Futures terminology

What is this work we do with futures, and what do we call it? We seem not to be able to agree even on the most basic definition and labelling: foresight, futurology, futures studies or research, futures thinking. What do we call ourselves as practitioners? Futurists, futurologists, futures researchers?

How would I define these terms?

I generally separate between the academic field and the applied practice in organisations. I’m not sure there is a difference between futures studies and futures research for academia.1 There are also additional fields like anticipatory studies. Need to find some helpful literature to distinguish more between those.

Foresight, in my mind, is the most common term for applied futures methodology in organisations, sometimes specified as corporate foresight or strategic foresight. It deals with questions about planning and strategy and uses methods like scenarios to find answers. If I remember it correctly, futurology is the term used by Flechtsheim and is basically a predecessor to foresight, which is not really used anymore today.2

To my knowledge, futures thinking is a more recent term that might have emerged due to design thinking. Even if that’s not the case, I think it’s helpful to use it in a similar manner and define it as a set of methods aligned in a process to use futures. A much broader definition would be to have it mean the general way to think about futures in the plural, making it the brackets that hold all of this.

How do we self-identify?

The term futurist has gotten a bad rap due to what I would call technology evangelists using it. I’d argue that nobody who stands on stage and proclaims, “This is the future (and it’s inevitable)!” can call themself a futurist; lots of people doing actual futures work don’t want to be associated with this category.3

In academia, I think futures researcher works pretty well but can feel too scientific in a foresight context. So yeah, this is still an open discussion.

Please let me know if you know of any helpful literature to define these terms more precisely.

  1. I would like to see more of a “futures science” investigating the concept of the future itself (from a sociological and psychological perspective, for example). 

  2. Although the translation tool DeepL always tries to translate the German Zukunftsforschung to futurology. 

  3. I sometimes like to use the identity as a trojan horse and surprise an audience by being more critical and reflective than they expected from the association. 

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