Understanding the Past and Present of Future Studies Stellenbosch Business School Skip to main content
In 1903, Orville Wright and his brother, Wilbur, became the first people to fly an aircraft.

And yet, two years earlier, the same Orville proclaimed that man would not fly for another 50 years. In 1939/40, the New York Times, commenting on television, wrote it off, saying that: “The problem is that people must sit and keep their eyes glued to the screen; the average American family hasn’t time for it.” In 1981, Bill Gates claimed that 640K ought to be enough for anybody.


Our Past Relationships with the Future

These eminent pundits had at least one thing in common – they all flouted some of the basic tenets of futures thinking. For instance, they failed to suspend disbelief; they were not willing or able to entertain the plausibility of the seemingly impossible. Furthermore, they merely extrapolated the future from the past. In so doing, they assumed that past and current trends, and relationships between variables, would persist into the future. Finally, they erred in making only one specific prophecy rather than considering a range of future outcomes.

The fact is, as futurists, we lay no claim to being able to predict the future. After all, we have no scientific, verifiable facts about the future – that space in time that is yet to happen. Clairvoyance is not an attribute of serious futurists.

Moreover, since time immemorial, our relationship with the future has been troubled and ambivalent. We often crave to know more about the future, but, at the same time, we may fear what we may discover. Sometimes, this fear of the future moulds our thinking in such a way that we develop a dystopian view of the future, which then takes on Orwellian proportions.

And yet, we spend more time thinking about the future than about the past, especially when devising strategies.


The Art of Real Futurism

If we cannot predict the future, what do futurists actually do? Kees van der Heijden provides a sound and practical answer by saying that futures thinking is about “the ability to recognize ‘dots on the horizon’ – the signs of change that inevitably affect every organization – and to understand their significance and how the organization should adapt.”

So, futurists try to gain a better understanding of what is likely to continue and what could realistically change. This understanding requires a systematic, interdisciplinary, and holistic study of contextual environmental trends. It’s about interrogating the past and the present to explore the possibility of future events and trends. And, above all, it’s about systematically seeking alternatives.

Futures thinking is part art, but also increasingly a young but rigorous science. It is built on a bedrock of transdisciplinary analysis, using systems thinking as an intellectual model, scientific inquiry, questioning of assumptions, the exploration of a variety of prognoses, and strategic learning. In so doing, we want to avoid succumbing to the seductive allure of “pop” futurism. The future is no longer a mystical, ephemeral, temporal dimension; it has become a space in time that can be measured and made. And importantly, by knowing and applying the right techniques, models, tools and through a disciplined systemic inspection and analysis of trends and behavioural patterns, it is possible to devise strategies for a fan of plausible future outcomes.


Futures Studies Meets Strategic Foresight

At an organisational level, the aim is strategic foresight – being able to make sound judgments now about what is going to happen in the future and planning your actions based on this knowledge.

In a world fraught with rapid change, and growing uncertainty and volatility, this – strategic foresight – is quickly becoming an important and indispensable leadership attribute. As we move into the 4IR (and 5IR), leaders need, more than ever before, to think dialectically and eclectically.

In so doing, we learn how to:

  • learn, unlearn, and re-learn
  • generate ideas, be flexible, and be willing to change
  • think holistically and in an integrated fashion
  • challenge conventional thinking and question assumptions
  • enhance decision-making
  • empower others
  • enhance the quality, richness, depth and breadth of the strategic conversation.

The Stellenbosch Business School’s postgraduate Future Studies courses tick all these boxes.


Futures Studies Programmes Designed for Success

Stellenbosch Business School is proud to be the only academic institution in Africa offering postgraduate students qualification opportunities in Futures Studies. The programme formats are designed in such a way that you can study while you work. Choose between a Postgraduate Diploma in Future StudiesMPhil Future Studies and a Future Studies PhD — all structured to increase your expertise for a better career path.

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