What is Futures Research?

Those who know their possible futures make the better decisions.

Future studies, futures research or futurology, is the systematic, interdisciplinary and holistic study of social and technological advancement, and other environmental trends, often for the purpose of exploring how people will live and work in the future. Predictive techniques, such as forecasting, can be applied, but contemporary futures studies scholars emphasize the importance of systematically exploring alternatives.” [1]

This first paragraph of the Wikipedia article outlines the term quite well for now. Futurologists thus use recognized methods in order to work specifically on research questions whose effects lie in the future. In doing so, we have also identified a first, relatively trivial-sounding yet immense challenge: The future is merely a construct and we cannot collect data about it, measure it or conduct experiments. This makes futurology an exotic science, since this is the case with most other sciences.

The future always exists only as a theoretical construct and in infinity, which is why the concept of futures plays an important role in the terminology of futurology. As soon as one of the potentially possible futures occurs, it is the present; most other futures – those that might have been anticipated in advance and all others – have become impossible in the now or remain in the waiting hall of futures.

A future is comparable to one among tens of billions of caterpillars waiting to metamorphose into the butterfly of the present.

The exploration of open futures

“Futures research is the scientific study of possible, desirable and probable future developments and design options and their prerequisites in the past and present.” [2]

I also like the definition by Rolf Kreibich, a luminary of German-speaking futurology. This approach may be more suitable for everyday use than the upper paragraph. It implies, among other things, that futurologists must naturally think about and explicitly name whether an expected future will occur, how possible or likely it is, and to what extent normative expectations or desires influence the prognoses. Other sciences do less of the latter, since the description of existing objects of research – no matter how theoretical – assumes that the researchers proceed without judgement.

In addition, the aspect of desirable future development also contains an element of futurology that is extremely important to me personally: unlike many other sciences, futurology is very often used explicitly to explore probable scenarios and make decisions in the present based on this knowledge advantage. These decisions should then enable the decisive authority, e.g. a company, to avoid mistakes in the future or to achieve a desirable scenario (e.g. more turnover, less employee dissatisfaction). Quite simply put:

Those who know their own future make the better decisions.


[1] Wikipedia contributors. Futures studies [Internet]. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia; 2020 Oct 21, 03:05 UTC [cited 2020 Nov 3]. Available from: https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Futures_studies&oldid=984616663.

[2] 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. 3.