Why Futures Research?

Future research does not want to be right

Historically, the need for scientific futurology was first recognized towards the end of the Second World War and was addressed primarily in institutional terms. In the postmodern era, the complexity of a globalizing world increasingly became a problem for decision-makers in politics, business, and especially the military (keyword nuclear energy and weapons). It was recognized at the time that decisions that were not based on reliable forecasts and the probability of occurrence of possible scenarios could potentially lead to chain reactions with undesired and sometimes unexpected consequences. The Americans thought very carefully about the exact consequences of the detonation of “Big Boy”, the larger nuclear bomb that the military dropped on Hiroshima. This was the perfidious birth of futurology. In Germany, it took until 2001 before futurology was institutionalized. Everything began with the founding of the Institut Futur at the Free University of Berlin under the direction of Prof. Dr. Gerhard de Haan. Since 2010, the continuing education, non-consecutive Master of Arts Futures Studies program has been offered, with 10-20 students graduating each year.

One of the best known studies of the future is probably “The Limits to Growth” from 1972 by Donella Meadows, Dennis L. Meadows and Jørgen Randers, which for the first time revealed the connection between human civilization and climate change. Even more: As a result of their work, ecological parties were formed worldwide, measures to reduce dangerous greenhouse gases (especially CFCs) were initiated, and for the first time public attention was drawn to the importance of scientific evidence for political decisions. The fact that the forecasts of the 1992 study were found to be inaccurate in the follow-up study proves the indispensability of futurology: only thanks to the initial study in the 1970s were measures taken to at least mitigate the horror scenario. Before the study, neither companies nor states had the ecology factor in their sights; this is precisely where the greatest strength of futurology comes into play: the recognition of weak signals, black swans, systemic thinking. The Covid19 pandemic (“Corona”) was also anticipated long before it occurred, which is why there were very detailed catalogs of measures to contain and mitigate the effects of a pandemic, particularly in Germany – and the course of events here in Germany was exemplary in a global comparison.

Futurology does not want to be right with its prognoses; it wants to improve decisions of the present in order to achieve the best possible results for the future for the addressee of the work.

The practical applications of futurology can be found in the research and strategy departments of larger companies, which are occasionally linked to sustainability issues (such as the Deutsche Bahn Group). The aim of these departments is to identify trends and developments that could affect the company’s business, in order to then warn other departments at an early stage or even adjust product development or R&D activities in response to these signals (as in the Volkswagen Group, for example). In addition, there are a handful of explicitly scientific institutes such as the Institute for Futures Studies and Technology Assessment (IZT), Secretariat for Futures Studies (SFZ), Fraunhofer Institute for Scientific-Technical Trend Analysis (FhG-INT), Fraunhofer Institute for Systems Engineering and Innovation (FhG-ISI). Then there are the trend research institutes, which concentrate on management consulting in addition to the less scientific research; most of the “futurologists” who are present in the media actually come from this trend research genre.

What actually distinguishes futurology from trend research? This question occupies my mind at least as often as the people I talk to at various events. In contrast to the demarcation between physicians (not protected) and doctors (protected by criminal law), there is no binding separation in my profession (yet). This is an (not the first) attempt to introduce a separation.

I am a futurologist because I studied futurology. Sounds pretty conclusive so far, doesn’t it?

“How can you study this?” is what customers and participants regularly ask me at events and on my travels. “Yes, you can”, I then begin my answer, to refer to the master’s program in futurology at the Freie Universität Berlin. Every year, ten to 20 people leave Freie Universität with the title “Master of Arts Futures Studies”; I was in my second year in 2013.

But this is not the end of the story.

Over the past decades, a synonymization of the two fields of futurology and trend research has crept in. However, my position is that not all trend research is futurology. And I would like to argue this here – as on all other occasions.

Nobody becomes a futurologist because he or she writes or talks about the future. Either the name will one day be attributed from the outside or it will be consolidated through self-proclamation and appropriate public relations work.

The term futurologist – just like researchers per se – is not legally protected in Germany. Therefore, any person can and may freely and in good conscience use the title of futurologist without ever having provided evidence of methodological competence. As proof, a related education or an interesting course of study, such as sociology or journalism, which are two very common basic qualifications of well-known trend researchers, is sufficient. Many of them also make no secret of the fact that as a method they read a lot of newspapers, think wisely about possible future scenarios and then publish them.

“Future” is a commodity with which good money can be earned – in itself nothing reprehensible. It only becomes dishonest – in my eyes – when journalists and entertainers give themselves a scientific coat of paint, which they cannot do justice to, and yet are marketed under this attribution. For in doing so they endanger the reputation of a young discipline.

Science is a less broad term than research. Science is when new knowledge is created with the help of methods (for example, survey methods or logic) and recognized by independent third parties (!) in accordance with the values of scientificity. These are:

  • Clarity
  • Transparency
  • Objectivity
  • Verifiability
  • Reliability
  • Openness and honesty
  • News

In my opinion, you don’t have to have a Master of Arts in Futures Studies to fulfill these values. But it takes more to earn the title of futurologist than to make entertaining predictions on popular topics, generate ratings, Twitter likes and sales figures.

The “father” of German futurology, Rolf Kreibich, already formulated a very nice distinction between futurology and trend research in 2006. According to this, futurology is “… in contrast to numerous pseudo-scientific activities such as ‘trend research’, ‘prophecy’ or ‘science fiction’, it is subject to all quality criteria that science demands of good knowledge strategies and efficient models: Relevance, logical consistency, simplicity, verifiability, clarity of terminology, specification of range, explication of premises and boundary conditions, transparency, practical manageability, etc.” [1]

As I said before, I do not want to ridicule non-academic trend research, not at all! Even trend researchers* are sometimes right with their prognoses or help today’s actors to prepare for tomorrow. Many people have already built houses without having an education as a bricklayer, roofer or tiler. They call themselves nevertheless only do-it-yourselfers. Even homeopathic doctors without a medical degree have cured patients. They call themselves alternative practitioners. And so the pseudo-scientific trend researchers should not give themselves a title that deceives the public. Otherwise the public will still think in ten years time that we actually worked with glass balls and coffee grounds.

So where does the border run?

Of course, it is difficult or even impossible to be truly scientific in certain formats. The presentation of expert knowledge in keynotes, short interviews for radio and television – practically all audience formats leave no room for references. In my opinion, it is all the more important to publish scientifically, to face up to critical discourse and to make the basics and methods of one’s own statements transparent on other stages in a suitable place.

When I am asked for assessments, I therefore always say: “Now follows my personal assessment” – in contrast to statements that I represent in my keynotes or articles, because they have been verifiably taken from published sources and marked as such.

Nobody is perfect, but those who do not follow ideals and exploit the trust of symbols undermine the principles of one of the most important social systems: science.


[1] Kreibich, Rolf (2006): Zukunftsforschung. ArbeitsBericht Nr. 23/2006, Institut für Zukunftsstudien und Technologiebewertung, Berlin, online: https://www.izt.de/fileadmin/publikationen/IZT_AB23.pdf, S. 4.