to design and implement
processes that embrace novelty by facilitating different ways of both
experimenting and making sense of experiments.
Futures literacy, the capacity to use the future, offers one way of taking
advantage not only of the creativity of our universe but also our desire to live our
capacity to be free.
Premises for the Craft Practiced by Professional Futurists.
The following foundational premises define the boundaries of the specialized
2% NB: The processes that futurists design and implement should not be conflated with the processes that result in
decisions being taken. Foresight processes may contribute to decision-making and determining the parameters
that are used to construct a foresight process requires many decisions but a foresight process is only part of a
larger decision-making process. Its primary contribution is on the search side of discovering choices.%
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and distinctive practice of PFs and provide shared points of reference upon
which the accumulation and testing of professional practice depends:
1. Our universe exists in three basic dimensions: time (duration), space
(motion), and matter/energy. Assuming that time travel is not practical, then
both the earlier and later than now are not accessible for direct “live”
observation or intervention. This means that the future can only exist in the
present as anticipation. As a consequence the professional futurist
consistently explains that there is no evidence of the future but that
anticipated futures do exist and are often powerful in the present (there is
evidence of imagined futures now). In practical terms this requires
professional futurists to consistently preface all predictive statements with the
caveat that such statements are based on a set of restrictive assumptions
regarding the model and the variables that have been used to imagine the
future (quantitative, qualitative, and narrative depictions perceptions of a
moment in time or a series of moments are all rooted in some form of
model). [If professional economists can consistently preface their statements
with “ceteris paribus” all other things being equal (held constant) then so
too can professional futurists. “Maybe” or “perhaps” is the professional
futurist’s watchword, like in the familiar Chinese tale of the Found Horse
Annex 1.]
2. Anticipation is a process that can be described as occurring within a system
(an anticipatory systems perspective). Such systems encompass a wide range
of different forms of anticipation including tacit/explicit,
conscious/unconscious, animate/inanimate. Anticipatory systems can be
organized and anticipatory processes conducted in a wide variety of ways.
From an anticipatory systems perspective the competence of a professional futurist is their
capacity to understand and use anticipatory systems for specific purposes, knowing why it is
better to deploy a particular tool for a particular task. [Note this knowledge arises
from practices – knowledge creation processes that can be considered as
engaged in a scientific effort at understanding ‘reality’ (see proposition 5) and
that can be conducted using scientific methods (see proposition 6).]
3. Reality is emergent over time/space, consisting of repetition and difference,
where each element of time/space information is unique, and humans
constantly negotiate the meaning and play a constitutive role through
interaction (active or passive) with reality. Difference at a descriptive, not
causal level, comes in two general varieties of change: one is variance of an
existing variable (e.g. speed of a car) and the other is novelty (Big Bang, life,
consciousness, invention of the atomic bomb). Not all change depends on
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pre-conditions or causal factors that exist in the present. The present does
not entirely determine what repeats or what differs. And there is no way to
know in advance what will be the actual balance or significance or even
causal sources of repetition and difference. The future of an open system or
process is not amenable to being “known”, not just because there is
incomplete data or imperfect models but because even with complete data
and perfect models novelty occurs and creates the new, the
“unprecedented”. This means that the future is not knowable, not generally
nor specifically. All we can do, when it comes to conscious anticipation, is to
use models to generate the anticipatory assumptions that we may or may not
explicitly chose in order to both describe (in static or dynamic terms) the
later-than-now and act in the present.
4. Conscious anticipation, the way the future exists in the present as thought,
can be divided into three overlapping but distinct categories: i) anticipation
that assumes systemic continuity and seeks predictability based on some form
of extrapolation (planningattempts to colonize tomorrow); ii) anticipation
that is about known (past) external forces good (winning the lottery) or bad
(a Tsunami) (preparationto be ready for X); and iii) anticipation that
embraces novel emergence (systemically distinct difference, discontinuous
and inherently unknowable change - novelty). There are characteristic,
although not exclusive, anticipatory systems and processes associated with
these different categories of anticipation. Understanding these categories of
the future in the present (ontological dimension) and the different methods
that offer effective ways of inventing and using these futures (epistemological
dimension) is a core competence of the professional futurist.
