Futures People, Who Are You?
Sometimes you like to generalize, sometimes you like to atomize — our breakdown of the 40 facets of the Futures universe
Author: Sean Moffitt
If you are a champion, practitioner, leader, teacher or student of the future, boy do you have some options in front of you. You are beset by the paradox of choice, akin to kid in a candy store.
Last week, I answered a question for a prospective entrepreneur. He was curious about the entire landscape of the futures-industry — which phrase-ology was being used to describe things, and what might be coming into vogue? He was compelled to introduce yet another descriptor into the space. The start of my analysis, prompted by his query, led me to this post today.
At the time, my counsel to this budding startup founder was that there is a always a tension in any new venture between rooting yourself in the known and thus fighting for being distinctive within whatever existing box you happen to define yourself in, versus branching off on your own and proving your value and credibility as something different, and the standard to be followed and practiced. In my personal opinion, the future-driven world has way too many branches. Read on.
I am the first one to let definitional sleeping dogs lie in the hopes of moving onto the real work of intelligence, foresight and change. As author Karen Annex mused “Lovers of words have no place where honest work must be done”. I am a practitioner first and foremost, it’s the craft and work that is most important. You use a 7 step iterative project wheel. You use a 6 question stress test. You use a 5 interval round of Delphi analysis. Who cares what you call it?
I’ll make the exception here. The world of Futures is a confused nexus of terms and mixed array of occupational titles. I am steeped in this work and sometimes I get confused. Heaven help the newbie or casually interested! Futurists, forecasters, change agents and everyone else who ply their trade about the future really have some lexicon overload to deal with. Very few industries have the level of ambiguous entendres, historical stigmas and mischaracterizations of what each of these futures people do, and how certain types do it differently? Depending on who you talk to — futures, foresight or forecasting can elicit another type of F word. For a discipline that is young comparatively speaking and combats a lot of resistance from the establsihed set, we do make it tough for ourselves. The definitions and distinctions beg some new sunlight and fresh air being cast on them.
“Everybody’s more specialized, so there isn’t a market for someone who can speak about very large, holistic matters with any authority,” Mike Marien
We have defined and described 40 of these terms/disciplines/schools of thought below, in the hopes of helping you generate a better understanding of the entire futures landscape. It is by no means a complete list, we had to cut it off somewhere (I am looking at you prospectivists, futurescapers, anticipatory futurists and critical designers). Enjoy.
Next Skills cleverly defines the full range of future skills required across organizational, subject and object ranges. These are the starter DNA of acumen for all the areas that follow:
The questions however still remain — how do we define the boundaries? what is the leading futures syntax? what do these people want to be called? If you want to start a career or venture, which makes more sense to you? Is the deep exploration, understanding, syntheses, explanation and applied action to the future — a noun, a verb, an adjective, a theory, a process, a profession, a gig?
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You thought there were maybe 5–6 core job titles of people oriented to the future. Think again. Look at our rollup of the top 30 future-oriented job titles (ranked by popularity according to appearance in LinkedIn profiles):
Let’s cover them all in detail.
A. The Entire Category Definers — four terms that encompass the broader future umbrella:
#1 Futures Thinking/Thinker
(4,000 appearances in LinkedIn Profiles, 210,000 appearances in Google searches) — in my opinion, this is the one that has the widest purview — futures thinking is defined as the creative and exploratory process that uses divergent thinking, seeking many possible answers and acknowledging uncertainty (but less interested in seeking the right answer); believes in a future that is not pre-determined, has a range of possible futures and understands the future can be actively shaped by the decisions we take today, used as a term and practice across strategy, design and policy realms. That captures most of the futures panorama (although not all, see my comment on forecasting below).
(7,700 in LinkedIn, 23,900,000 in Google) — I prefer this one but people rant about it being synonymous with the1920s Italian avant-garde art movement that emphasized the importance of progress and the future. Phonetically “ism” denotes action or practice, state or condition, principles, doctrines, a usage or characteristic, devotion or adherence, so isn’t the portmanteau futurism a naturally outcropping of a futurist?
