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25th Anniversary series: Change itself changes: new tools for futures thinking

July 1, 2015

Foresight, forecasting, and futures thinking ( ) balance in the centre of a tug-of-war between data-driven research and exploratory, intuitive, and imaginative research.   Forecasting, especially demographic and econometric forecasting, relies heavily on quantitative data and statistical analysis. ‘Scenarios as the art of strategic conversation’ are, in contrast, exploratory, imaginative, and make use of human intuition in both pattern-sensing and story-telling.

The best approach is a cunning blend of both – adding art to statistics, and grounding imagination in data.

Happily for futures thinking everywhere, innovations are raising the game in foresight just as they are for everything else. Data has become Big Data, and scenarios and design thinking have melded in Design Futures. Jane McGonigal has brought online gaming to futures and foresight via Superstruct ( ), World Without Oil ( ), and UrgentEvoke ( The next few paragraphs present just a few of the emerging tools in futures studies.*

Horizon scanning ( ) – looking for emerging trends and weak signals of change – is easily one of the most time-intensive components of futures research. While Google search and RSS feeds give us access to massive amounts of potentially useful data updated minute by minute, they are of little help in sorting, sifting, and curating that. There are several strategies to support the overwhelmed scanner:

  • Make your twitter feed scan for you: follow the most interesting range of thinkers you can – make a list of all of those who regularly share leading edge insights, news, and discoveries: then create a (li ) daily newspaper from that list. will transform the links shared by those interesting people into a ‘daily edition’ of emerging change conveniently sorted into sections – politics, science, innovation, arts, education, etc.
  • Got in a rut? Has your scanning developed path habits of the same people and blogs and news streams? Add a dash of randomness – mimicking how change itself arrives – by signing up to StumbleUpon ( ) and choosing some general topics of interest. StumbleUpon will send you random items from its database of articles, interviews, art works, press releases, photos, etc, Each item you receive has already been curated by other people interested in the same topic – making the StumbleUpon social network your quality control filter.
  • Go high tech – Shaping Tomorrow ( ) offers an advanced web crawler that is semantically designed to hunt for emerging change. It will return a list of interesting changes to you, and even summarise them as a bullet-point list. The list will require curating to discard less useful findings.

So much for scanning – but then what do you do with all those tidbits of emerging change news? Addressing the ‘so what’ factor is critical in putting your scanning to work.

  • What impacts might those emerging changes create? You can explore impact cascades using futures wheels – also called ‘impact wheels’ – for which Joel Barker has created a supporting software: Implications Wheel®
  • Do you want to engage a large number of people online in crowdsourcing emerging change and its impacts? Futurescaper ( ) offers support both for survey-based crowdsourcing of emerging changes, and also of their impacts and interconnections. A Futurescaper survey asks online participants linked questions that the software then displays as influence maps and impact cascades. It can also be used as a scanning database, with similar graphic display capabilities.
  • How will emerging changes interconnect and affect the systems around us? The best futures thinking is systems thinking, so influence maps are a great way to explore the effects of change. Classic systems thinking software includes iSee’s Stella (com ) in which you can draw interconnections as causal loop diagrams, or create full-blown dynamic models based on stock-flow diagrams; Ventana Systems’ Vensim is similar ( ). Insight Maker is similar, and free ( ).

Software is even available to help you build scenarios ( ) and visions ( ).

  • The Parmenides Foundation’s EIDOS ( system is a ‘soup to nuts’ futures and strategic foresight support platform. It provides a database to store scanning data; lets you create influence maps from the scanning data; identifies causal loops within those influence maps; identifies most influential and most influenced variables; and supports creating scenarios by morphological analysis (structured combinations of different outcomes across different variables of change). A strategic options dashboard also assists in windtunnelling potential response strategies. All this comes, however, at a premium price.
  • Co:tunity ( ) is also a soup-to-nuts futures platform, available for a monthly subscription fee. It also provides a database for organising and storing scanning data, and a social network structure to create a community approach to discussing and prioritising the scanning data identified. Participants can vote on the most uncertain and most important emerging changes, and the software includes workspaces for creating scenarios using the 2X2 ‘axes of uncertainty’ approach. Co:tunity also supports vision creation and strategy windtunnelling.

Design futures has become a hot topic and a popular new futures method. Based on design thinking, this approach creates futures prototypes and artefacts of possible futures, thus allowing participants to explore alternative futures more experientially.

  • One card-based design futures game is “The Thing from the Future,” available from the Situation Lab at Ontario College of Art and Design (org/projects/the-thing-from-the-future/ ). Thing decks have four card sets. The first specifies one of four archetypal possible futures, and a time horizon; the second card set specifies the ‘terrain’, or use location, of the object to be designed. The third card set identifies the future object to be designed, and the fourth specifies the mood the future object should evoke.
  • An earlier game designed by the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena for a project on the future of mobility, mVIP, is available both as a card deck, and in an interactive online format ( ). mVIP first deals you a hand of assorted changes – a random alternative future – and then deals a smaller second hand of design challenges to create a prototype product or service for a specified client in that future.

All this futures thinking is only helpful to the extent it helps you create innovative strategies, solutions, and actions to take now.   This is where support for extended community discussions, solution generation, activity organisation, and change management is really helpful.

  • Want to link up the sharp minds in your strategy division and give them futures thinking support? Sharpcloud ( ) enables workteams to collect scanning data and store it as visually engaging ‘virtual cards’ that provide support for bibliographic annotation, discussion, voting and prioritisation. The cards can be used on a virtual whiteboard to create futures wheels, timelines, and influence maps. They can be sorted and assembled into scenario and vision components. Team members can also work together to suggest strategies and prioritise them.
  • Or are you more interesting in supporting a wide-ranging social community in identifying challenges and working together to create solutions? The graphically appealing Factr (com ), still in beta, was originally designed to support action-based solutions for the UN to address humanitarian crises. It has been updated for wider applications, and brings us full circle back to scanning support, as its socially networked solutions discussions begin with a discovery mode that lets you connect RSS and API feeds from your favourite sources of data about change, and share them with your social community. This becomes the basis to gather more information about both the problem issue and possible opportunities for solutions.

Foresight support software will only get smarter. Are futurists on the verge of becoming obsolete? We think the reverse is likely – that all these tools could help make futures thinking skills ubiquitous. Here’s to a foresightful future!

There are many excellent guides to major trends that will affect us all over the next decades. For guidance, see . What we have tried to do in this blog sequence is to highlight a specific emerging change from the many, and to explore some of the potential impacts.  We welcome thoughts on other drivers of change or more impacts of the ones we have highlighted.

Written by SAMI Principal, Wendy Schultz.

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* For a lengthier overview, see the slides of my PACITA presentation here:; for an opportunity to experience six of these futures platforms, join us at the World Future Society Professional Members Forum on 27 July in San Francisco:


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