World Futures Society Professional Meetings

San Francisco , July 21, 2003

The Future of Futures Studies


Report from the Educators

by Dr. Lynn Elen Burton

(with thanks to Michael Marien)



To provide a little background, the promise of Future Studies was very bright when the modern movement began over thirty years ago. Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock had caught the ascending wave in 1970 and contributed to a sense of a movement to explore possible, probable, and preferable futures. Shortly thereafter, in 1972, the Club of Rome produced the Limits to Growth report just before the 1973 energy crisis, which led to vigorous intellectual debate on natural limits, global models, and alternative sources of energy. (Marien, 2002). In 1980, the movement was in its full glory. Under the auspices of the World Future Society (WFS) and the Canadian Association for Futures Studies (CAFS), the largest ever group of futurists met at a conference in Toronto . There were over 5500 participants and 1150 presenters. 


Since this peak, the growth of the Futures Studies movement has stalled. The CAFS completely died out, subsequent participation in the WFS General Assembly has dwindled to around 2000 and around 1000 for the annual meeting, and the membership of the World Futures Studies Federation has remained relatively static. Based on this, the advice at the WFS Professional meeting of educators last year in Philadelphia , and on discussions with several leading people in Futures Studies, we determined to pursue the topic of “The Future of Future Studies” in the Professional meetings of educators following the WFS WorldFuture 2003 conference in San Francisco , July 18-20, 2003 .  This builds on growing interest in this topic in very recent times. For example, Elsevier Science, April 2002 Futures, vol 34, issues 3-4, was dedicated entirely to the ‘Future of Future Studies.’


On July 21, 2003 , approximately 20-25 professional educators gathered to start an ongoing discussion about the “Future of Future Studies.” But first, after some discussion, the group unanimously supported a motion from Dr. Art Shostak, Chair of the WFS Philadelphia conference in 2002, that:

It be resolved that the Education Group urges the Washington, D.C. Conference Planning Team for the 2004 World Future Society Conference to have an increased focus on youth involvement, and that it seek:

i)reduced registration fees;

ii)inexpensive housing for youth attendees;

iii)full youth partnership with other participants (encourage them to speak up); and finally;

iv)an independent evaluation of the value of youth participation.


The Professional Educators began the meeting with a discussion of why Futures Studies is important. One participant identified the salience of social responsibility for becoming better global and domestic citizens. Others talked about having the tools to manage change and influence sociological and technological futures. Another participant talked about understanding the forces of change and, thus, being able to act in proactive fashion to shape a desirable future. Others talked about developing critical and synthetic thinking skills, recognition of patterns, holistic and systems thinking, and the ability to anticipate unintended second and third order consequences. The need to develop the capacity to anticipate, identify, analyze, and act responsibly to shape a preferable future was given as a central reason for Futures Studies. One participant indicated that Future Studies should be about the belief that humanity can create the world that it wants.


The group then discussed what is, and should be, happening in Futures Studies. There was considerable discussion about the propensity in universities to go deeper and deeper into the disciplines, without the necessary concomitant transdisciplinary examination of the impacts of these discoveries. The need for an applied focus was identified. Compared to the fields of Science and Applied Science, one participant proposed bridging the gaping chasm between theory and practice with a similar dual-pronged approach – of Future Studies and Applied Foresight.


One participant called for the rebalancing of the university.  It was said, that the four key elements cited in the excellent earlier work of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching in ‘Scholarship Reconsidered’ (Princeton, N.J, 1990) should serve as a foundation for justifying Futures Studies to senior university administrators. Key concepts of the report are four types of scholarship: a)scholarship of discovery, b)scholarship of teaching, c)scholarship of  public service, and d)scholarship of integration. The report finds that too much emphasis is placed on the first form of traditional scholarship at the expense of the other three. Futures Studies is an effective form of integrative scholarship, and should be promoted as such.  .


Further to this, a preliminary taxonomy was collectively developed. Futures Studies should be focused on: a) a philosophy, b) a set of methodologies, c)desirable futures and actions to attain them, d) trends and alternative futures, e) forces that can change trends, such as generational dynamics and wildcards, f) symbolic dialogue and new forms of communication, g) reducing fear and anxiety, and h) informing the future with the past. In an earlier panel presentation on Applied Foresight, Michael Marien presented a succinct taxonomy for further consideration. (Futures, 2002)


The group talked about two types of Futures Studies. On the one hand, there is the Futures Studies that prepares a student to work in the area, i.e. professional preparation.  On the other hand, a sometimes more holistic Futures Studies orientation currently exists in many programs at all educational levels (general appreciation), and in interdisciplinary courses hidden in sectors such as in Environmental Studies, Creativity, Leadership, Humanities, Public Policy, Science/Technology and Society Programs, and in Business Schools.


