Terminology in Foresight and Futures Studies is not consistent - which might not be a bad thing.


Confused Terminology?

Futures Studies is a field that still grapples with exactly how to describe itself. Most writers will point out a lack of consistency in terminology and suggest that the field needs to agree on a set of common definitions - but any attempt to do this, in my experience, meets with much resistance, simply because most people have their preferred terms - and language is also culturally based. But, Sardar (2010, p. 7) rightly points out that:

The terms we use to describe the study of alternative futures is important. Disciplines and discourses do not emerge from a vacuum but have a history and a cultural context; and their names can hide as much as they reveal.

Terms such as futurology, futurism, prospective, and prognostics have and still are used today. The term ‘foresight’ is used in a variety of ways – as a cognitive capacity, as practice, and as method. ‘Futures research’ is also used in opposition to ‘futures studies’, the former considered to be taking a more quantitative or ‘rigorous’ position, while the latter is more qualitative in nature. More quantitative approaches might be seen as an area that is more concerned with certainty in outcomes - forecasting for example - while qualitative approaches are more concerned with imagining possible futures using foresight. This divide of course is a construction and not well defined, since in reality, most practitioners will use a combination of data and imagination in their work.


Most recently, ‘anticipation’ has entered the language of foresight and futures, not from within the field, but from a wider movement to establish anticipation as a scientific discipline. A concept researched in many disciplines from biology to psychology to neuroscience, Miller, Poli and Rossel (2013, p. 3) define anticipation as: “All efforts to ‘know the future’ in the sense of thinking about and ‘using the future’ … the future is incorporated into all phenomena, conscious or unconscious, physical or ideational, as anticipation.” Anticipation is positioned as “a combination of capacities that allow human beings to consider and evaluate the present in the light of the way they imagine the future [and is] a key contributor to the human activity of decision making” (p. 53) which is useful since it integrates our understanding of futures with the present. That is, that ‘the future’ is not something separate from the present, but rather informs how we understand the present - both our thinking and our actions today.

While there are sometimes quite distinct differences in approaches to foresight work, there is some agreement that being dogmatic in choice of terminology is unnecessary and instead the field should seek to remain open, rather than conform to any existing disciplinary definitions.

My Definitions

Foresight is the act of thinking about futures. It is a cognitive construct. We use our foresight capacities every day, often without thinking about what that means. It is a cognitive capacity that we need to develop as individuals, as organisations, and as a society. For individuals, it’s usually an unconscious capacity and needs to be surfaced to be used in any meaningful way to inform decision making. More about what foresight is in What is Foresight?

Futures Studies refers to the broad academic and professional field now developing globally as well as research, methods and tools that are available to us.

Futures is preferred over ‘the future’ because there is always more than one future available to us in the present. 'The future' suggests that there is a 'right future' which, of course, don't exist. Even 'a future' is better because that suggests there is more than one. I use futures whenever I can, even when our usual term is 'the future'.

Futurists: those who explore possible futures and generate images and options for action in the present. They can include academics, consultants and practitioners within organisations. Practitioners generally facilitate processes for other people to engage with possible futures.

Futures Literacy:  a skill that develops over time that allows us to recognise our assumptions that inform how we think about futures and to consciously use them to expand and deepen our understanding of the possible futures we can imagine in the present.

Futures/Foresight Approaches: the processes, tools, methods and thinking styles used to build an organisational foresight capacity, usually interdisciplinary, inclusive and participatory and not restricted to a particular philosophy, discipline, or method.

Strategic Foresight:  a particular approach to using foresight approaches in strategy development.

One note: I use ‘foresight’ when I’m referring to it as a cognitive capacity which we use to think about futures.

A Word about Prediction

Prediction is an easy word to use and there are too many articles, posts and videos produced about ‘predicting the future’. For me, this term suggests that we can get the future right, and that’s impossible, except by luck. I won’t even try to define it because I think we should stop using this term - at least in any discussion about anything remotely related to thinking about futures. This word bounds our thinking, ignores complexity and generates the assumption that ‘the future’ is singular and can be managed, all of which are false beliefs.

My Perspective

The existence of preferences for different terminology to define what it is futurists and practitioners do and how they do it is probably best considered to be a fundamental characteristic of the futures field –  particularly since language use is usually culturally, temporally and context determined. The definitions above are mine - if you do any research at all, you will find many definitions. There are no right ones, just explanatory definitions that make sense in particular contexts.


A Glossary of terms commonly used in Futures Studies

Foresight: The Manual.