Learn about this systematic study of possible futures and how it is applied creatively
We’re all curious to know what's going to happen in the future, yet, some people have gone as far as to turn pondering the possibilities into their day job. In an era where everything changes so rapidly, there are specialties, disciplines, and arts that focus on predicting and redesigning the future. Information is then used to create objects, services, strategies, and even policies.
Cecilia Tham (@future_synthesist) is a biologist, architect, and founder of Futurity Studio. She has worked as a "future synthesist" for organizations such as NASA and the United Nations. She explains how to design from a futurist perspective and how it can impact both the world of both individual and global creativity.
What is futurism?
Futurism is the name for the study of possible futures. It is a set of disciplines that study possible, probable, and preferable futures in a systematic way. Futurism is not only concerned with the tangible but also with the imaginary, which is why it has an impact on both science and art.
According to our specialist, over the last fifty years, this study of the future has evolved from predicting the future to mapping out alternative futures that shape desired futures at both an external collective level and an internal individual level. In other words, both what happens to us in our shared public life and how things impact us on a personal level.
Do we predict or design the future?
Whereas superstitions say that the future is already written, from a scientific, rational, and concrete point of view, we cannot predict a specific future. Instead, we can analyze consequences and ways to change or improve what is coming.
While planning seeks to control and decide the future, the study of the future seeks to open up and shine a light on the possibilities, identify characteristics that are surprising, and which can be improved or reduced in the present.
While many specialists and companies embrace the study of the future as a way to reduce risks, avoid unwanted futures and the things we fear the most, others actively move towards the creation of positive visions of the future, i.e. desired futures. Identifying alternative futures is, therefore, according to our specialist, a fluid dance between structure, i.e., between the weight of history, and our ability to influence how that impacts us.
How to adopt a futurist perspective
Cecilia explains that a futurist is someone who applies a systematic and methodical approach to understanding the future. Naturally, they have a multidisciplinary approach.
Futurists are analytical, scientific, and possess the creative capacity typical of artists. They gather information and knowledge as parts or ingredients to build futures, things, elements, businesses, and even policies.
How does one become a professional futurist?
Futurists combine scientific knowledge, i.e. exact sciences, with social sciences, arts, and knowledge. There is no formal training to become a “future synthesist”, which is considered a good thing. If you are a versatile person who can jump between different areas of knowledge while sustaining your concentration and deepening your understanding, you can probably become a professional futurist.
Futurism is not a standardized way of analyzing things, nor does it seek to produce something concrete: it is a global outlook that can be expressed through the arts and sciences. What you produce with the knowledge of the future can also be very broad: it can be anything from a science fiction novel to designer clothes. You can also produce furniture, come up with philosophical theories, or start offering a service based on your discoveries.
What are the different professional profiles within futurism?
Cecilia explains that, while each person can create their own professional profile within this area, as she has done with the name “future synthesist”, there are categories often associated with futurism.
- Professionals in strategic roles: they are scenario planners, they draw up plans and actions according to different scenarios that they discover or invent.
- Forecasting analysts: these are people who work with hard information, such as research-based analysis, trends, and data to give forecasts by cross-referencing algorithms and information.
- Forecasting strategy experts: these people rely on prior knowledge and are very tactical. They work mostly in the business and financial world focusing mainly on unwanted scenarios.
- Speculative designers: these are designers who are more interested in asking questions than finding solutions. They find flaws, plan alternative uses, challenge assumptions, preconceptions, and opinions about the role of people's products.
- Futurist artists: these professionals use scientific information to express new aesthetics, moral dilemmas, impacts on relationships and bodies. An example of these artists could be science fiction writers who often anticipate the future.
What types of futurism are there?
- Sinofuturism: this is a genre of video essays that combines elements of science fiction, documentary melodrama, social realism, and Chinese cosmology to criticize current issues in China and those facing its diaspora.
- Female futurism: this looks at possible scenarios from a gender perspective. For example, the Feminist Internet project, which falls within the field of creative computing, seeks to improve designs so that they are better oriented to users without bias in various aspects such as team building, design, representation, and purpose.
- Queer futurism: this combines strategic foresight, speculative design work, and an understanding of past activist and resistance movements led by LGBTQ+ communities to explore solutions for the future.
- Cyclical futurism: Rather than trying to predict the most likely future, cyclical futurism studies cultures and history to see if there are variables that might alter expected patterns.
- Afrofuturism: This is an intersection of black culture, technology, liberation, and imagination, mixed with mysticism and fantasy. It seeks to reinvent the experience of the past to impact the future. You can read how black creators design a better future here.
Interested in learning more about futurism and developing a futurist perspective? In her course, Designing Products of the Future, Cecilia Tham invites you to design a product with a focus on problem-solving, thinking about its appearance and function. You will have to think beyond the needs of the present and invent a dynamic and meaningful artifact.
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