Even Reddit’s discussion area uses the term futurism in a futures work context describing it as “an interest in technological advancements and scientific breakthroughs that will shape the future of humanity”; whether it is used with art or thinking orientations, the term futurism is defined as the study, prediction and embrace of possible futures, and tends to have a stronger focus on technology, post-modernism and future optimism among its advocates. As seen by its use on LinkedIn profiles. despite purist and academic resistance, it has wide usage among professionals.
(800 in LinkedIn, 2,200,000 in Google)— niche, although I find futurology has some hard core adherents. Usually referenced in social science circles, futurology is the study of current trends and social patterns in order to forecast future developments, design new institutions, and to propose alternative programs, although has a rich history in utopian and science fiction circles, the military, technology and governments have now practically applied it with increasing sophistication of their analytical techniques, which draw from such fields as mathematics, economics, environmental research, and computer science.
#4 Futures Studies
(2,800 in LinkedIn, 458,000 in Google) — favoured in academic usage, futures studies is defined as the systematic, interdisciplinary and holistic study of social and technological advancement, and other environmental trends, often for the purpose of exploring how people will live and work in the future; fights for credibility on par with the other natural sciences but straddles between the areas of art and science, sometimes considered a pseudoscience, brings into a number of areas of study, disciplines and historical movements, favoured as the term for the profession of futurists and often shortened to simply futures.
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B. The Partial Definers — five other terms that likely don’t define the whole futures pie but are can be used to describe a portion of the discipline
(7,500 in LinkedIn, 153,000,000 in Google)- futurist is the word most often associated with the profession, with all of its accompanying plaudits (e.g. wonderful visionaries, seers, futurists and writers) and detriments (e.g. loosely informed, jack-of-all-trades, trend-watching pontificators) — a futurist is defined as a social scientist that forecasts what may happen in the future; those who attempt to systematically explore predictions and possibilities about the future and how they can emerge from the present, whether that of human society in particular or of life on Earth in general; is the professional term used to describe a wide and disparate set of professional, and academic groups as visionaries, foresight consultants, corporate strategists, policy analysts, cultural critics, planners, marketers, forecasters, prediction market developers, roadmappers, operations researchers, investment managers, actuaries, and other risk analyzers, and future-oriented individuals educated in every academic discipline; because of its breadth, it is one of the most popular terms but also suffers from ambiguity even as groups like the World Future Society, the Association of Professional Futurists and the World Futures Studies Federation try to define it and professionalize it.
(909 in LinkedIn, 486,000 in Google) futuring describes an overall active method — defined as a systematic process to think about the future, both analytical and generative; first popularized by Edward Cornish — founder of the World Futures Society; framing and forming possible scenarios for the future to gain insight into the best actions to take in the present.
(747 in LinkedIn, 258,000 in Google) — the study or prediction of future developments on the basis of existing conditions; commonly used as a term in close association with design, art and space.
(315 in LinkedIn Profile, 240,000 in Google search) — rare but I have seen it used in conjunction with workplace change — defined as bringing into the future or making state of the art; modernization; usually appears as a general descriptor with an emphasis on action.
(425 in LinkedIn, 5,100,000 in Google)— my mission outside of Guild life is to make this term synonymous with applied innovation, change and business models; a real focus on getting future-ready and having agency over the future (vs. prediction or straight line extrapolation) and inspiring actions now, as opposed to waiting for a never-0arriving future.
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C. The Mid-Term Futures — two other terms that I like but don’t represent the whole pie, (even advocates confess other schools of thought have nearer term and longer term orientations):
#10 Strategic Foresight
(2,910 in LinkedIn, 437,000 in Google)- a structured and systematic way of using ideas about the future to anticipate and better prepare for change; it is about exploring different plausible futures that could arise, and the opportunities and challenges they could present; universities have started offering this as a more practical, nearer-in offering vs. full spectrum futurism; making strides in organizations it can be termed corporate foresight as well.
#11 Applied Foresight
(10 in LinkedIn, 17,900 in Google) - applied foresight provides tools and frameworks for supporting whatever you are trying to fuel with the future: the term is culture change, strategy, innovation, and personal development-oriented.
