Insights on Futures Thinking

By Adriale Pang

Discovery+ is a series of online industry panels which give students the chance to interact with working professionals and learn about the careers they aspire to enter. These panels provide youths and working professionals with the opportunity to better understand industry trends, hear first-hand perspectives from industry professionals, and gain valuable advice on entering or navigating these industries.

On 21 December 2021, Advisory hosted Discover+: Futures Thinking, the 48th edition of the Discovery+ series. Speakers on the panel included:

  • Cheryl Chung (Moderator), Programme Director, Executive Education Singapore FuturesLee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore
  • Adrian Kuah, Director, Futures Office, National University of Singapore
  • Ariel Muller, Managing Director, Asia Forum for the Future
  • Jeanette Kwek, Head, Centre for Strategic Futures, Prime Minister’s Office

Attendees included students at various levels of education with a desire to know the different career paths in Futures Thinking, and how to best position themselves for such roles. Below are some key points shared during the session:

The “s” in futures thinking is instructive. In futures thinking, we consider multiple possibilities and question the assumptions we hold about the future. It may not be an industry per se, but it is definitely a useful tool to be equipped with.

As futurists, we remind others in our workplace to pause and analyse potential futures, in order to take more considered actions in the present day. We may be helping a university imagine the possible futures of higher education so that they can start making the necessary investments and preparations now. We may also be recommending civil servants a different perspective to look at issues, one that makes the effort to be more cognisant of potential futures.

A lot of time is spent on writing emails to bring futures thinking to the attention of policymakers. We may also spend time conducting the research necessary to apply futures thinking to specific problems or policies. As futures thinking consultants, we may also spend a considerable amount of time writing proposals to secure funding for our projects. To succeed, we have to convince people of the value of futures thinking.

The tough questions that we seek to answer make us excited about going to work.

For one, applying futures thinking to higher education is thrilling, because futurists now contend with deeper and more inconvenient questions, like: Why do we study? Must our education system continue in its present form?

In the past, Singapore’s higher education system tended to be extremely pragmatic, focusing solely on preparing young people for jobs. Singapore was able to avoid answering fundamental questions about the purpose and spirit of education for the longest time. However, now, these tough questions are coming to the forefront, and futurists are eager to delve into them.

When we think about the education system as something we want to improve within one to two years, our perspective becomes very limited. However, when we approach the task with futures thinking, we start to think in terms of generations and we end up having more latitude. We realised that education policy actually has one of the longest horizons, and the options available to us become completely different.

Many structures and institutions now seem intractable and frightening to change, especially as one may think that it is better to deal with something difficult yet familiar than something new that could be worse. But, futurists have to be fearless and not shun the problem.

Groupthink is always a risk. For example, being a sustainability-focused futures thinking consultancy constitutes the very blindspot that is dangerous. It becomes easier to succumb to confirmation bias, seeing the world and futures with a particular slant, and a very specific outcome in mind.

In response, the process of futures thinking should be kept collaborative. As futurists, we have to always challenge ourselves to get out of whatever mental boxes we may be trapped in, and to listen to others’ opinions. Hence, futurists require immense respect for the art of facilitating conversation and are in awe of people who can direct group conversations without being threatening or aggressive.

A large beverage company had engaged a futures thinking consultancy service after recognising the possibility of a future with a shortage of water due to excessive freshwater withdrawals. Not only did this indicate a decimation of the environment, but it also did not bode well for the company, as water is critical for their business.

Futures thinking prompted the company to change its self-image from that of a beverage company to an agricultural company. The company changed their identity, purpose and strategy, from simply extracting water to seeking to replenish water since they were dependent on this natural resource.

Futures thinking allows people to apply abstract concepts to their specific context, with surprising outcomes.

Futurists do not seek to help organisations “future-proof” themselves. It is actually quite the opposite. Future-proofing implies a fearfulness of and an unwillingness to adapt to the future. These are almost antithetical to futures thinking.

Instead, futurists seek to embrace whatever the future may hold. We allay fears of the future through a proactive analysis of, and preparation for, the myriad of possibilities ahead.

Futurists lean into both optimism and pessimism to identify multiple possible futures.

We may not always be optimistic, but we can be hopeful. Václav Havel once explained the difference between the two. Optimism at its worst is naïve, whereas hopefulness is acknowledging how bad things are, but clinging to the notion that we can make things better.

A futurist may have to deal with severe problems like climate change and lead a team to research the worst-case scenarios. But by knowing how bad things can turn out, we almost always find ourselves pleasantly surprised by how the worst often does not come to bear. Hope gives purpose, and a strong sense of agency springs forth, to want to make things better.

