Futures thinking is a future-oriented mindset, that challenges our existing mental models, through a systematic method of exploring alternative futures. The purpose is 1. enable people to be future-ready for every possible scenario (preparation), not to make point forecasts (prediction); and 2. to improve the quality of people’s decisions to be more strategic and far-sighted.

Synonyms: Foresight, Strategic Foresight (in business context), Anticipation

Other definitions:
1. “Foresight is the umbrella term for those innovative strategic planning, policy formulation and solution design methods that don’t predict or forecast the future, but work with alternative futures.” Foresight Manual (2018), United Nations’ Global Centre for Public Service Excellence.
2. “Futures Thinking is a method for informed reflection on the major changes that will occur in the next 10, 20 or more years in all areas of social life, including education. Futures Thinking uses a multidisciplinary approach to pierce the veil of received opinion and identify the dynamics that are creating the future.” Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) website.

Why is futures thinking important?

Futures thinking promotes the long view (10, 20 or more years) to improve the quality of decision-making in a world that is increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA).

1. Robert Greenleaf (1996, 170), who popularised the term “servant leader”, esteemed foresight as “the ‘lead’ that a leader has, the possession of which is one of the bases of trust of followers, is that she or he cares more, prepares better, and foresees more clearly than others” (emphasis mine).
2. Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (Lee 2019, 5) says, “Longterm thinking, complemented by the agility to adjust strategy and policies to meet future challenges and seize new opportunities, has long been in our DNA. Major projects and bold policy moves—moving our airport from Paya Lebar to Changi, land reclamation, adaptation to climate change, and our Water Story, to name a few—have only been possible because of the foresight of our leaders and our collective determination to launch and see through long-term projects.”

When did futures thinking emerge?

Scholars generally trace its roots to US military strategic thinking during World War 2. After the war, a think tank – RAND Corporation – was set up to further develop the techniques. Thereafter, it was introduced and welcomed by the business sector as companies aim to gain an edge in competitive markets. In the 21st century, it is increasingly adopted by government policy-makers to manage change.

Who will benefit from futures thinking?

At the organisational level: leaders, decision-makers and middle managers of MNCs and SMEs can better prepare their organisation to survive and thrive in uncertainties.

At the individual level, personal foresight enables one to plan his or her career paths, professional development, and be wiser in daily living.

Where is futures thinking practised?

A 2013 research by the European Union lists 22 countries that possess a range of six foresight capabilities, for example, whether there is a central government foresight agency, whether foresight is well-resourced and widely used in government, and whether there is an established regularity of programmes and reports (Dreyer and Stang 2013, 29-31). The seven countries that achieved five out of six capabilities are Canada, Finland, France, Netherlands, Sweden, United Kingdom and Singapore.

In Singapore, the Centre for Strategic Futures heads the whole-of-government strategic planning and prioritisation, whole-of-government coordination and development, and to incubate and catalyse new capabilities in the Singapore Public Service.

How is futures thinking practised?

There are many foresight models and processes in practice today, some of the more popular ones include: Voros’ Generic Foresight model, UNESCO’s Futures Literacy Framework and Singapore’s Scenario Planning Plus model. The Foresight Society adopts a competence approach to teach futures thinking, where three core competencies are developed:
1. Scanning: to define a focus, so as to scan thoroughly, with careful analysis and interpretation;
2. Simulating: to creatively imagine different possibilities, and learn from the simulated scenarios;
3. Strategising: to set an overall direction, design macro-level strategies that inform an action plan, and monitor development.