5. Because the conscious efforts to describe the future are of necessity
describing an imaginary context or situation, all such imagesof the future
are based on the anticipatory assumptions that make up the variables and
models used to put in words or visualize the future. Hence anticipatory
assumptions are at the origin of all the different variants or multiple futures
that arise from particular models/variables. This means that the primary
focus of PFs is on revealing anticipatory assumptions and on cognitive
processes that identify and makes sense of anticipatory assumptions.
6. Given that conscious intentional anticipation is a knowledge creation process
it must take advantage of all of the resources available for defining, refining
and inventing such knowledge (experimentation, action-research, collective
intelligence, re-framing). The resources for creating knowledge encompass
the general and particular, the known and unknown, the repetitive and
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novel, and hence anticipatory processes must use methods for exploiting
diversity and creative imagination. Hence most efforts, cognitive processes to
grasp emergence, depend on processes that harness collective intelligence.
This means using local and specific, not average or generalized data, to
imagine the imaginary future. This is a science of the unique.
7. Explicitly organized cognitive processes intended to contribute to
understanding (create knowledge) can be called collective intelligence
knowledge laboratories. KnowLabs are scientific processes in the widest
sense of science as one method for constantly re-negotiating our relationship
to a constantly changing unique reality in an anticipatory universe, and
should be subject to hypothesis testing and third party evaluation as one of
the most effective ways of ensuring perspective and validation.
8. When designing, implementing and interpreting anticipatory processes
Professional Futurists are capable of distinguishing static from dynamic,
descriptive from causal, and hence are able to use the future to grasp the
present in more diverse and distinctive ways. There is a difference between
search and choice!
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2. PFs&are&knowledgeable&and&experienced&in&Anticipatory&Systems&and&Processes&(ASP).&
3. PFs&design&the&knowledge&creation&processes&that&generate&anticipatory&assumptions&
4. PFs&insist&that&anticipatory&assumptions&are&the&source&of&the&models&used&to&imagine&
5. PFs&as&experts&in&designing&and&implementing&knowledge&processes&for&identifying&
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Annex – Chinese Fable of Maybe:
“There once was a farmer who lived in a village bordering on the steppes of China.
One day the farmer's only horse and his greatest visible asset broke out of the corral
and ran away. The farmer's neighbors, all hearing of the horse running away, came
to the farmer's house to view the corral. As they stood there, the neighbors all said,
"Oh what bad luck!" The farmer replied, "Maybe."
About a week later, the horse returned, bringing with it a whole herd of wild horses,
which the farmer and his son quickly corralled. The neighbors, hearing of the
corralling of the horses, came to see for themselves. As they stood there looking at
the corral filled with horses, the neighbors said, "Oh what good luck!" The farmer
replied, "Maybe."
A couple of weeks later, the farmer's son's leg was badly broken when he was thrown
from a horse he was trying to break. A few days later the broken leg became infected
and the son became delirious with fever. The neighbors, all hearing of the incident,
came to see the son. As they stood there, the neighbors said, "Oh what bad luck!"
The farmer replied, "Maybe."
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At that same time in China, a war broke out between two rival warlords. In need of
more soldiers, a captain came to the village to conscript young men to fight in the
war. When the captain came to take the farmer's son, he found the young man with a
broken leg--delirious with fever. Knowing there was no way the son could fight, the
captain left him there. A few days later, the son's fever broke. The neighbors, hearing
of the son's not being taken to fight in the war and of his return to good health, all
came to see him. As they stood there, each one said, "Oh what good luck!" The
farmer replied, "Maybe."”
The text is adapted from:
perspective.html - but I first heard this story from Stuart Candy, was it a good thing?
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ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any references for this publication.