Futurology, trend research and foresight – what is it and what can it do?
Introduction and applications of a young discipline
Futurology is science, trend research is the interpretation and extrapolation of already existing trends. What exactly it is and how you can benefit from both disciplines as an entrepreneur, you can read here.
You’ve probably seen a futurologist or trend researcher or heard their forecasts. Especially in exceptional times like a pandemic, the (often self-proclaimed) trend gurus literally grow out of the ground. An astonishing number of people suddenly have something clever to say about the future of humanity – no one would have expected so many experts on virology and political systems a year ago.
Let’s shed some light on this and learn about the tools modern prophets use. Since futurology is still a very young discipline in the scientific sphere, I would like to briefly explain the basics and then possible areas of application. I will only hint at the interpretation of the respective schools of thought, you will then make the evaluation for yourselves.
Basics – Futurology and Foresight
Futurology is a relatively young discipline, especially in German-speaking countries. The methodological roots of modern futurology lie in the 1940s in the USA; accordingly, foresight or futures studies courses have existed in Anglo-American countries for a long time. In Switzerland, the association “swissfuture” has been dedicated to futurology for over 50 years. In Germany, on the other hand, there has only been an explicit university institute since 2001 and a master’s program since 2010, which has been recognized as a minor subject since 2020.
At the same time, one of the most important distinguishing features of our species is that we think about the future and plans in “it”. The roots of futurology therefore also lie roughly with the biological emancipation of homo sapiens from the chimpanzee, the models of systematic futurology in turn in the advanced civilizations of 2000-4000 years ago and their oracles. But where are we today?
What is futurology? What is not?
The most important thing in advance: The future cannot be predicted. All those who claim otherwise are either a touch too spiritual or want to deceive you.
What does work: We can formulate educated guesses about probable futures. Basically, futurologists are constantly analyzing the images of the future that influential people and organizations in particular are already carrying around with them more or less consciously. So it is rather about probabilities and mechanisms, how social, technological, economic, ecological (…) phenomena come about and how they will develop further. In the end, one can formulate an educated guess as to what the future might look like.
The three most important skills for this are:
- be systematically up to date on many topics and media,
- to observe the most important scientific findings on a determinable research object, and
- to understand the basic logic of (historical) change.
Futurology thus has a lot to do with history and social sciences, but of course there is also a focus on technological, more engineering futurology or philosophical currents.
In the German-speaking world, there is a central interest group for academic futures research, the Netzwerk Zukunftsforschung, with about 80 members (as of 2020). Globally, the World Futures Studies Federation has established itself as the primary platform; its activities extend as far as UNESCO when it comes to far-reaching political decisions. The number of official futurologists with a master’s degree in German-speaking countries is correspondingly small, but of course a university degree is not a prerequisite for “good” futures research. Rather, it is a matter of adhering to the quality criteria of science – this includes, among other things, documentation of the research process, application of scientific methodology (such as interviews, Delphi method or modeling of systems) or honesty in the communication of study results.
Possible, prominent results of futures research are often scenarios. Here, the aim is to break down the findings from a research process to the most important influencing and key factors, to combine their possible or probable development strands in a clearly defined time horizon, to check them for consistency and to present them appropriately. Often these are short stories of possible futures, videos or pictorial representations. If everything is done correctly in the process, the scenario technique can also quite practically identify possible interactions and late effects of different developments. So-called wild cards or black swans also play a minor role in these processes; these are extremely unlikely and at the same time potentially influential events. Incidentally, the Covid19 pandemic was initially incorrectly described as such a black swan – but this is not accurate, as scenarios have been developed worldwide at the latest since the first SARS pandemic in the early 2000s as to what happens in the event of pandemics and how the healthcare system should respond. The printed matter 17/12051 of the German Bundestag of 03.01.2013 (“Report on risk analysis in population protection 2012”) is a nice result of futurology; without acute cause, possible scenarios as well as their consequences and necessary measures were analyzed. Nevertheless, a large part of the world was surprised or even unprepared. This shows how underrepresented futurology unfortunately still is.
So, what is futurology? The scientific study of possible, probable, and desirable futures and their precondition in the past.
What is futurology not? Fixed statements about the future or unsubstantiated, subjective and vague predictions.
What distinguishes futurology from trend research?
So while futurology deals with futures in a value-free way, trend research examines existing or emerging trends. Trend research works with tools such as Google Trends, fashion color agencies or evaluations of patent databases. Trend research therefore only becomes active when a trend already exists and investigates this – is actually also in the name. Classically, this involves questions such as “what color will be worn next summer?”, “what design will the next generation of mid-range cars have?” or “is blockchain a serious topic for our company?”
Trend research takes an explicitly non-scientific approach. That’s not a bad thing, either, because projects are less about value-free insight and more about practical recommendations for entrepreneurial action. And that, as we all know, is always needed yesterday rather than tomorrow. The client may turn a blind eye to the scientific nature of the research; it is more important that the results are available quickly and can be communicated conclusively to the executive board or customers.
In principle, futurology and trend research behave in much the same way as “doctor” and “physician. “Doctor” is a protected professional title, “physician” is not. This suggests that a person who is allowed to call himself a “doctor” has to undergo a recognized training and licensing process – medical practitioners, on the other hand, do not. In futurology, the situation is currently different, as the process of recognition is lengthy. Roughly speaking, futurologists are those who work in a recognized scientific manner, while trend researchers use their own, non-scientific methods. The problem arises at the point where names such as “research” or “institute” (both not protected) are used to suggest seriousness and to compensate for a lack of experience or company size.