- both Strategic & Applied Foresight have an action and strategy connotation and typically have a shorter time horizon than futurists
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D. The Applicators —five terms that straddle the practical side of the fence, although applying only glancingly full futures work:
#12 Strategic Planning/Planner
(20,000,000 in LinkedIn, 64,000,000 in Google)- the most popular occupation that touches the futures universe, strategic planning is defined as an organizational management activity that is used to set priorities, focus energy and resources, strengthen operations; ensuring that employees and other stakeholders are working toward common goals, establishes agreement around intended outcomes/results, and assesses and adjusts the organization’s direction in response to a changing future environment; common in both corporate and service agency circles.
#13 Policy Planning/Planner
(40,600 in LinkedIn, 3,400,000 in Google)- policy planning is defined as the process of setting common principles, rules and regulations, which form the basis of day-to-day decisions; tending to be less flexible than strategy and often dealing with internal environments, a favoured role and term among national and local governments.
#14 Culture Planning/Planner
(400 in LinkedIn, 306,000 in Google)- culture planning is defined as a place-based approach to planning and future development; a process for identifying and leveraging a community’s cultural resources, strengthening the management of those resources, and integrating those resources across all facets of local planning, future initiatives and decision making; commonly used in tourism, arts and local governments.
(3,110,000 in LinkedIn, 1,685,000,000 in Google)- the fourth most common job title and first searched term —innovation is broadly defined as the process through which economic and social value is extracted from knowledge through the generation, development, and implementation of ideas to produce new or improved strategies, capabilities, products, services, or processes (my company suggests it has 30 facets); innovation has been embraced by all disciplines and industries, especially over the last 30 years with many well-developed and studied branches (e.g. open innovation, social innovation, public innovation. customer innovation, radical innovation), but has baggage from its overuse, failure vs. expectations and not always being focused on the shifting future.
(567,000 in LinkedIn, 657,000,000 in Google) — ventures are defined as a new activity, usually in business, that involves risk and uncertainty; often focused in corporate circles around early stage capital and investments; given the nature of its participants, ventures have received just praise for their assumption of upfront risk taking into account an uncertain future but criticism for its short term nature, winner-take-all competitive streak and lack of sustained value.
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E. The Deep Terms — four terms dealing with the deep immersion on a specific approach, although not exclusively rooted on the future:
#17 Disruptor/Creative Disruption & Destruction
(3,100 in LinkedIn, 2,510,000 in Google) —disruption is defined as a person, company, or technology that changes the way an industry operates, especially in a new or innovative way. Historically not a compliment, now a euphemism for being a change agent. Popularized by Joseph Schumpeter and the new, game-changing industry creation witnessed in the first part of the 20th century by such developments as Ford’s assembly line,
#18 User Experience Researchers (UX)
(116,700 in LinkedIn, 5,700,000 in Google) — user experience research (or UX for short) is defined as the systematic study of target users and their requirements, to add realistic contexts and insights to design processes; UX researchers adopt various methods to uncover problems and design opportunities; used in close association with innovation, fast iteration startups and web-based entities; critiqued for not projecting customer needs in a future context.
#19 Design Thinking/Thinker
(464,200 in LinkedIn, 23,300,000 in Google)- design thinking is defined as a process for creative problem solving; pulling together what’s desirable from a human point of view with what is technologically feasible and economically viable; frequently cited as a core innovation process pioneered by IDEO and endorsed by d.schools everywhere with a premium on user empathy and group brainstorming; one of its challenges is frequently its premium on being different for the sake of being different, cognitive biases in development, and not fully accounting for a different future than what currently exists (masters of design programs MDes try to combat this handicap by marrying design with strategic foresight).
#20 Systems Thinking/Thinker
(32,300 in LinkedIn, 4,994,000 in Google)- system thinking is defined as a way of making sense of the complexity in the world by looking at it in terms of wholes and relationships rather than by splitting it down into its parts; systems thinking draws on and contributes to systems theory and the system sciences; appreciated for its accounting for relationships & circularities, often struggles to account for future shifts and explaining simply its conclusions to others.
