The Futures Cone

A summary of the Futures Cone, a useful tool that helps us to realise there is more than a single future, and begin to expand our thinking about futures.

The Futures Cone
(c)Voros 2017

Introduction

The sixth foresight principle is that there are always more futures beyond the one linear future assumed in most organisations and governments today.

This linear future is frequently called the “official future” which Scearce and Fulton (2004, p. 88)define:

The explicit articulation of a set of commonly held beliefs about the future external environment that a group, organization, or industry implicitly expects to unfold. Once articulated, the official future captures an organization’s shared assumptions or mental map.

The Futures Cone demonstrates that there are always many alternative futures available to an organisation beyond the official future. The origins of the Futures Cone are detailed by Voros (2017), Hancock and Bezold (1994) and the probably original Charles Taylor (1990) – it demonstrates clearly that there are always many alternative futures available to an organisation in the present beyond the official future.

This version is Copyright Joseph Voros 2017

Types of Futures

Each alternative future in the Futures Cone is defined as follows:

  • Potential: beyond today exists any number of potential futures simply because the future is not fixed (Principle 1);
  • Preposterous: futures that are, at first sight, seemingly absurd, and the futures that can cause conflict with existing worldviews; however, ‘seeds of the future’ can be found in this space – this is Dator’s (1995) Second Law that any useful idea about the future must first appear to be ridiculous; and Clarke’s third law (2000, p. 250)that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic;
  • Possible: futures that are based on knowledge we do not yet have – what is being considered might become reality if specific knowledge can be developed, or equally, may not;
  • Plausible: futures based on today’s knowledge of how things work (for example, the laws of nature); this familiarity often constrains challenging assumptions that generate linear futures;
  • Projected: the official futures projected from the present, most often found in strategic plans;
  • Probable: this is the future that is likely to happen, the one based on current trends; and
  • Preferable: normative futures, the futures desired by groups and individuals who take action to shape those futures in the present (for example, activist and climate change groups).

Voros writes that all types of futures are:

considered to be subjective judgements about the future that are based in the present moment, so the categories for the same idea can obviously change over time as time goes on (the canonical example of which is the Apollo XI Moon landing, which has gone through most of the categories from ‘preposterous’ to ‘projected’ and thence into history as ‘the past’).

Summary

In summary, the longer the time horizon that is considered when thinking about the future, the more uncertainty is involved, the more possible futures there are to explore, and the harder it is to move beyond the cognitive constraints of the present. Most Futures and Foresight work – particularly that undertaken in organisational strategy and policy development – ultimately rests in the domain of plausible futures to allow feasible action to be identified in the present, but in terms of expanding thinking about the future, Schultz (2011) sees this focus as problematic:

it is actually code for ‘don’t give the clients crazy futures, or they’ll reject them, reject us, and we won’t get paid and will never work in this town again’. How often in strategic foresight projects do the end results offer truly transformational futures that challenge participants to consider the possibilities of deep structural change? How often do scenarios create ‘productive discomfort’ in how people see the world (Ramirez and Selin, 2014, p67)? Of worlds with entirely different economic or political systems? Of usefully crazy futures?

Brand (1999) notes that reality does not care about what we consider plausible, and so does its own thing. What is considered plausible then is best considered after a range of crazy, seemingly preposterous futures are explored. Without first considering these crazy futures, the system for which futures are being considered will remain in ‘sustaining mode’ where the dominant voice in the discourse is reinforced and the elusive potential of genuine transformation is overlooked.

My Perspective

I tend to use the Futures Cones as a way to demonstrate that there are different types of futures, all of which are underpinned by different types of assumptions. Each futures type can be applied in particular contexts - for example, designing a strategy is seeking a preferred future. However, the power of the Cone comes from understanding and exploring the scope of futures available to us - including the crazy ones - which usually trigger some immediate reactions - before we imagine futures for use in the present. Once we have explored preposterous futures, nothing will seem impossible anymore.


The Futures Cone is quite a common framework in futures work. An internet search will lead you to many summaries of it and discussions about it. Here are a few references to demonstrate how the cone has been used.

Expanding the cone itself: Special Relativity Theory Expands the Futures Cone’s Conceptualisation of the Futures and The Pasts * Journal of Futures Studies (jfsdigital.org)

Linked to social change: Theory of Change and the Futures Cone. – Structure & Narrative (sjef.nu)

As a tool: Futures cone | Jisc

Used in courses: Topic 2: The Futures Cone | BeFore (futureoriented.eu)

This post was first published in my PhD thesis: Contested Ideas of the University: Enabling and Constraining University Futures.