So, what is trend research? Subjective analysis of already existing trend topics, very pointed and well suited for quick project results.
Which is “better”?
That depends very much on the question. A company can benefit equally from both schools of thought, but the respective method should be chosen wisely. When choosing, it is important to critically compare the marketing-polished promises of the respective providers. Because one thing is certain: all that glitters is not gold. And especially in the area of futurology/trend research, there are numerous empty promises in terms of scientificity that I have rarely seen fulfilled. In my experience, the usability of the results decreases in the opposite direction to the number of superlatives used in the company or project description. What sounds like a truism, however, regularly leads even board members of DAX companies onto the ice. In the cosmos of futurology and trend research, there are numerous players and organizations; you will find everything from serious science to crystal ball.
If a company, a strategy department or a CEO wants to learn more about an existing trend based on a recommendation or reading a trend magazine, trend research is certainly a good choice. It will help to better understand a trend and pointedly identify possible areas of application in the company. It may even yield exclusive knowledge, such as which colors are most likely to be worn in the next season or the season after that – because that is negotiated by a few players in private. Advantage through knowledge is the motto.
If a company is more interested in preparing for possible future scenarios in a value-free manner, futurology is probably the better choice. After many large companies set up their own futurology or corporate foresight departments, however, it became apparent that this view quickly reached its limits within the company, which is why projects with independent institutes or freelancers have established themselves as the best option. Anticipating the future is the first step, followed by strategy – after all, the primary goal is not only to recognize probable developments, but also to prepare measures before these scenarios occur. This has already secured the existence of many companies; one of the best-known examples is the relatively good position of the Shell Group after the oil crises of the 1970s and 80s. The strategy team had already thought through this scenario and prepared responses to it with various contacts in the company, which is why Shell got off lightly, while its competitors had to live through the consequences of the shock first hand.
So, which is better? Futurology is better if you don’t know the question yet. Trend research is better and, above all, faster if the question and research object have already been determined. In any case, I advocate independent, external support without blinkers. Beware of false promises and exaggerated use of superlatives or unverifiable scientific approaches!
How can I use futurology in my company?
The anticipation of futures is something we are not systematically taught in school; unfortunately, curiosity and foresight tend to be trained out of us in order to fit into society’s demand planning and to follow prefabricated training paths. But back to the company. All organizations are familiar with change processes; in reality, these change projects are designed to last. Because if there’s one thing we know, it’s that nothing is permanent – except change. Accordingly, however, it is a mammoth or even Sisyphus task to motivate all stakeholders and especially the employees for these changes. After all, this is firstly about motivation and secondly about confidence that the organizational purpose should survive and that the change measures should be supported and ideally shaped by all. This has a lot to do with futures; once the vision of the organization, but beyond that the general living and working environments of the future. If we can assume that automation will increase at a high pace, further training and retraining of employees is without alternative; this is not obvious and must therefore be communicated openly and widely.
In addition, there are a few methods from the field of futurology that can be applied without expensive consultant days and with a little method reading. I would like to briefly outline the two best-known ones.
Design thinking is probably one of the most important methods in the environment of innovative companies and startups. The method is closely related to futurology and can deliver good results. But even the best method is only as good as its environment – if I only have a hammer, I can see a nail in every problem. And so the application of design thinking has literally exploded and is unfortunately very often used for the wrong questions. Primarily, the method is used to develop new products or services, but it is not at all suitable for strategies and business models.
The scenario planning method is quite similar. As an integral part of many business courses, many business graduates have a clear picture of a scenario process. In my experience, however, this is very different from scientifically based processes, which generally follow a research phase and then proceed in a meticulous and scientific manner. Often the terms tool and method are confused at this point. The most important thing is to always keep in mind mechanisms that guarantee the value-free nature of assessments or reveal assumptions. It is all very well if I would like tariffs to fall and the new Silk Road to boost my business; but it may be that the political mood points in a different direction and, in the worst case, I see my strategy fail after a few months.
Most important with all methods: leave the choice of the right method to an independent agency. For better or worse, an agency specializing in design thinking will want to do a DT process with you and have the right selling points ready. But if your problem isn’t a nail, you don’t need a hammer.
Ignorant and confident about the future!
Forecasts are generally to be taken with a grain of salt. Almost every more or less unexpected phenomenon was more or less “predicted” by someone – lottery numbers, Covid19, the financial market collapse in 2008, the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and many more. This belies the fact that these were either random hits or results of value-free research processes. However, it does not allow any conclusion that the sender of the forecast will be right the next time. Accordingly, it is never the goal of futurology to be right after the fact. Rather, the aim is to use the anticipation of tomorrow to facilitate decisions today and to think through possible interactions of probable futures before it is too late (keyword climate change).
There are a large number of highly probable components of the future, if no wild cards or black swans salt the soup. However, this high probability should not obscure the fact that the future is not determined and that even with (perceived) 99.999999% probability, something can still change. We have to accept this uncertainty and work with it; this also includes recognizing that each of us can change something about the future. And suddenly the perspective on futures changes.
This newfound resilience is the most valuable medicine of futurology: We know that we know nothing, and yet we look forward to the future.
Welcome to the age of serendipity.