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Popularity of Future-relevant Terms Overall:
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F. The Generic Term — sometimes people just say:
The use of the term futures implicitly suggests the exploration of multiple futures, but unless you modify it, it’s frequently seen as an investment mechanism and branch; you will often see it modified by some adjective (e.g. Corporate Futures, Strategic Futures etc.) to help explain what aspect of the future it is truly dealing with.
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G. The Activity Terms — I have also seen five terms describing the activities of people involved:
(16,200 in LinkedIn, 10,300,000 in Google) — changemaking is defined as one who desires change in the world and seeks out the knowledge and resources to make that change happen; frequently associated with social innovation and entrepreneurship; addresses the action gap frequently seen in social movements where intention doesn’t lead to future action.
#23 Long Range Planning/Planner
(3,160 in LinkedIn, 2,805,000 in Google)- long range planning is defined as the process used to implement an organization’s strategic plan and aligning the business’ long-term goals and developing action plans in line with a strategic plan; depending upon the type of business, the time scale for long-range plans can vary from three years through to one or two decades; frequently driven or entrenched in the financial planning group.
#24 Scenario Planning/Planner
(9,620 in LinkedIn, 1,704,000 in Google)- scenario planning is defined as a way to assert control over an uncertain world by identifying assumptions about the future and determining how your organization will respond; scenario plans, ultimately, tell a story with many possible endings; some organizations have institutionalized groups that evaluate and stress test preferred outlooks, blind spots, weak areas, wild card events and improbable developments.
#25 Scenario Modeling
(328 in LinkedIn , 1,318,000 in Google)- scenario modeling is defined as an examination of a range of potential futures (instead of attempting to predict just one future); explores the differences between possible futures and facilitates investigations into how decisions around those situations would directly and indirectly impact the organization.
#26 Horizon Scanning/Scanner
(1,680 in LinkedIn, 819,000 in Google)- horizon scanning is defined as an organized formal process of gathering, analyzing and disseminating future-driven and value-added information from external and internal environments to support decision making.
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Key Influence Terms — increasingly three other terms have become synonymous with futures work given their influence and impact:
#27 Emerging Technology/Technologist
(13,100 in LinkedIn, 23,640,000 in Google)- emerging technology is defined as a term and area describing new technologies, but it may also refer to the continuing development of an existing technologies; with different definitions and time frames depending on media, business, science, or education industry referred to; commonly orients itself around technologies that are currently developing, or that are expected to be available within the next five to ten years, and usually reserved for technologies that are creating, or are expected to create, significant social or economic effects.
#28 Cultural Strategist /Cultural Foresight
(650 in LinkedIn, 465,000 in Google )- cultural strategy/foresight is defined as a field of practice that centers artists, storytellers, media makers and cultural influencers as agents of social change; like all strategic practices, it requires goal-setting, a theory of change, an understanding of audience, and a commitment to meaningful evaluation and learning.
#29 Metaverse/Web 3 Strategist (already ugh)
(65 in LinkedIn, 26,000 in Google)- in the process of mainstreaming itself, web 3 strategy & planning is defined as a process of integrating and blurring the line between physical and virtual reality, and changes how we experience the world to reach new audiences, improve experiences, and explore future potential revenue streams.
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H. The Near Futures Terms — on the near futures orientation, there are many people playing in a range of the next zero-to three year evaluations:
#30 Researcher, Trends Researcher, Trend Analyst
(4,100,000 in LinkedIn, 17,295,000 in Google)- trends research & analysis involves the sourcing, identification, analysis of effects and implications and fit for future, focusing work on key microtrends, ciountertrends, shifts and metatrends, and their intersections and projected impact.
(3,950,000 in LinkedIn, 843,000,000 in Google)- forecasting is defined as a technique that uses historical data as inputs to make informed estimates that are predictive in determining the direction of future trends; employing time series, cross-sectional or longitudinal data, or alternatively less formal judgmental methods or the process of prediction and resolution itself; some of have used the term strategic forecasting to suggest a more sophisticated approach to future projection; predictions are more general elements of forecasting.
You’ll get a lot of futurists saying forecasting is not part of their discipline as they are admittedly shorter term, numbers-focused and too constraining. I’ve personally got into some weird and silly debates about can you really predict the future and how forecasters are blind leading the blind. Although many of the futurist organizations exclude it, I include forecasting in my “big tent” futures umbrella.