As much as we analyse the outside world with futures thinking, it is actually a concurrent exercise of self-reflection. Faced with uncertainty, thinking about our next step actually reveals a lot about ourselves. Are we risk-averse? Are we afraid of the unknown? What are we good at? 

If you emerge from a futures thinking exercise with a clearer sense of self, or a better understanding of your organisation, then you realise that you do not actually need to accurately predict the future to be able to make a good next move.

Sure, contemplating what the world may look like many decades ahead may make for a good dinner conversation. However, looking ahead, what can you tell about your deficiencies, fears, strengths, or present self-image? Why are you predisposed to thinking about the future in particular ways?

Some people try their very best to nullify uncertainty, strengthening and preparing themselves with contingency plans. Yet, seeking to tame the future is often a futile task. One may find it ironic that the people who try the hardest to control the future with external plans are in fact the ones with the least control, mastery, and understanding of themselves internally. As a solution to the panic over the future, futures thinking is really a process to have better conversations and reflections about what lies ahead.

With unpredictable events like the pandemic and unexpected election results, it is becoming easier to convince people of the importance of futures thinking. Big issues are at our doorstep, people want to talk about these issues, and futurists are well-prepared to meet this trend.

Also, the clock is ticking for issues like climate change. Futurists will increasingly have to narrow down what they want to focus on, seeking to gain greater leverage and become more effective in achieving a large positive impact.

Futures thinking is easily commercialised and can be reduced to off-the-shelf tools. However, there are qualities needed that are hard to mass-produce, such as the courage to think past over-used answers that do not account for individual differences.

There are opposing views. Some may feel that it would be helpful for Singaporean students to have lessons on futures thinking. This will expose them to relevant frameworks and tools, even if it just skims the surface.

Others may feel that effective futures thinking cannot be legislated into effect from the top. Instead, they believe that it must emerge organically from the bottom in order to escape the present beliefs of society and groupthink.

Some potentially helpful traits include:

  1. Rebellious
  2. Honesty
  3. Curious
  4. Courageous
  5. Humility
  6. Resilience
  7. Being comfortable with not knowing, uncertainty, paradoxes
  8. Adept at collaboration, cooperation, co-creation
  9. Being a good listener
  10. Enjoys learning

Many of us got our jobs by chance, without any degree in futures studies. Do not worry too much about perfecting every single aspect of your CV. Embrace the swerves you can make as you progress in your career!

Expose yourself to futures thinking, but perhaps, do not work on it as your first job. It may require you to have already seen something of the world, to have weathered trials and tribulations and bounced back to succeed at futures thinking. Go explore the world first, then bring your experiences back to futures thinking afterwards!

Here are some books that we recommend:

  1. “Liquid Modernity” by Zygmunt Bauman. We expect institutions and structures around us to be solid and persistent. Yet, our world is accelerating in unexpected and uncomfortable ways, and everything has been liquified. This is an idea that this book explores. 
  2. “How to Future: Leading and Sense-Making in an Age of Hyperchange” by Madeline Ashby and Scott Smith, which contains a useful set of practical tools.
  3. “The Tragedy of Great Power Politics” by John Mearsheimer explains perhaps 90% of how the world works through the framework of power distribution, and leads you to ponder the 10% left unexplained. Find a book that unlocks your sense of curiosity and fuels desire to find out how the world works. These are both extremely valuable to futures thinking. Seek to ask the right questions, not find the right answers.
  4. “Writing to Change the World” by Mary Pipher is not exactly about futurists. However, it is very fitting as it explores how to direct a group towards embracing opposing viewpoints. When people get scared of the future, they tend to fall back onto what is certain and comfortable. As a futurist, you have to nudge them away from seeking only black-and-white answers, and instead regain their ability to grapple with paradoxes.
  5. “On Looking: A Walker’s Guide to the Art of Observation” by Alexandra Horowitz offers beautiful meditations on walking with different experts, be they a dog, toddler or artist. In the company of someone who has a unique lens and expertise, you may be going for a familiar walk, but see completely different things.
  6. “A Field Guide to Getting Lost” by Rebecca Solnit explores the joys of the feeling lost. You are only lost if you have somewhere you think you want to be.

If you want to get involved in futures thinking, you can take matters into your own hands by searching online for futures thinking-related events (e.g. workshops, competitions) to participate in, or even catalyse projects in your own community.

NUS for one organises the Singapore Futures Youth Competition in the middle of the year, and has also published multiple resources (e.g. YouTube videos) on futures thinking, as part of its Singapore Futures Programme (SFP).