Methods of Futures Research

Futures research is a scientific discipline

I am often looked at with big eyes when I talk about futures research as a serious scientific discipline. One reason for this is that the profession of futurologists in the German-speaking world is primarily characterized by trend researchers¹, who from a scientific point of view do not conduct any serious research. I leave the evaluation of this attribution to each individual; in my view, there is a raison d’être for both currents (see above). In any case, I personally feel it is important to strengthen futures research as a discipline and to distinguish it from trend research at an appropriate point – not in the sense of rivalry, merely as two different types of a line of thought. Perhaps you have landed on this page for this very reason, because I made a reference here during a performance or an interview. I would like to take this opportunity to give a rough overview of the methods of futures research; as short as possible, as detailed as necessary.

Basically, futures research is characterized above all by an inherent interdisciplinarity. Futures researchers do not see themselves as experts in a particular field; rather, they have the ability to identify the sources that lead to the “best” answer to a specific question about the future by asking the right questions and applying the appropriate methods. By now we know that no expert in the world can have all the information about a broad field of research, be it the last ice age or quantum entanglement. Futurologists take this fact into account by – as mentioned at the beginning – combining suitable procedures, techniques and methods of qualitative and quantitative research in such a way that the white spots are minimized as far as possible. After all, futurologists need a good, well-trained feel for more or less serious information and sources.

The futures research network – the most important body in the German-speaking world for academic futurologists – provides a helpful “Pocket guide for practitioners and students” (German, URL) for the standards and quality criteria of futures research. With this 51-page document and the numerous checklists, individual projects can be excellently checked to see whether these non-binding guidelines for serious futures research are or were adhered to – or not.

The Delphi method is not a method originally developed for future questions, but it was discovered early on by futures research as an important tool. The reference to the oracle in ancient Greek Delphi is of course no coincidence. The core of the Delphi method consists of interviews with several experts as well as several survey waves within a research project. The interviews are planned and conducted according to the rules of empirical social research. Depending on the subject of the research, the criteria for the required expertise, the number of experts to be interviewed and the type of survey (quantitative or qualitative, telephone or face-to-face or online, type of transcription, evaluation scheme, etc.) are determined.

After evaluation of the interviews in the first round of questioning, the results are condensed and sent in edited form to the same experts or an extended circle of recipients for re-evaluation, often in written form. The expert round is then to sharpen the statements and, for example, estimate the time horizon of certain theses, weigh up different theses among themselves or readjust its own standpoints in view of the cumulative feedback from the experts. In rare cases, further rounds are held if the results of the second wave were not yet satisfactory with regard to the research question(s). With this approach, the researchers gain broad and deep insights from several people with relevant expertise.

The scenario technique has its roots in economic science, but has been increasingly refined in recent years by futures researchers. The idea is to identify factors influencing the future of the object of investigation on the basis of aggregated knowledge – often in combination with other survey methods than pure literature research – to sharpen these factors into key factors that are particularly relevant, and to develop possible, probable and consistent scenarios. Consistency is an elementary component: in a complex procedure, the researchers evaluate the possible coexistence of different versions of key factors in the future (e.g. an increase in gross domestic product and a decrease in tax revenues).

Finally, raw scenarios are obtained which contain the appropriate characteristics of key factors; the preparation of these raw scenarios is the responsibility of the researchers or clients. Popular are narrative scenarios, in the broadest sense stories that illustrate the scenarios by the preferred style (fictional, factual, …). Equally popular is the pictorial preparation in the form of diagrams, comics or videos.

Helmut Kohl said in a speech in the Bundestag on June 1, 1995: “Those who do not know the past cannot understand the present and cannot shape the future.”⁵ Quite independently of the person and his politics, there is a lot of truth in this quotation. For example, the burden of futures research is not only to know methods of applying them to questions of the future, but also to demonstrate extensive knowledge and understanding of history. Accordingly, the third important method is qualitative or quantitative data analysis.

Of course, it is the primary duty of futures researchers to analyze the current state of the available literature on the research topic, which in technological matters naturally includes a superficial, often quantitative patent search. The most important tools of futures research are therefore probably the usual as well as scientific search engines and patent databases. In addition, specific trend search engines (often called trend radar) may be used, which now use artificial intelligence algorithms to recognize semantic relationships in the data available online, something for which human eyes are blind.

Of course, many more methods are used, but I do not want to go into detail here; the risk of overlooking something and the maintenance effort is too great. Others can do that better than I can. Therefore, I will leave it at this point with a nice, graphic presentation and allocation of the most common futurology methods by Rafael Popper from 2009.

Methoden der Zukunftsforschung


[1] Popper, Rafael (2009): Mapping Foresight. Revealing how Europe and other world regions navigate into the future. European Foresight Monitoring Network, European Union, p. 72.