I. The Niche Terms — getting more specialized you do get people who specialize in :
#32 Speculative Design/Futures
(800 in LinkedIn Profile, 240,500 in Google search) — speculative design is defined as efforts to identify and debate crucial issues that might happen in the future, future consequences and implications of the relationship between science, technology, and humans; accentuating issues by often proposing provocative future design scenarios where technology and design implications come together poorly; can be effective in dramatizing future effects and changing minds but also suffers commercially by frequently being subversive, irreverent and not commercially driven.
#33 Future Fiction
(50 in LinkedIn, 5,100,000 in Google) — future fiction is a broad literary genre encompassing any fiction with supernatural, fantastical, or futuristic elements, both near and far in orientation, and carrying off themes that may be socially relevant for today’s audience and/or commercially interesting in learning and reapplication for the long-term.
#34 Science Fiction
(12,000 in LinkedIn, 1,010,000,000 in Google) — science fiction is extraordinarily popular but usually almost exclusively a literary or entertainment term; a genre of speculative fiction which typically deals with imaginative and futuristic concepts such as advanced science and technology, space exploration, time travel, parallel universes, and extraterrestrial life; used to inspire a “sense of wonder” and provide entertainment, and also criticize present-day society and explore alternatives. It sometimes suffers from challenges in its application, interpretation and justification.
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J. Future Human Terms — three terms focused on technology melding with humanity:
(300 in LinkedIn, 9,500,000 in Google)- transhumanism is defined as a social and philosophical movement devoted to promoting the research and development of robust human-enhancement technologies (e.g. augment or increase human sensory reception, emotive ability, or cognitive capacity as well as radically improve human health and extend human life spans). Very human-centred but is coloured by ethical issues and brings into scope the existential questions of life itself.
(19,000 in LinkedIn, 134,000,000 in Google)- singularity is the study of junctures and points in time at which technological growth becomes uncontrollable and irreversible, resulting in unforeseeable changes to human civilization. The first to use the concept of a “singularity” in the technological context was John von Neumann and has had it popular advocates and critics ever since. Singularity (the organization) has created a thriving community and enterprise of people gathered around a trust in technology, but others have strong call for safeguards and qualifications on unfettered technology progress.
(266 in LinkedIn, 101,000,000 in Google)- cyberpunk is a popular sub-genre of science fiction in a dystopian futuristic setting that tends to focus on a “combination of lowlife and high tech”, featuring futuristic technological and scientific achievements, such as artificial intelligence and cybernetics, juxtaposed with societal collapse or decay. Cemented as a storytelling genre by William Gibson’s landmark novel Neuromancer, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira, in a modern context, cyberpunk can provide social commentary, offer guardrails to city development, and technological innovation.
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K. The New Terms - three other terms getting some attention:
#38 Future Now
(1,600 in LinkedIn, 3,650,000 in Google)- Future Now is defined as the mission and call to action of bringing the future forward by equipping people with future mindsets, inspirations and tools, providing synopses of what people in the future might write about and backcasting back to the present.
#39 Future Hacking
(20 in LinkedIn, 318,000 in Google) — Future Hacking is the reinvention of futures and technologies that are initially designed a certain way, and subsequent manipulation (i.e. hacking) exploits for either good or bad uses and applications other than originally intent; has a strong cyber security bent.
#40 Future You
(533 in LinkedIn, 19,500,000 in Google) — Future You is an area where individuals and teams navigate the future, one experiment at a time, empowering themselves to a more meaningful, thriving life by designing and developing the world they want and placing humanity above technology; a big personal empowerment bent; brought into popular use by a TV show, Brian David Johnson book, an NPR monthly documentary and a public service campaign around STEM education.
Phewwww… let us know your thoughts on our breakdown of the futures universe.
Sean Moffitt is co-founder of the Grey Swan Guild and runs an innovation hub and business models hatchery Futureproofing : Next. Both inside and outside the Guild, Sean is involved in generating perspectives, events, keynotes and ventures that bring the future forward for visionary organizations. Connect with him here, here or here.
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