In looking at what should be happening, one participant said that futures studies should lead the vanguard for moving from a materialistic to a harmonious future. Another expressed confidence in the power of futures studies to help create a positive vision of the future, and then tap our collective history and wisdom to bring this vision into being. Still another, stressed the need for a major shift to global eco-humanism - away from a human-centered to an eco-system philosophy. Futures Studies needs a greater breadth of scope and depth of rigor.


The importance of identifying and evaluating Future Studies program and course offerings was also stressed. New and seasoned professionals should have the benefit of the best practice of others. An emerging world characterized by rapid change calls for a new symbiosis between futures studies and critical issues, such as building a culture for peace. Both academically credible quantitative and qualitative research should also ground the critical thinking about preferable futures and necessary actions, especially concerning rapid scientific and technological advances. Futures studies should be focused not only on outputs, but also on identifying, and imbuing alternative careers with a futures orientation. One participant stressed that in addition to students and educators, futures studies projects should find ways to tap the wisdom of the public at large. Another later commented that this assumes a public with liberal/progressive values, which is not always the case.   


Finally, the Professional Educators focused on how to begin to move forward in the renewal and serious expansion of Futures Studies. The discussion fell into two categories. The first pertained to specific recommendations. The second dealt with maintaining the dialogue and momentum on the ‘future of future studies.’


One participant talked about introducing Futures Studies courses in all university programs, providing exciting futurist speakers to visit classes of students at all levels, and having student essay writing competitions on futures issues with exciting prizes like trips to the WFS conferences. Another proposed engaging a broad group of people in the development of a Futures Studies Compendium, through both questionnaires and honest evaluation of what works and what doesn’t re: establishing and sustaining courses and programs. Perhaps this could build on the initial catalogue currently being developed by the WFSF if it is sufficiently broad and substantial. The WFS also has some experience that might prove useful. The last WFS directory of organizations was published in 1993, and of individuals in 2000. 


Having an institutional base for moving the agenda forward was stressed in the literature. The group identified the need for leadership to catalyze action. Governmental priority, or lack of same, and advocacy for Futures Studies was also discussed. In other countries, such as the United States of America, Foundations and Philanthropists might provide a stronger route to support.  Governmental examples in Finland and the earlier ‘Ministry for the Creation of Intelligence’ in Venezuala were mentioned.  On-going funding sources, a virtual meeting place with links, hands-on fairs, a Futures Studies Handbook, and even a ‘Futures Channel,’ to compliment the History Channel, were also mentioned. The group talked about having a regular Futures Studies conference, possibly associated with the WFS Annual Conference. As well, they talked about expanding the network to include interested group members from organizations such as, the North American Environmental Education Association (NAEEA) currently with members in 40 countries, 2500 individual members, 73 institutional members, and over 10,000 professionals affiliated through State and Province level programs.


In the short-term, the group signed a sheet to become involved in an ongoing dialogue. While other names, such as the Futures Education Network, or Futures Learning Network, will be considered, initially the group is being called the Applied Foresight Network. Dr. Paul Tinarl of the Pacific Institute for Advanced Study, has kindly agreed to build on initial efforts and establish this virtual meeting place, in collaboration with Patrick Salsbury and James Morrison, as appropriate. The Professional Educators group also recommended that in order to keep up the momentum, a small steering committee should be established with a view to beginning to articulate a vision and action plan. Drs. Peter Bishop of the University of Houston, Clear Lake; Richard Slaughter of the Australian Foresight Institute, Michael Marien, Editor of Future Survey, Ruben Nelson, Square One Management, Lynn Elen Burton, of Simon Fraser University, and Wendell Bell, Yale University Professor Emeritus, have all agreed to help in this capacity. 


In summary, with a process launched, I will quote from Alice in Wonderland,

“Cheshire Puss, would you tell me please, which way we ought to go from here?” asked Alice.


To which, the cat responded, “that depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” and where we are, which is not a widely shared understanding.