How Futures Studies helps you understand social change and create alternative futures: a student’s perspective
Futures Studies: my experience
For the past two years, I have been studying Futures Studies at the University of Stellenbosch Business School (Stellenbosch Business School). In 2019 I studied for the Postgraduate Diploma, and in 2020 I started the MPhil programme and completed the coursework. In 2021, I will write a mini-thesis towards the completion of the MPhil programme. Over the past two years, I have spent as much time as my work and personal life has allowed, to immerse myself in the world of Futures Studies; in its theoretical foundations, in how to envisage and create alternative futures and the many ways Futures Studies is applied across the world. I have also spent time thinking about and experimenting with how to apply what I have found and learned. The way I see and analyse the world, my work and how I understand social or societal problems has changed over this period.
What is Futures Studies?
My answer to those who ask, is that Futures Studies is a way of thinking – a set of multidisciplinary methods and tools that enables us to ‘use the future’ or ‘learn from the future’ to make choices and decisions today. Futures Studies is thus not simply about the future, but more about how the choices and decisions we make for ourselves, institutions or others today may shape the future. If the person asking the question is of the keener sort, I will say that Futures Studies is about studying change. In its applied form, it is about how the world around us is changing, what drives these changes and what may or will change at some point in the near or distant future. Importantly, what are the implications of change? Finally, Futures Studies is a call to action; a call to envision and create alternative futures within a geographic community, an organisation, an industrial sector, or at any local, national or regional scale.
The value of Futures Studies thus lies in the ability to appreciate and acknowledge change in its patterned and emergent forms and the curation and provision of the multidisciplinary tools to study it.
The value of Futures Studies
Personally, I arrived at Futures Studies after just over 15 years of being in the field of regional strategy and planning, and strategy management and governance in an organisational and multi-stakeholder context. In my experience, practitioners in this field share some overriding concerns: Plans do not have impact, they are not implemented nor integrated. Thus, we search for solutions, for fixes, for more and better data or for better human capabilities. Sometimes we search for and find convenient explanations.
We also often uncritically hang on to narratives or repeat assumed truisms that limit or outright stop our search. However, over time, these narratives did not make sense to me. They did not assist in solving intractable social problems, and they seemed to perpetuate the status quo rather than facilitate an honest search for something better. I felt the need to search further. In this search, I came across the concept of foresight and in turn, Futures Studies.
However, Futures Studies is not a neatly packaged answer to your questions about the future, nor is it a magical toolbox with which to resolve any conceivable question. Rather, it is a field that has helped me expand my search, revisit and re-think my approach to providing policy advice and craft strategies for organisations or regions.
Three core insights
If I were to summarise three main insights from the past two years, the first would be that ‘the future cannot be known’, and thus futurists do not predict the future. The second insight would be that ‘the future is open’. Thus, we learn to speak of the future in multiples: we speak of futures. Nonetheless, the future is contingent. The third insight will be that alternative futures can be found and is created in the fluid dance of structure and agency[i]. Alternative futures are created by the interplay of the weights of history, the images of the future we are conditioned to hold, and our individual and collective capability to influence the world of today and tomorrow.
Strategy: Two lenses
With so much focus on uncertainty, contingency and change, what is the value to someone who is charged with developing policies, strategies and plans? Futures Studies has provided me with two main ‘lenses’ to rethink how to approach strategy and planning.
Firstly, seeing strategy as a learning process rather than an attempt to control uncertainty. We learn to distinguish strategic thinking, strategy development and strategic planning. We study change at global as well as organisational and personal levels. While Futures Studies should not be equated to strategy or planning, it provides frameworks for the analytical aspects of strategy formation with the tools to learn from the future as well as the past[ii]. Futures Studies broadens timeframes, builds the ability to work with multiple horizons, creates and considers alternative possibilities and pathways, nurtures the ability to see and appreciate multiple interpretations of reality and asks who the agents for change are or could be. It is also visionary – what are the futures we want to see?
Secondly, the importance of systems thinking. Systems thinking provides a way to go beyond the realm of empirical observation or litany when approaching a social problem, such as the development of a region. Systems thinking is about looking at how parts of any system (e.g. organs, individuals, firms, political systems) work together as an interconnected network and the emergent patterns that are produced by the interactions between these parts. Further, how systems interact with other systems and their environment in complex ways. The introduction to systems thinking, complex adaptive systems and the invitation to ‘think in systems’ is in my view the most invaluable component of the programme. Its application as well as potential for further study is infinite, no matter your field of study or work.
As a discipline and as a practice, Futures Studies can enable you to better identify and reveal, as well as facilitate conversations about possible, plausible and desirable futures. The PGDip in Futures Studies and MPhil in Futures Studies at the University of Stellenbosch Business School provides an expertly curated entry into the field of Futures Studies, and the Institute for Futures Research provides an example of its application in a South African and African context.
If this is a programme that you know can benefit you in your career, apply for Futures Studies today via the Stellenbosch Business School website, or find more information on the perfect programme for you.
[i] Inayatullah, S. (2012) Future Studies: Theories and Methods. Book chapter in There’s a Future: Visions for a Better World. Eds. BBVA. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/281595208_Futures_Studies_Theories_and_Methods
[ii] De Jouvenel, B. (1967). The art of conjecture. (N. Lary, Trans). New York: Basic Books. Inayatullah, S. (2008). Six pillars: futures thinking for transforming. Foresight. 10(1), 4-21;